Netanyahu’s Win Means Better Chance for Mideast Peace, Trump Says
(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s elections may open the door for the Trump administration to unveil a long-promised Middle East peace plan -- even if it means the proposal is doomed to fail.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Netanyahu’s win means there’s a “better chance” of peace after the prime minister won a historic fifth term on Tuesday. With more than 95 percent of the votes counted, according to Israeli media, his alliance with right-wing and religious parties appeared on track to secure 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament, clearing a path for him to form the next government.
“I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace,” Trump told reporters at the White House before traveling to Texas. “I never made it a promise. But everyone said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians. I think we have a chance.”
Just before his inauguration in 2017, Trump assigned his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to seek the “deal of the century” by coming up with a new Middle East peace plan. More recently, administration officials said the plan’s release had been put off until after this week’s elections.
Yet the administration’s unilateral decisions -- including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the dispute Golan Heights -- long ago prompted the Palestinians to rule out talks with the U.S., imperiling Kushner’s proposal before it had even been announced.
In saying they wanted a wholly new approach, the president and his team have given mixed signals on whether they still support basic, internationally supported tenets of almost every previous peace proposal, including the end goal of two sovereign states existing peacefully side-by-side. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo refused last month to commit to that aim.
“We think we have some ideas that are new and fresh and different,” Pompeo said at a congressional hearing on March 27. Pressed about a two-state solution, he demurred, saying “it will be the peoples of those two lands who resolve this.”
‘Off the Table’
Trump has defended his approach -- including the embassy move -- saying it was meant to shatter preconceptions about what can be accomplished. And since previous efforts failed, he said, some tenets had to be abandoned.
“Every time there were peace talks, they never got past Jerusalem becoming the capital. So I said, let’s take it off the table,” Trump said at rally in West Virginia in August last year.
He added that “in the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price” in return, although he’s never suggested what such a sacrifice might be.
From the beginning, consultations on the Trump peace plan have been secretive, with little disclosed about Kushner’s schedule, the results of his meetings or the pushback from allies, fueling doubts about whether a viable proposal even exists.
“I don’t think the Trump administration has a broad peace plan,” said Kamran Bokhari, director at the Center for Global Policy and a non-resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation. “From what I know, they are seeking something much less ambitious in terms of some economic opportunities in the West Bank for the Palestinians, and even that needs buy-in from the Palestinian National Authority, which isn’t there.”
The lack of Palestinian participation isn’t the only barrier to a successful agreement. It’s unclear whether Arab states will throw their weight behind a peace plan unless it addresses a final political solution acceptable to the Palestinians.
Trump’s unilateral actions may have isolated the Arab nations he needs. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries necessary for a viable deal, are mindful that their citizens are staunchly pro-Palestinian. The Saudis, especially, recognize that any public move to normalize ties with Israel risks bolstering opposition and even terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
The administration may be betting that Gulf fears about Iran outweigh their concerns about the Palestinians. The administration points to a conference in Warsaw in February, when Gulf countries and Israel were in meetings that addressed Middle East stability, as a sign that common threats have motivated leaders to get a peace deal done.
The Palestinians should use the leverage from improved ties between the Arabs and Israelis to settle the decades-old conflict, a senior Trump administration official said on April 1. The administration is aware that it isn’t going to have economic normalization absent a political settlement, the official added.
A risk to regional stability is that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, known informally as Abu Mazen, rejects the deal outright.
“If the United States shares the initiative” with Abu Mazen, he will reject it, Amos Gilead, the head of IDC Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy and a former general, said on April 2 in Washington. That would likely “pave the way for instability and even worse,” he added.
But Trump has been undaunted, meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, this week and having a “productive conversation” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the White House said on Tuesday.
As the wait for the election showed, Israeli politics can stymie the Trump proposal as well. Just before the vote, Netanyahu tried to sew up his right-wing alliance by saying he could annex portions of the West Bank that Palestinians consider the heartland of a future state. That may have helped him secure another term, but it might not help him sign on to a peace deal.
“Bibi is in a strong position to form the next government but the fact that he will rely on right-wing parties to form the coalition will complicate Trump’s effort to float his peace plan,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group.
Reviewing the election results, Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran official with the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Israelis had chosen racism and an enduring standoff.
The chances for a peace deal “were zero even before the election,” said James M. Dorsey, a Middle East scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “I don’t think it matters whether the Gulf and-or other states support whatever plan.”
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