“Peace to Prosperity”: The death knell of the U.S. as mediator in the Israel – Palestine conflict

Is the U.S. done as a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017. Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv, public domain.

Middle East scholars and analysts have argued for some years that the heyday of the two-state solution is over. The idea of it, at least in the minds of the international society, is very much alive. Regardless of all the criticism the plan received, the American ‘Deal of the Century’ – to use President Trump’s own words – conveyed one slightly positive thing; despite all its serious flaws and contrary to expectations, the plan proposed a two-state solution. Rhetoric of such support for a two-state solution aside, the details of the plan actually lay forward a Bantustan-like solution that in the end kills the prospects of an independent Palestinian state. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde responded to the plan on Swedish public radio and on Twitter, saying that “The EU position on the Israel-Palestine conflict is clear. We support a two-state solution, firmly anchored in international law, with Israel and Palestine living in peace and security with Jerusalem as capital of both states.” Both the EU and the U.S. formally support a two-state solution. So while facts on the ground might indicate otherwise, the idea and belief in the possibility of two states is still alive.

What’s in it for the Palestinians?

It is stated in the plan that it must be assessed holistically. However, neither on a holistic or on a point by point basis does the deal provide anything to desire for the Palestinians. The deal patently favors Israel and clearly conveys American and Israeli ignorance of the wants and needs of the Palestinians. Moreover, it blatantly ignores international law by legitimizing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and denying that the settlements violate international law. Indeed, the illegality of the Israeli occupation is not mentioned once in the proposal. Maybe that was the ‘new approach’ that Kushner decided on after having read 25 books on the conflict and earlier attempts. Unsurprisingly then, reading the plan undoubtedly stirs positive and negative emotions among its many observers, above all the Palestinians and Israelis themselves.

Moreover, support from the other Arab states is crucial for the plan to be successful, but their responses were muted. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Trump’s favorite dictator) and the foreign ministry welcomed the American plan and urged the parties to study and seriously consider it, while Turkey’s foreign minister said the plan was ‘stillborn’, and President Erdogan stated that the plan ‘will not serve peace and solution in the region’. Jordan reiterated the importance of reaching “a just and lasting peace that meets the legitimate rights of the Palestinians”, while Saudi Arabia – a cornerstone in Trumps Middle East strategy – supported all efforts aimed at reaching a just peace but reassured their commitment to the ‘brotherly Palestinian people’ and their legitimate rights.

Thus, the ‘Deal of the Century’ leave us with several questions rather than answers, such as whether it should be called a peace plan or an “assault on peace”, as Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst wrote.

Nevertheless, the lack of international, and most critically Arab support, has its roots in the most urgent question: why weren’t Palestinian representatives invited to the so-called negotiation process? It may be naïve to even ask, but that point is crucial in comprehending why this plan will never work and why the many attempts up until the Oslo Accords failed to deliver tangible and sustainable results. Obviously, no Palestinian leader wants to speak with or through President Trump or his meddlers about the future of the Palestinians after the President’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of the state of Israel in December 2017, or the subsequent move of the American embassy in the spring of 2018. Still, progress in the process and conclusion of a deal that imply concessions from both parties has not been inconceivable for the Palestinian leadership, just not with the U.S. as a third party. Even the archenemies Fatah and Hamas agree that the deal on the table cannot be seriously considered since no Palestinians were represented. In other words, excluding the Palestinians was a serious rookie mistake in the game of diplomacy.

It takes two to tango

Reaching a resolution in a conflict imply that the belligerents – in this case the Israelis and the Palestinians – should share the dance with each other, not the stronger party and the ‘facilitator’, as Jared Kushner and his team call themselves. President Trump and Netanyahu left the Palestinians on a chair next to the wall and carelessly danced around the most obvious mistake in any of the attempts to create peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Prospects for sustainable peace are greater if the belligerents agree on what terms peace are to be built upon. The plan emphasizes the connection between peace, social and economic prosperity and stability, and thus puts forward a heavy carrot in form of a much-needed economic injection into Palestinian society if the Palestinians accept the deal. But as has been the case throughout the history of this conflict, the prospects for stability, prosperity and peace are not very bright when the Palestinians are not even allowed to participate and define what those concepts mean for them.

Lessons learned from history

This is not the first time that a U.S.-brokered peace deal failed due to exclusion of the Palestinians. By and large, the story is the same; all attempts up until the end of the 1980s failed mostly as a result of the parties not knowing what the needs and wants of the Palestinians at the times of negotiations were. Perhaps the most obvious example to illustrate the importance of inclusion is the negotiations between the Israelis and Egypt on the Palestinian question in Camp David in 1978. Although President Carter understood that the Palestinians played a direct role but as the rounds of negotiations went on, the “Palestinian standpoint became weaker and weaker”, as PRIO Senior Researcher Jørgen Jensehaugen points out. This was largely the same with the omission of the Palestinians as the elephant in the room.

Trump and Netanyahu’s intimate ‘Deal of the Century’ affair and interest to save face in their domestic political affairs may prove to be the death knell for American ‘mediation’ in the conflict.

After strenuous efforts from several other third parties, including Sweden, the U.S. recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative for the Palestinian people and serious discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians were initiated with the Oslo back channel in the beginning of the 1990s. In the wake of the presented peace plan the fact that the Palestinians were not represented in the process can be understood as a great impediment for the deal to even be seriously considered, but most importantly, it represents a turn in the American, and possibly also other states’ view of the importance of having the Palestinians at the negotiation table. Turning back to the Oslo back channel and the subsequent negotiations, there were other factors that affected the long-term outcome besides the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians were in the same room negotiating (the latter being a solely positive overall development).

The last nail in the coffin

What we witnessed on January 28th, 2020 was a terrible deal that for many observers was dead on arrival when it was presented in the White House, and a better deal is nowhere in sight. While American Presidents and Secretaries of State in the last three decades have at least included the Palestinians, Trump and Netanyahu’s intimate ‘Deal of the Century’ affair and interest to save face in their domestic political affairs may prove to be the death knell for American ‘mediation’ in the conflict. Respect for and confidence in the mediator from the relevant parties is an absolute prerequisite for diplomatic success. Respect for and confidence in both Trump and Netanyahu seems to be low, and the ‘Deal of the Century’, a production of the White House, is in fact so absurd that one wonders if the U.S. can be taken as a credible and serious mediator in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians ever again.

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