File photo: In this Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019 file photo, a worker hangs an election campaign billboard of the Likud party showing US President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. (AP)
The US administration announced the “political part” of its Middle East peace initiative would be releasedwithin weeks, with the official term now a “vision” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The release is expected later this month, or in October, after Israeli general elections 17 September. The announcement came from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a few days ago.
Responding to a question at Kansas State University on Friday, Pompeo dismissed speculation of new delay to the political aspect release, yet acknowledging the difficulty of the task. He said: “We’ve been consulting broadly throughout the region for two and a half years now and I think in the coming weeks we’ll announce our vision,”adding:“And hopefully the world… will see that as a building block, a basis on which to move forward.” He called Middle East peace “a difficult problem, one that ultimately those two peoples will have to resolve for themselves, but we’ve worked hard on that”.
The question from the audience to Secretary Pompeo came after the news that Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace, announced his resignation. But administration officials said that Greenblatt’s departure will not affect the release of the political part of the initiative.
Greenblatt, who was Trump’s real estate lawyer before joining the White House, has been a main pillar of President Trump’s Middle East team. He worked alongside Trump’s powerful son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a team the Palestinian Authority (PA) viewed as an extension of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies.
That’s why PA boycotted the release of the economic part of the American initiative in Bahrain’s capital Manama in June, where the three (Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman) announced tens of projects with around $50 billion in investments. The “Manama Workshop” didn’t gain the impact desired, and spurred criticism that the whole exercise is an “amateur vision” by a non-experienced team.
Now, Palestinians hope Greenblatt’s resignation“would create an opportunity for the White House to rethink its policy towards the Palestinians”, a senior PA official said. He considered the resignation “a result of the growing conviction by the US administration that implementing the plan as originally conceived is not going to be easy. This does not mean that America will abandon attempts to pressure the Palestinian side, but Greenblatt’s flight means he does not trust all the promises he and his team have made.”
The PA is boycotting the Trump administration since 2017, after the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Palestinians see American policy under Trump as a “cart blanche” for Netanyahu to create realities on the ground, like expanding settlements and vowing to annex more Palestinian land. The removal of the terminology “Palestinian territory” from US State Department releases adds to the PA’s frustration with American moves.
Observers are thinking now that the anticipated initiative, call it a vision or just a statement of principles, is heading towards more ambiguity. The hype about the economic part faded quickly, subdued by the cold reception of the Manama Workshop, even from among US Gulf allies who back the American peace effort.
Dubai-based Emirati newspaper, Gulf News, published an editorial a few days ago titled “US is not serious about peace in the Middle East.” Though the paper might not be carrying the official stand of the UAE, it reflects the general mood in the region. The editorial concludes: “What all of this points to is that the Middle East peace process has been reduced to a joke, and more of a sideshow to distract from Zionist ambitions to change the realities on the ground and ultimately annex all land it has occupied from the Arabs.”
On Thursday, the Saudi permanent representative to the United Nations, Abdullah Bin Yahya Al-Muallami, attacked Israel in a meeting of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. The Palestinian ambassador to the UN welcomed the Saudi stance.
That doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia and UAE are backing off from their support for peace efforts, but indicates the frustration the whole region feels. And as Netanyahu is not guaranteed to win this month’s election and continue as prime minister, the peace vision will be blurred more.
As some Gulf observer noted, the American initiative looks more of a PR stunt than a real effort to achieve peace in the region. They cite replacing Greenblatt with a 30-year-old friend of Kushner, Avi Berkowitz, as “ludicrous”, showing the Trump administration’s reckless approach to the peace process.
Apart from rumours and unsubstantiated leaks, not much is known about the political component of the American initiative. But from official statements by the main authors of it, Kushner and Greenblatt, some of what is not included is clear.
Kushner previously repeated that the peace proposal will not include the phrase “two-state solution”, the main theme of the Saudi-proposed Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. The justification offered by Kushner’s team is “If you say ‘two-state’, it means one thing to the Israelis and means one thing to the Palestinians.
”So, “let’s just not say it. Let’s just say, let’s work on the details of what this means”, as Kushner said once. Greenblatt also said before that the plan “does not call for a confederation model… or for a transfer of land from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the Palestinians”.
Whatever the political component turns out to be, signs strongly suggest that will be far from the “Deal of the Century” previously hailed by the Trump administration.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: No deal at all