Argument

Lessons for Trump and Kushner From My 20 Years of Failing at Middle East Peace

Not even the greatest dealmaker the world has ever seen can bridge a divide if the two sides aren’t ready to get to work.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shake hands during a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shake hands during a joint news conference at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu for talks for the first time since Trump took office on January 20. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Several weeks ago, I had an opportunity to meet President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Having worked on the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli peace process for much of my adult life, I couldn’t restrain myself. “I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as yours does in you,” I quipped to Kushner, whom Trump put in charge of brokering a peace agreement. “Because he’s given you mission impossible, or at best mission implausible.”

He laughed, said it was hard, and we left it at that.

Since leaving government, I’ve been pretty honest about how I saw the U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly about the mistakes we made and the illusions I held. My own view is that there ought to be term limits imposed on advisors who keep coming in and out of various administrations, offering the same tired advice. Experience is important, but fresh eyes and new ideas are important, too, when you’ve tried variations of the same approach, with no success, for so many years. So now that I am out of government — with absolutely no interest in returning — I certainly don’t begrudge or patronize others for trying to find solutions. Should they succeed in helping to resolve this miserable and excruciatingly complex problem, I’d raise my glass.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. On Friday, Trump begins his first foreign foray into the wilds of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. It’s a long flight, so I thought I might share some unsolicited observations from a couple of decades of traveling the negotiator’s highway. I might add that these are mostly lessons learned from failing. Still, failure can be a great teacher, particularly if you’re prepared to see the world the way it is and not through some self-absorbed or ideological filter.

So Mr. Trump, if I had my five minutes with you, here’s what I’d say.

Stop talking about the “ultimate deal”

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Washington this month, you told him that your goal was a final agreement. If what you meant by that was an accord that resolves the six core issues that define the conflict — borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jews, and end of all claims — well then, as the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used to say, “You can forget about it.”

There’s nothing wrong with setting an aspirational goal of a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. But you should understand that the two essential qualities required for such a deal — leadership and ownership (that the Israelis and Palestinians care more about this than you do) — aren’t present in sufficient quantities in either Abbas or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What matters more than the mediator — even if you style yourself as one of the world’s greatest negotiators — are the two guys on either side of you. The “ultimate deal,” which you recently said may not be as hard as many people think, is in fact harder. Don’t make the same mistake we did and trivialize the issues. The gaps on the core issues are enormous. In short, the ultimate deal isn’t ready for prime time.

Don’t play around with Jerusalem

Like many of your predecessors, you have promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Unlike them, however, you seem determined to make good on your promise. But having abandoned so many of your campaign promises in the face of reality, why keep this one?

Sure, the embassy deserves to be in west Jerusalem. But whatever Netanyahu says — and it is an emotional and salient issue for every Israeli premier — it’s not a priority for him or for the United States. There is no compelling U.S. national interest or possible diplomatic advantage that outweighs the downsides of injecting the most emotional issue in the negotiations when you’re trying to get the Arabs and Palestinians to help restart a moribund peace process.

Don’t trivialize Arab sensitivities on Jerusalem. I remember the former Palestinian official in charge of affairs in Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, telling Secretary of State James Baker he’d be a dead man if he compromised on the issue. Keep the embassy issue in your pocket. It may be useful at some point, if and when the negotiations mature. You lose nothing now by dancing around the issue.

Play the Sunni Arab card carefully

The one new and positive element buoying hopes for a change in the peace process is the growing alignment between Israel and key Sunni states, particularly in the Gulf. This emerging consensus is largely a response to the twin threats from a rising Iran and growing Sunni jihadis, represented by the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Galvanizing the Arabs around the peace process isn’t a new idea. The first and second Bush administrations tried it at the Madrid peace conference (1991) and the Annapolis conference (2007). Obama plied these waters with the Saudis in 2009 and got nowhere. But it may well be that there’s a greater chance now to get something done, partly because of your toughened approach on Iran and your intention to sell more arms to the Saudis.

The Gulf States have reportedly prepared an approach in which they will adopt incremental confidence-building measures, overflight rights for Israeli civilian aircraft, and telecommunications links with Israel in return for Israeli gestures to the Palestinians. But be careful. The Saudis have never delivered before, and there may be other demands not yet identified. One of those could be your endorsement of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state based on June 1967 borders, with a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.

If you buy this, you’ll lose Netanyahu. But tuck this possible trade-off away. It might prove useful if the peace process moves forward.

There’s no free peace process lunch

You’re showing up in Israel with a great deal of credibility in the bank. No U.S. president has ever visited Israel this early in his term, and you will be the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall.

But make no mistake. Netanyahu is not yet sure what you are aiming to do on the peace issue. Next year, and despite brewing scandals, he’ll become the longest-surviving prime minister in Israeli history, surpassing Israel’s greatest leader, David Ben-Gurion. You don’t last that long at the top of the Israeli political game without being suspicious of foreign leaders coming in and promising grand solutions.

Netanyahu knows that the further he moves on the peace process, the greater the chances that his coalition will collapse. His erstwhile rival, Naftali Bennett, is watching closely to see if you’re going to press the prime minister on Palestinian statehood. Squaring this circle is the greatest challenge — and given Netanyahu’s risk aversion, it may not be possible.

Honey alone — sweet talk, more military assistance, pressure on the Palestinians — won’t work. You will need to apply vinegar and extract concessions from Netanyahu that you can use to get the Saudis and Palestinians to play the game. A serious process will mean tensions with Israel. Awhile back, I predicted that within a year you and Netanyahu would be annoying the hell out of each other.

I might have been wrong. It might start sooner.

Do what’s possible

There’s a story about a shopkeeper who posted a sign on his window: “If you can’t find what you’re looking for, just lower your expectations.”

This isn’t some real estate deal in Manhattan. The locals have seen presidents and administrations come and go; they are masters of manipulation, procrastination, and meaner and more determined than you’ll ever be.

Given this reality, you’re going to have to set realistic goals. By willfully suspending my disbelief, I can envision a process of sequenced and mutually reinforcing steps between Israel and the Palestinians, coordinated with outreach from the Arabs to Israel and assistance to the Palestinian Authority. I can see a set of U.S. economic initiatives to ease Israeli restrictions on Palestinians’ movement from the West Bank and maybe even Gaza, and growing Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. I might even be able to imagine a Madrid 2 regional conference to tie all of this together.

What I have a hard time even imagining is the resumption of final status talks on the core issues that can make real progress, let alone succeed. You may want to bring Abbas and Netanyahu together in trilateral talks, the first such encounter since 2010. It would make a statement, but it wouldn’t amount to anything without serious follow-up. I wish I had a nickel for every meeting I attended to launch and relaunch negotiations over the years.

But, hey, the good news is that expectations are at an all-time low, and other than you nobody expects much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Any good news would be welcome. The land of miracles hasn’t produced one in a very long time. Who knows, maybe the time has arrived for one now.

Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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