- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2019

JERUSALEM — For an administration not exactly famed for strategic patience and deliberative policymaking, President Trump’s push for an impending Middle East “deal of the century” could be a notable outlier.

Trump administration officials have spent the past two years quietly pursuing back-channel communications with wealthy Gulf Arab powers and Palestinian business leaders in preparation for the much-anticipated rollout of a major peace plan aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

The pursuit has involved an exhaustive push to secure vast financial investments for Palestinian economic and infrastructure development from Saudi Arabia and others, The Washington Times has learned. And, after an extensive buildup, the plan is expected to be released in the coming weeks or months.

All of it is being headed by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has developed a warm relationship with young Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and most recently visited Riyadh in February on a trip that included stops in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman.

Mr. Kushner this week gave the clearest hint yet of when his handiwork will be made public, telling a Washington event Tuesday U.S. diplomats are awaiting the official formation of a new government in Israel and the June 4 end of the Muslim Ramadan holiday.

“We’ll wait until after Ramadan, and then we’ll put our plan out,” Mr. Kushner said.

SEE ALSO: Saeb Erekat says Trump broke pledge by moving embassy to Jerusalem

While it remains to be seen whether any of the Gulf monarchies will come through with the cash, the administration is keeping a tight lid on its efforts, all while critics and Palestinian officials warn that the final proposal will be far too aligned with hard-line Israeli positions to win serious buy-in from the Arab world.

A key unanswered question is the fate of the idea of a two-state solution, one long central to U.S. peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians. Rumors that the principle will be jettisoned have unnerved Arab leaders. Close-mouthed U.S. officials say only that their plan will be such an economic game-changer that even the Palestinians will embrace it.

“We believe there is a hunger in the region for hope, for economic hope especially, and we believe there is an opportunity for Palestinians,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman told The Washington Times in an interview this month at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which Mr. Trump relocated last year from Tel Aviv.

A question of fairness

Mr. Friedman, who is working closely with Mr. Kushner on the finishing touches of the plan, has fervently supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Hard-line Israeli nationalists have long applauded the construction on land that Palestinians want for an independent state, but Arabs have blamed the expansion for the demise of a two-state solution.

The ambassador declined to comment on specifics of the peace plan but exuded confidence in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral victory. The hawkish prime minister, a close personal friend and ally of Mr. Trump, won re-election in early April with a governing coalition that includes a number of smaller, ultranationalist political parties.

But skeptics in the U.S. and the region say the Trump’s administration’s confidence ignores the basic reality that Palestinian leaders are so frustrated by the Trump administration’s pro-Israel moves over the past two years that they express no interest in a Washington-backed push for peace.

“These people are not fair,” veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a close and longtime adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview at his office in the West Bank town of Jericho.

Mr. Erekat scoffed at talk of the impending diplomatic breakthrough. He said Mr. Trump lost any chance of Palestinian support when he ignored Palestinian Authority requests not to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, closed the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, and ended decades of U.S. funding for the U.N. relief organization that aids Palestinian refugees.

Mr. Trump’s recent announcement that the U.S. will recognize Israel’s sovereignty over parts of the Golan Heights captured from Syria further cemented Palestinian doubts that the administration can be trusted as an honest broker, Mr. Erekat said.

If nothing else, he said, Washington’s pro-Israel moves of the past two years have sharply undercut the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians, who blame the organization — once upheld by Washington as a moderate alternative to the militant Islamist group Hamas — for being duped into thinking Israeli-recognized Palestinian statehood could ever be achieved peacefully.

“Since President Trump came to office,” Mr. Erekat said, “he has done nothing but to destroy Palestinian moderates.”

Administration supporters argue that Mr. Trump’s moves — controversial as they may be — are just a break with the status quo and are required to spur positive movement in a peace process that has long defied solutions.

Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli scholar at Shalem College in Jerusalem, said the Trump administration has taken a more in-your-face posture than any previous administration. The goal: to set conditions for the Palestinians to be more desperate than ever for genuine engagement with Israel on a realistic settlement, to “make it more enticing for them at the end of the day to be given something.”

“The usual approach to negotiation is to say, ‘OK, we’re holding territory for you and you have to do this to get it, control terrorism, make peace, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whatever is on the list. And all the while you’ve got … you’re this or that and we’ll sweeten the deal for you,” Mr. Kramer said.

“Well, Trump and Kushner, alternatively, are doing this like a couple of [real estate] developers. They come in and say, ‘Look, this is the deal we’re giving you. You can take it today, or we’ll give you another deal in a week, but it’s going to be less. It’s not going to be more. It’ll be less.”

Mr. Kramer said the obvious failures of approaches over the decades lend credibility to the U.S. argument that negotiators must try something radical.

“I’m not sure it will work or make for a breakthrough because the Palestinian mindset is very entrenched,” he said. “But it’s a different approach and basically it’s saying, ‘We’re not going to come along and try what’s failed again and again and again.’”

Screaming from the bridge

The risk is that Palestinian animosity may be so deep that the peace plan will be met only by violence from Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that controls Gaza, or a security meltdown in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.

Frustration was palpable on a recent visit to the West Bank, where views of the impending plan are far from optimistic.

“Intifada” is a popular response when Palestinians are asked what might occur if the Palestinian Authority seriously engages in any Trump-driven plan, especially if it abandons the promise of an independent Palestine.

The risk of instability has been rising since last May, when Israel enacted legislation defining the country as the national home of the Jewish people.

With Palestinians decrying the law as an attack on their identity and a stripping of their rights, the situation worsened last summer when Israel enacted a second law blocking Palestinian Authority access to funds long doled out to the families of Palestinian “martyrs.”

Some of the funds, which come from the taxes and tariffs that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, were paid to the families of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. But Israeli lawmakers cut the money out of frustration that a portion has been given to families of Palestinian militants, including suicide bombers.

The Trump administration applauded the move. “We’ve been telling the Palestinians for years, ‘You cannot pay terrorists,’” Mr. Friedman said.

Outraged Palestinian officials responded with a boycott of all tax transfers from Israel — a potentially debilitating move because the transfers account for roughly half of the Palestinian Authority’s budget for items such as local police and schoolteacher salaries in the West Bank.

To survive, the Palestinian Authority has scaled back wages for the civil servants, triggering what analysts describe as a tinderbox in the West Bank. Some worry that the Trump peace plan will make things worse even if it promises major funding for Palestinian economic development.

“The overreach by the Americans and the Israelis will backfire unless they find ways to go back and support the Palestinian government,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian scholar and journalist. “It will falter and possibly lead to social upheaval and hunger.

“When people are hungry, they act sometimes in ways that are irrational because they have nothing to lose,” he said.

Mr. Kuttab said Palestinian security forces would have no incentive to curb popular protests and violence.

“Why would they follow orders to crack down when they are not being paid and feel that Israel has screwed them?” said Mr. Kuttab. “… I don’t know if there will be an intifada, but they don’t see a future, leaving them with little to lose by protesting and trying to change the status quo.”

Others blame the Palestinian Authority for fomenting unrest by overreacting to Israel’s decision to block money from the families of terrorists. American officials reportedly see the Palestinian Authority, not average Palestinians, as “acting irrationally in a way that has the potential to inflame things,” Mr. Kuttab said.

Washington is betting partly that its pre-plan diplomacy will leave many traditional Palestinian backers in the Arab world waiting on the sidelines to see how events pan out.

The Palestinians are “just doing this to scream out for attention,” said one regional observer. “It’s like they are standing on a bridge saying, ‘I’m gonna jump, I’m gonna jump.’ But the reality is that all the usual suspects in the region who might otherwise back such posturing — whether it’s Egypt, the Saudis, Turkey or anyone else — aren’t taking the bait.”

Mr. Friedman refused to confirm whether the administration is seeking support, or at least acquiescence, from Saudi Arabia or other Arab monarchies as part of its impending peace plan.

Another source familiar with the plan said Mr. Kushner and his team are avidly pursuing such investment and have conducted “back-channel meetings” with Palestinian business leaders to “go around” the Palestinian Authority, which Washington now sees as so corrupt and untrustworthy that it is no longer considered a legitimate negotiating partner.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unwillingness during a recent congressional hearing to say whether the U.S. still supports the two-state framework signaled how “the Trump peace plan, if it’s ever presented, will bear no resemblance to previous models of a two-state solution,” said Daniel Shapiro, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

“Instead, the plan seems designed to perpetuate isolated areas of limited Palestinian autonomy under overall Israeli control,” said Mr. Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration. “It purports to offer the Palestinians economic benefits instead of fulfilling their political aspirations of statehood.”

Mr. Shapiro doubts that the Palestinians or their allies will accept the trade-off.

“They must know it will be dead on arrival with the Palestinians and the Arab states,” he said. “No Arab state will endorse it, and they won’t fund it, either.”

Khalil Jahshan, a Palestinian-American and executive director of Arab Center Washington, went further.

“I don’t even feel that there is a peace plan. I think it’s a sham,” he said. “Their perception of the conflict, as business people affiliated with the Trump Organization, is that everything is dollars and cents, so let’s talk about the economy and let’s talk regional. Let’s not talk about the Palestinian cause.

“They don’t want a two-state solution, and they don’t want Jerusalem on the agenda,” he said. “They simply want to take it out of the formula. Refugees, settlements, they’re all out. Let’s just shove them back under the rug and forget them. They can’t be solved. That’s their view.”

Will the Saudis pay?

While Mr. Kushner visited Riyadh in February, he said nothing publicly about the Saudi role in the peace proposal and offered virtually no specifics in an interview with Sky News Arabia.

“What we are trying to do is provide something that will be very detailed, very in-depth, that will be able to show people what we think is the best outcome that will allow people to put the conflicts of the past behind them and to move forward and look forward to a really prosperous and exciting future,” he said. “We want people to be able to better their lives and not allow their grandfather’s conflict to hijack their children’s future.”

Mr. Kramer said there is little question that the administration’s plan will be anchored around economic promise for the Palestinians and getting the Saudis to pay for it.

But pay for what, exactly? “Well, no one knows really,” Mr. Kramer said.

“Apparently, the notion, and it’s not a new one, is that the foundation of this plan is going to be ‘economic peace,’” he said. “Throw a lot of money at this, like a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.”

A senior Gulf Arab diplomat said U.S. officials in private meetings with the Saudis speak of a new dynamic in which Israel can pursue normalized relations with all major Middle East powers without having to first resolve Palestinian territorial disputes.

“Basically, the American approach is that there really is no Palestinian government side to this thing,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Any Palestinian side there is for the Trump plan is really just a Saudi side.”

While Saudi officials are being tight-lipped, the Palestinians’ Mr. Erekat said the Trump team is living in a fantasy world if it thinks Riyadh will support a plan that doesn’t end with the establishment of a legitimate, independent Palestinian state.

He said Palestinians have been repeatedly assured of Saudi backing most recently in a meeting in Riyadh last month that Mr. Abbas attended.

“We have heard from Saudi Arabia, from Mohammed bin Salman and the king and others that, No. 1, they will not change the Arab Peace Initiative,” said Mr. Erekat, referring to a proposal first floated by the Arab League in 2002.

That initiative calls for normalizing relations between Arab powers and Israel, but only in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which Israeli forces have occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.

“The Saudis have told us, ‘We are fully with you, we will stick by the initiative and there will be no peace without establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital,’ ” Mr. Erekat said.

East Jerusalem, he noted, is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, from which Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, is believed to have ascended to heaven. It is one of the holiest sites in Islam.

“Let’s cut the long story short,” said Mr. Erekat. “I don’t believe any Arab will be part of this, above all Mohammed bin Salman. Do you know the meaning of some Muslims accepting Israel’s sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque? It’s the equivalent to denying Muhammad’s existence. If you accept Israel’s sovereignty, that’s it. He never came and he never ascended to heaven.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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