Trump Rewrites Rules of the Game in Middle East Peace Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Borders. Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees.

One by one, the U.S. is taking core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the table. President Donald Trump’s administration says it’s trying a new approach after a quarter of a century of peace talks failed.

But by chipping away at the issues the Palestinians care about as it radically reshapes American policy, the administration may actually be making peace harder to achieve -- if not inviting another eruption of violence.

“By coming in and unilaterally rewriting the rules of the game, the Trump administration is removing itself from the role of mediator,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former U.S. State Department diplomat involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration.

“Many of these steps don’t make sense if you try to square them with an effort to reach a solution to the conflict,” said Goldenberg, who now heads the Mideast program at the Center for a New American Security, a research center.

Challenging Narrative

Last week, Washington stopped funding the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, saying it perpetuates their refugee status. UN ambassador Nikki Haley said the Palestinian’s key demand for millions of refugees and their descendants to return to lost homes in Israel -- which could efface its Jewish character -- should be ruled out. No alternative has been offered.

With the U.S. still not releasing details about its proposed Middle East peace plan, the Palestinians view the Trump administration as flagrantly biased in Israel’s favor and have cut off contacts with it.

The U.S. is trying to “dismantle all permanent status issues including occupied Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees and the right of return, the two-state solution, 1967 borders, and the legality of settlements, thereby destroying the chances of peace,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said in a statement.

Trump’s campaign to rethink the articles of faith in previous negotiations started just weeks after he took office -- with little resistance from Arab leaders enamoured of his tough stance against Iran.

He threw over years of U.S. policy by declining to line up behind the two-state solution that is opposed by many in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Then, in December, he declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, saying it simply recognized reality: that’s where Israel’s seat of government stands. That move provoked the rift with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which claims the city’s eastern sector for a future capital.

New Approach

Champions of the new approach say it will move things along by sweeping away hardened positions that impeded peacemaking.

“They are taking the major issues that no one could agree on,” said Michael Oren, a deputy minister in Netanyahu’s office and former ambassador to Washington. “Rather than wait till the end to try and resolve them, they are front-ending them. It’s a game-changer.”

The strategy is meant to make the Palestinians understand that the price goes up with time, said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Another prod “is that the Arab states are saying ‘OK, we can’t sacrifice our interests in favor of the Palestinians,” Sandler said.

No Incentives

But shaking things up without providing alternatives might instead make the core issues loom larger, critics say.

History suggests the Palestinians won’t respond positively to pressure without incentives, said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator.

“Holding on to illusions like Palestinians will have a ‘right of return’ neither serves Palestinian interests nor the cause of peace,” said Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But getting the Palestinians to adjust to reality is more likely to result from something also being offered to them.”

Abbas staked his presidency on the premise that U.S.-led diplomacy will achieve what violence has not. Multiple rounds of failed negotiations have cost him popular support. If the Trump peace efforts fizzle, the Palestinians’ frustration could boil over into violence and push them into more radical camps.

Filling the Void

Some diplomats question whether there’s a U.S. plan to prevent Islamic militant groups from filling the vacuum left by the cutoff of U.S. aid to the UN Relief & Works Agency, whose most critical operation is in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas militants. Israeli defense officials have warned that any changes to Palestinian aid must be gradual to avoid unrest.

“I think UNRWA subsidizes failure and dysfunction. It needs to be changed and dismantled. But not all at once and not today,” said David Harden, a former regional diplomat who now heads the Georgetown Strategy Group. “The U.S. is reducing its influence, ceding space to other parties that may be adverse to our interests and potentially Israeli interests.”

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