Shadow Government

Kushner’s Peace Plan Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen

The last thing Israelis and Palestinians need now is another failed blueprint. Stabilizing Gaza is more important.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 22, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 22, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)

Fresh off his high-profile meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump may next turn his attention to what he has called the “ultimate deal” — a new U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, his Middle East peace envoy, visited the Middle East last week to test ideas for the plan and explore ways to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza. And in a wide-ranging interview with a Palestinian newspaper at the end of the trip, Kushner promised the plan would soon be ready, while heavily criticizing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and hinting at a potential truce between Hamas and Israel.

Putting out a new U.S. peace plan at this moment would be a terrible mistake that would likely only make matters worse. The White House should instead postpone whatever peace plan is in the works and focus foremost on stabilizing the situation in Gaza.

It is impossible to be a mediator in a conflict or release a credible peace plan when one side refuses to even talk to you. Palestinian leaders have not met with senior U.S. officials for the past six months, since Trump announced that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In that context, the content of a plan would not matter. The Palestinians would reject it out of hand.

The administration’s proposal could also have other negative, long-lasting effects, which could play out in two different ways. Under the less damaging scenario, the United States would put out a balanced proposal consistent with international understanding of the situation and U.S. policy for the past generation. In that case, it would include territory for a future Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with territorial land swaps to keep the majority of the Jewish settler population in Israel. The plan would also include a capital for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. In exchange, Israel would obtain security arrangements that would ensure that Hamas or another extremist group would be unable to control the West Bank. There would be an international mechanism to compensate Palestinian refugees but no real right of return, with only a symbolic number of Palestinians allowed back into Israel and the overwhelming majority exercising their right of return in the new state of Palestine, choosing to stay where they are, or being resettled in a third country.

The problem is that there is no point in putting out this plan again. U.S. President Bill Clinton laid it out in the Clinton Parameters in 2001, as did Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of the Obama administration. At present, both sides — a Palestinian leadership deeply skeptical of Trump and a right-wing Israeli government — would reject it. Such a proposal would only further discredit the ideas upon which a future two-state solution could be achieved.

The increasingly likely scenario is that the administration instead proposes a plan that is more favorable to Israel. That plan could, for example, call for the Israel Defense Forces to remain in the West Bank for a generation or longer and continue to hold the 60 percent of the West Bank it currently controls while creating the basis of a state for the Palestinians in Gaza. This would be anathema for the Palestinians. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would find such a plan highly appealing and will likely accept it with some reservations, which would still give him the flexibility to negotiate over some aspects.

This approach would be dangerous in a number of ways. First, it would box in center-left Israeli politicians who would see the Trump plan as unrealistic. However, they would not be in a position to oppose a U.S. proposal because it would be too good for Israel. A new political baseline would be set in Israel for what an acceptable solution might look like: one that the Palestinians would never agree to. The end result would push the sides even further apart.

An even more pernicious possibility is that if the Palestinians were to reject either of these plans — especially one accepted by Israel —it could then become the basis for the Israeli government to once again make the case that it has no partner on the Palestinian side and therefore begin the process of annexing large chunks of the West Bank, a move that a number of politicians in Israel now openly advocate, which would make the possibility of a two-state solution impossible. Under the current right-wing Israeli government and a White House that has come down heavily on Israel’s side, the Israeli settler movement may never get a better opportunity.

The Trump administration seems to be counting on Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to force the Palestinians to accept its plan. The theory is that the Arab states have moved on from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are more interested in fighting Iran.

It is true that the Saudis are so focused on Iran that they might be willing to shift on the Israeli-Palestinian question, but they have already run into trouble when they have tried to do so. In the fall, there were reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at Kushner’s behest, called Abbas to Riyadh, where he tried to pressure him to accept the Trump administration’s ideas. It didn’t work. The story got out, and there was backlash in the Arab media. Instead of siding with the United States, when the Saudis hosted an Arab League conference in the aftermath of the Jerusalem announcement they renamed it the al-Quds (the Arabic word for Jerusalem) Summit in order to highlight this issue.

Beyond that, the Trump administration has invested too much in the Saudis and not enough in some of the other key Arab states. It is the Jordanians and Egyptians who have been much more engaged on the Palestinian issue for the past 25 years, and have much more leverage on Abbas because of their control of borders that abut both Gaza and the West Bank. They are much less likely to be flexible precisely because it directly affects their own national interests — especially the Jordanians, who have a population that is 50 to 70 percent of Palestinian origin and are dealing with their own internal problems right now.

Beyond that, it is unclear if the Arab States will do anything different than what they have done for years. Whenever a U.S. president or secretary of state asks for their support in pushing a new U.S. plan, they always say yes. But they never follow through with either meaningful positive incentives for the Palestinians or genuine political pressure. The bottom line is that most of the Arab states do not prioritize the Palestinian issue and do not get along with Abbas. They will neither offer him major incentives nor take political risks at home by pressing him, especially if they believe a U.S. plan is doomed from the start.

Rather than focus on a long-term peace plan that has little chance for success, the administration should instead focus on the immediate emergency in the Gaza Strip, where the population gets only about four hours of electricity per day, more than 90 percent of the drinking water is not potable, and the situation is growing increasingly unstable and could trigger another Israel-Hamas war.

To the Trump administration’s credit, it is somewhat focused on this issue. It held an international meeting on Gaza in Washington in March and is reportedly pushing a proposal to for the Gulf states to invest in projects in the Sinai Peninsula that would help the economy in Gaza.

Unfortunately, rumors of the broader peace plan and the fact that it may be intended to split Gaza from the West Bank and create a separate state there have caused many of the main stakeholders to balk at any solutions. The Palestinian Authority immediately rejected the U.S. plan for Gaza, arguing it was a way to create an economically independent Gaza and a precursor to an independent territory separated from the West Bank. The Egyptians are also unlikely to go for this plan, fearing that if Gaza becomes increasingly economically dependent on Egypt, it will become Egypt’s problem rather than Israel’s.

Instead, the administration should pursue two immediate initiatives. First, it should release the $300 million the United States is currently holding up for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., reportedly spearheaded this hold in retaliation for the response at the U.N. to the Jerusalem embassy announcement. Opposition to UNRWA, especially in Israel but also in the Trump administration, runs deep, based on the view that it simply perpetuates the refugee mentality among Palestinians.

But the answer is not to cut off the most significant aid provider inside the Gaza Strip in the middle of a crisis without having a legitimate, functioning alternative. And the reality is that UNRWA is the only real option in Gaza right now. It educates 250,000 children in its schools — children who would otherwise be in Hamas schools or on the streets. And it provides much of the humanitarian aid that gets into Gaza. If the administration is insistent on slashing UNRWA funding, it could hold the funds that go to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and make cuts only in areas where other relief agencies can potentially step in and fill the gap. But in Gaza, UNRWA is by far the biggest game in town, and no one can fill that gap at the moment.

Beyond that, the United States should get behind an initiative being pursued by the Bulgarian diplomat and U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, who is trying to build an alternative international mechanism that does not rely on either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas to get aid into Gaza and that would invest in key electricity and water infrastructure. Mladenov’s proposal bypasses internal Palestinian politics, which is causing the Palestinian Authority to hold up much of the aid that would otherwise go to Gaza, in an effort to squeeze Hamas. But this plan cannot work without Egyptian and Israeli willingness to allow the international community to move supplies into the Gaza Strip. It also needs financial support from other donors, especially the Gulf states. Here the United States can play a constructive role in pressing the parties to support Mladenov’s plan. He is the right person to pursue it, as all sides generally trust him and see him as an honest broker.

A two-state solution is the only long-term, viable possibility that can allow Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to live together side by side in peace and security. And a Palestinian polity that reintegrates Gaza and the West Bank under one Palestinian leadership is the only long-term solution that is acceptable to the Palestinian people and their leaders. They are both worthy goals. But in the near term, given the current political situation, the first priority for the United States must be to stabilize Gaza before moving on to these tougher questions.

Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

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