The Trump administration promised weeks ago that its “Deal of the Century” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be unveiled after the holy month of Ramadan that began early this week.
There is a lot of speculation about the contents of this much-expected deal, and some reasonable people would argue that it is pointless to speculate on something that remains a mystery, with conflicting signals coming out of Washington about the basic and guiding principles that provide the general framework of the deal and whether it would be subject to negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis or not.
However, the White House has started sending out signals, lately, as to the nature of these guiding principles. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted Jared Kushner, senior adviser to President Donald Trump, last Thursday, 2 May, to give a preview of what the administration would propose in this plan.
He talked confidently about the prospects of its success as compared to previous peace plans and expressed hope that the parties concerned would not reject it out of hand.
He believes that the major difference between this deal and other peace initiatives much is that it is “operational” rather than stressing a certain process of negotiating. He said openly that it would incorporate a “heavy economic component”.
In addition, it would address the people more in the sense that one of its basic goals is to work for the betterment of their lives, particularly the Palestinians. In this regard, he pointed out that the American negotiating team working on the deal talked to a lot of Palestinians from different walks of life and found out that they are open to the economic dimension of the deal.
From his own perspective, the plan is “virtuous” and would provide a fresh opportunity for the Palestinians and the Israelis to engage. He added that the major thrust of the deal, or the central balance that it aims at achieving, is to provide opportunities for the Palestinian people to better their daily lives while assuring the Israelis of their security.
As to the political essence of the deal, Kushner tried to sound practical when the central question of a Palestinian state came up. He made it clear that if you say two-state solution, “it means one thing to the Israelis, it means [another] to the Palestinians… Let us work on the details of what this means.”
He stressed that the plan would cover final status issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis, including borders, refugees, security, Jerusalem and settlements.
However, he did not talk in specifics as to how the deal would tackle these serious issues that have proven intractable, except to say that the deal would specifically state that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Surprisingly, Kushner said that the approach his negotiating team adopted has been “if we are going to fail, we don’t want to fail doing the same [thing that] has been done in the past.” From his remarks, it sounds like the Trump deal would lean much more on the economic windfalls of the deal for the Palestinians and less on their national aspirations (to establish a state of their own), which have been the major drivers behind their freedom struggle in the past five decades.
Kushner told his audience that the White House would make contact with various Middle Eastern leaders in the next few weeks to keep them abreast of the tenor of the Trump deal.
Diplomatically speaking, it is too early to forecast the viability of the American deal. However, judging from the conversation Kushner had at The Washington Institute, it seems that the chances of success are not that great, despite the fact that he said Israel would have to make concessions under the plan he is drafting.
The question of Palestinian sovereignty is not clear at least from the statements he has made on various occasions, including his public appearance last Thursday.
From an Arab and Palestinian perspective, the major question has always centred on this sovereignty. In this context, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state has been the linchpin of Arab and Palestinian peace strategy with the underlying understanding that this would go hand-in-hand with assuring the security needs of Israel through measures that don’t impinge on the independence and territorial integrity of the new Palestine.
They even accepted the idea of land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians in case the Palestinians would agree to ceding some lands in the West Bank to come under Israeli sovereignty.
One of the basic and serious drawbacks in the American peace strategy is that the two White House decisions concerning the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (6 December 2017) and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (25 March 2019) have sapped trust in the Trump administration when it comes to its promises to work for a final peace between the enemies of yesterday, promises that remain unfulfilled till further notice.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, it would be advisable for purely tactical reasons not to reject the American peace proposals once they are officially submitted to the Palestinian Authority.
The best course of action would be to engage the Americans in the nitty-gritty of the deal and seek assurances from Washington on two major factors. The first is the time limit for reaching a final peace deal and the second on Israeli commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
If the Palestinians decide to reject the proposed deal outright, I am afraid the Israelis would take this as a pretext to accelerate their settlement activities in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank.
The same goes for Arab governments that should work collectively to persuade the Trump administration to resume its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority as well as to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to encourage the Palestinians to reengage the Trump administration.
I fully realise that this is a difficult and unpopular choice, to make but the alternatives are not at all promising and would prove to be a boon for the extreme right in Israel.
One thing is certain, regardless of the reactions of the parties concerned to the White House peace deal. The Middle East in the post-deal era will be a different place.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A leap into the unknown