Trump’s New Deal for the Middle East

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- During Jared Kushner’s recent round of Middle East diplomacy, he refrained from spelling out the details of the Trump plan for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. But you don’t need details to see where things are heading. Kushner laid that out in a remarkably blunt interview in Al Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper. 

The world has moved forward while you have been left behind,” he said to his Palestinian readers. “Don’t allow your grandfather’s conflict to determine your children’s future.”  

In other words: The war against the Jewish state is over. You lost. Now, get over it. Kushner dismissed the traditional Palestinian core issues (the return of refugees, a fully sovereign state including East Jerusalem and the end of Jewish settlement in the West Bank) as “talking points,” in an endless quarrel. 

He also portrayed the Palestine Authority under Mahmoud Abbas as naysaying time-servers. “We will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it because it will lead to new opportunities for them to have a much better life.”

This assumes that a new generation of Palestinians will put material self-interest before anti-Zionist dogma, and accept a peace with Israel that offers Muslim control of the holy places in Jerusalem, limited communal autonomy in the West Bank, and prosperity through massive public and private-sector investment. Kushner calls it an opportunity for Palestinians left behind decades ago “to leapfrog into the next industrial age" by inclusion in the ecosystem of the "Silicon Valley of the Middle East, Israel."

Kushner thinks that young upwardly mobile Palestinians will take a chance and leap. But it won’t be easy. For them, it would not be like challenging a distant dictatorship, a la the Egyptian Arab Spring. It would be more personal, a rejection of elders, relatives in the diaspora and a widely believed national narrative.

Still, there are some reasons for optimism. One is the failure of the West Bank to explode, as predicted, over the opening of the U.S.  Embassy or the Gaza March of Return. Another is the eagerness of Palestinians to work peaceably in Israel. 

During the Kushner visit, the Israeli government announced that it is issuing 7,500 work permits to residents of the West Bank, where unemployment hovers around 20 percent. This decision is made possible by the Israel’s belief that they will not pose a security threat. This assessment stems from the fact that 100,000 West Bankers already work in Israel, largely without incident.

But the kind of prosperity Kushner is talking about does not rest primarily on blue-collar jobs in Tel Aviv. It depends on the Trump administration’s ability to provide major economic benefits, and fast. This generates a degree of skepticism.

After the 1993 Oslo accords, there was grandiose talk about international investments in the Palestinian economy. The second intifada, which began in 2000, put a damper on this. So has the endemic corruption of the Palestinian ruling class and its bureaucracy. And Israeli entrepreneurs were mostly unwelcome; West Bankers didn’t want to be accused of collaboration. This could change, but Trump’s “peace through prosperity” approach has to produce results.

Still, the Trump plan has a lot going for it, starting with the Trump attitude. Previous U.S. administrations wanted to be seen as honest brokers. To demonstrate this, they gave the Palestinian leadership something approaching a veto over developments in the “peace process.” 

That’s finished. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is not neutral. He sees things Israel’s way. If current Palestinian leaders reject his plan and no one comes forward to accept take it up, well, that’s their problem. If there is no Palestinian partner, Trump will let Israel go ahead and impose the deal it wants in the West Bank.

This is serious leverage. The Palestinians can’t count on Arab governments to counter it: Already the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States has been reduced to lip service. These governments depend on the U.S. for protection against ISIS and Iran and they understand that Trump is a transactional president. He doesn’t believe State Department wisdom about the need to court Arab goodwill. As far as he is concerned, it is the Arab allies who need to court him. That means helping him get the deal of the century in the Middle East.

Nor is Trump likely to accept the excuse that they can’t help him because of the hatred in the street for Israel. If they can’t deliver, what good are they?

This approach is radically different than anything the U.S. has proposed in the past. It is premised on the idea that most Palestinians want a better life more even than they want revenge or another generation of dysfunction and conflict. Perhaps Trump is naive to think so. Maybe his plan is a coarse appeal to personal gratification. Or maybe he is right. In any case, it is what’s coming next.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.