Argument

Wedge Politics Won’t Bring Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Kushner’s plan aims to divide Palestinians from their leaders but fails to recognize that the people already resent their corrupt leadership—while failing to place any similar pressure on an Israeli prime minister under indictment.

Palestinian demonstrators carry caricatures during a protest against the  U.S.-led peace plan in Ramallah on June 24.
Palestinian demonstrators carry caricatures during a protest against the U.S.-led peace plan in Ramallah on June 24. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Jared Kushner launched the Trump administration’s first visible foray into Middle East peacemaking. The “Peace to Prosperity” program for economic investment in the Palestinian territories and the region advanced by Kushner, U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has been greeted with criticism from nearly everyone—with the exception of right-wing Israelis.

Palestinian officials have rejected the plan out of hand, accusing the administration of trying to normalize the occupation and “liquidate the Palestinian cause in return for a handful of dollars.” One can understand their skepticism, given the Trump administration’s skewed policies. But their true objection is more personal.

The plan rests on the premise that longtime Palestinian leaders have been unfaithful to the true interests of their people. Its purpose is to drive a wedge between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the people, gambling that pressure from below will either force the PA to make otherwise unpalatable concessions or clear the way for new, more pragmatic leadership.

The wedge approach gets one thing right: for decades, Palestinians have been saddled with leaders who have not served them well and whose failures have helped extinguish the faint embers of the peace process. But it gets much else wrong. And it would be doomed even if the Trump administration had recognized that Israel suffers from a parallel poverty of leadership and if the plan had therefore sought to drive wedges on both sides.

The Trump administration has not openly declared that it aims to sideline or replace the current Palestinian leadership. But one does not have to read too much between the lines to see it. In Bahrain last month, Kushner offered a “direct message to the Palestinian people.” He implicitly charged Palestinian leaders with moral bankruptcy because “enormous amounts of money have been wasted on corruption, munitions, and conflict” rather than “invested in infrastructure, education, workforce training, and health care.” 

Where Kushner led, others followed: One speaker after another identified the principal problems impeding investment, economic growth, and hope in the Palestinian territories as poor governance, weak transparency, and the absence of the rule of law. Who else but the PA could be responsible for these shortcomings? Alan Dershowitz, a frequent Trump administration apologist, laid the narrative out clearly in defending the plan: “This has been the history of Palestinian leaders from the beginning: They seem to care less about helping their people and more about hurting Israel.” 

Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman could not have been under any illusion that Palestinian leaders would embrace their vision—which was precisely the point. In their view, the Palestinian story is a tragedy: Their leaders insist on purity to the national cause, and the people bear the cost.

The plan’s wager is that its concrete, detailed program—which is just a down payment on what peace will bring—will so powerfully resonate with everyday Palestinians that they will demand that their leaders enter meaningful negotiations with the Israelis. Either Palestinian leaders become more responsive to the desires of their people or they will be jettisoned. This is why the plan put economics before politics; the wedge approach requires this particular sequence of events.

One can understand the appeal of circumventing the PA, just as one can understand the appeal of sidestepping or replacing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both Palestinians and Israelis have suffered the burdens of corrupt and irresponsible leadership. The streets of Ramallah are filled with luxury vehicles, haute couture, and fine cuisine, while the residents of Jenin live in poverty and those of Gaza are in even more dire straits. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s excessive caution has been equaled only by his duplicity. He has failed to speak openly and honestly not only to Israelis but also to his own people about what any realistic peace will entail. 

In Israel, Netanyahu is on the verge of indictment for corruption while playing the martyr and demonizing the media and progressive civil society. While newly rich tech entrepreneurs grab the headlines in “start-up nation,” the average Israeli scrambles to make ends meet. The right, meanwhile, pretends that Israel’s very real trilemma does not exist. All serious analysts agree that Israel can have two of the following but not all three: a state with a Jewish character, democratic governance, or territory stretching to the Jordan River. 

When I posed the trilemma in March 2018 to the civil society leader most responsible for making the idea of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank part of mainstream debate, Nadia Matar of Women in Green, she dismissed it by veering into fantasy: A couple million Jews from the diaspora will make aliyah (immigrate), Matar averred. This “solution” may seem laughable, but the many leading Israeli politicians now calling for annexation of the West Bank have no genuine answer to the conundrum. 

Given the abysmal leadership on both sides, the wedge approach seems attractive on its face—but it cannot work for three reasons.

First, dissatisfaction with the existing leadership is already palpable among both populations. Neither needs Washington’s carrots or sticks to want to ditch the current leadership. Palestinians have long expressed frustration at the fact that no presidential election has been held since 2005, and 60 percent want Abbas to resign. They have long impressed on pollsters their fervent wish that Fatah and Hamas reconcile. They have long indicated their distrust of their own political leaders and their weariness with rampant corruption. All to no avail, in the frozen tundra of Palestinian politics.

Israelis are less dissatisfied with Netanyahu than they are tired of the prime minister and his shenanigans. However, they also see few alternatives: He remains the worst prime minister Israel could have, except for all the others. Consequently, although his demise has repeatedly been predicted, Netanyahu will soon become the country’s longest-serving prime minister. As Steven A. Cook wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “If Netanyahu is interested in a new campaign slogan, he’d be smart to consider: It could be worse.”

Moreover, right-wing politics are more dominant than ever in Israel. It is revealing that the chief rival to the Likud party, when choosing a name, cloaked itself in the flag: Blue and White. It ran a campaign last April based on personality, rather than substance. Its first campaign videos emphasized the bloody toughness of the party’s leader, Benny Gantz, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); under his command of the IDF, in 2014, “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age,” the advertisement bragged. Despite three former generals and a popular television personality at its head, despite its nationalistic message, and despite the fatigue with Netanyahu, the Blue and White party still could not make enough headway to warrant an invitation to try to form a government. Wedge Netanyahu and his toxic personality out, and one may be left with a more bland and less objectionable version of the same. 

Appealing directly to the people—as Kushner did in Bahrain—overlooks the jadedness on both sides. An authoritative December 2018 joint analysis by two left-leaning pollsters, one Palestinian and one Israeli, ruefully but accurately concluded that although “[p]ublic opinion in both Palestine and Israel is … not an impediment to an agreement,” it is also “not a driving force for peace on either side.”

Second, there is little reason to think that such wedge approaches can work. Academic research shows that policies of external pressure are more likely to foment mass nationalist defiance, and even greater satisfaction with the government, than conciliatory attitudes—let alone popular demands for change. Israel’s case is instructive. Mounting international criticism over the last decade, including calls for boycott, only fed Israelis’ sense of isolation and intensified their embrace of nationalism. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s public spats with Netanyahu and his vocal efforts to temper Israeli expansionism, culminating in the 2016 U.S. abstention on a critical resolution at the U.N. Security Council, backfired, and Israelis circled the wagons. 

And it is hard to see inducements succeeding where pressure failed. Trump’s uncritical stance toward Israel—the greatest inducement of all—has only buoyed the country’s nationalist right. Whatever aid the Kushner plan can muster for Palestinian infrastructure projects pales in comparison to the wealth that would follow a true peace agreement. Integration into Israel’s dynamic, nearly $400 billion economy is the real prize, and international investment would flow readily into a stable Palestine—yet that enticing prospect has not rendered the Palestinians pliant. 

Third, while the United States has real leverage with Palestinian leaders, as recent funding cuts have demonstrated, it has no prospect of a wedge strategy toward Israel. Israel today is a wealthy country with a diversified economy. More companies based in Israel are listed on the Nasdaq than from any country other than the United States and China. Israel does not need global aid, and it already enjoys strong U.S. political backing. 

Not only does the United States have few carrots it can throw Israel’s way, but it has fewer sticks than one might think. Washington could threaten to terminate intelligence sharing, its partnership with Israel on military technologies, and military-to-military cooperation. But these relationships are as valuable to the United States as they are to Israel. Although U.S. military assistance accounts for around 16 percent of Israel’s defense spending, much of that aid flows back into the U.S. defense sector, and it would suffer most if U.S. largesse to Israel dried up. Moreover, a wealthy Israel could certainly—albeit not easily—make up the difference.

Not only does the United States have few carrots it can throw Israel’s way, but it has fewer sticks than one might think.

Yes, Israel needs missile defense, but so does the United States: Joint U.S.-Israeli work on the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and other systems serves the interests of the United States as much as Israel’s. Meanwhile, Israel’s intelligence network, especially in the region, is second to none. And if touching these things is out of the question, then certainly so is support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.

Finally, the United States could stop using its veto to protect Israel at the United Nations, but Obama’s experience was a cautionary tale even for Democrats: In Israel, it prompted little soul-searching and instead encouraged questions about America’s faithfulness as an ally, and at home, it split the party and invited attacks from the right. 

The Trump administration is right that Palestinian leadership is lacking. It is wrong that only Palestinian leadership is lacking. And it is even more wrong to think that it can wedge its way to peace.

Ronald R. Krebs is the Beverly and Richard Fink professor in the liberal arts and a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is writing a book about the effects of violent conflict on democracy, including in Israel.

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