The White House announcement that it was convening an economic workshop in Bahrain appeared to mark the launch of a significant US move unveiling the Trump plan we have been hearing about – under different names and titles – for over two years. The US meant to use the workshop as a platform for introducing the plan’s economic component, mobilize international support from workshop participants and follow it up with publication of the political part of the Trump plan. However, the plans and expectations shrank with every passing day and the decline in the level of participant representation. The publication of the economic part of Trump’s plan, a few days before the workshop, did not change this trend. Instead of being a keynote event reflecting a breakthrough in Israeli-Arab relations, the Bahrain workshop will be a low-level meet comprising yet another link in a series of measures taken by the Trump Administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue since 2017, which have distanced prospects for peace.
Most previous US administrations also failed in efforts to advance peace, but they were clearly seeking a solution acceptable to both sides and responsive to their interests. Along with the traditional US bias in Israel’s favor, criticism of previous American administrations focused on the way they conducted the peace process, not on the political end-game goals of their initiatives. Such is not the case with the Trump Administration that seeks to change the rules of the game, the reality on the ground and the nature of future Israeli-Palestinian relations. While Trump’s plan has yet to be made public, and we are supposedly in waiting mode for its launch, US declarations and actions illustrate that we are already in the midst of actual implementation of new US policies, and this includes several courses of action. Vagueness on content: The Americans are busy creating an aura of mystery around the political plan they have yet to reveal. They insist the plan is secret and known to only a handful. Trump’s envoys drop hints about what is or is not in the plan; media briefings and leaks are subsequently denied; target publication dates are announced and then delayed using various excuses; US officials visit various countries to consult on the plan, leaving their hosts at a loss. Taken together, we do not appear to be dealing with the trailer for a significant peace move, but with an avoidance of publishing the political plan while fostering incessant international discourse about it (thereby preventing other states from intensifying their involvement as they await the US plan).
Incentivizing peace ineffectively: The economic part of the Trump plan lays out a vision of prosperity for the Palestinians, and as such is supposed to highlight benefits and convince the Palestinians to engage with the American plan. However, if the Trump Administration’s goal is to incentivize peace via economic dividends, this is not the right way to do so. An effective incentive for peace should be clearly linked to conflict resolution and should address the key collective needs of the society to which the incentive is offered. This was done in the cases of previous incentives, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, the EU’s offer for a Special Privileged Partnership, and the Obama Administration’s security guarantees for the two-state solution. The post-conflict benefits were tied to a clear statement about the nature of the solution to the conflict. In this case, the American proposition, which offers Palestinians a better economy, lacks reference to the political end-game and to the fulfillment of the Palestinian quest for independence. As such, it is viewed by Palestinians as a humiliating bribe offer, an attempt to buy off their national aspirations with a large amount of dollars. This might create further alienation rather than promote engagement.
Convening events: Absent an appealing plan and a real process, the US has been busy planning and producing low-level events. Over the past two years, it has invited states to participate in roundtable discussions, brainstorming sessions and a workshop, all focused on economy. In March 2018, the White House invited various states for a discussion of ways to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In June 2019, it is bringing together various states in Bahrain to discuss ways to bolster the Palestinian economy. In between, the Americans also convened a conference in Warsaw to discuss defense in the Middle East (mostly focused on the Iran issue). The Palestinians did not take part in any of these events while the Europeans gritted their teeth and sent mostly low-level delegates. The Arab world, especially the Gulf States and Jordan and Egypt, attended the meetings on the Palestinian issue largely due to US pressure. The Bahrain workshop will be the first without official Israeli representation, despite Netanyahu’s desire for a photo-op for himself or one of his top ministers with Arab leaders ahead of the September 17 elections. US attempts to bypass the Palestinians with international conferences in order to promote a breakthrough in IsraeliArab relations have so far proved unsuccessful.
Declarations and tweets: President Trump and his emissaries now and again announce various components of the US plan and its approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of particular note is Trump’s initial comment to the effect that he does not care whether the solution is one or two states. Subsequently, his people reiterated that they do not intend to express support for the two-state solution and urged that core issues of the conflict (such as Jerusalem and the refugees) be taken off the table. US officials expressed criticism of the Arab Peace Initiative, which they claimed had failed to bring peace and was therefore no longer relevant, and recently even expressed support for Israel’s right to annex Palestinian territory. At the same time, US envoys tweeted remarks intended to refute rumors that the Trump plan would undermine Jordanian and Egyptian sovereignty or interests. In their entirety, these all paint a clear picture of the direction in which the Trump Administration is moving, even without publication of its plan.
Game changing actions: Alongside the verbal front, the administration is engaged in actions. These include Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, closure of the PLO office in Washington, transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and closing the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and subordinating it to the US Embassy. Other equally telling moves include the first official visits by the US ambassador to settlements, and cuts in USAID-funded Israeli-Palestinian projects and in budgets for UNRWA and Palestinian institutions. These moves also point to a clearly defined game plan, reversing longstanding American policy and clashing with the international community’s accepted views. They are perceived in the world as a deviation from international law, generate anger toward the US and undermine its ability to serve as an honest broker.
Weakening the Palestinian leadership and bolstering Netanyahu – The US administration invests great efforts in tarnishing the image of Palestinian Authority leaders. Whether by pressure on the Palestinians to engage on the Trump plan or attempts to cultivate an alternative Palestinian leadership, this conduct has failed thus far. The American emissaries have been accusing the Palestinian leadership of being serial rejectionists, supporting terrorism and harming their people’s interests. They pen opinion pieces against them, clash with them repeatedly on Twitter, and even withheld a US entry visa from Hanan Ashrawi. The Palestinian Authority was not even invited to Bahrain. This all contrasts sharply with the administration’s warm public embrace of Netanyahu, ongoing coordination with him and his people (chief among them Israel’s ambassador in Washington), mobilizing in favor of his reelection and recent intervention in his efforts to form a new government.
Seen in their entirety, US declarations and actions over the past two years indicate that the Bahrain economic worship is not the real thing. It is only the tip of the iceberg. The policy adopted by the Trump Administration distances Israeli-Palestinian peace. It goes against the components of a future peace arrangement, which a majority of Israelis and Palestinians have supported in recent years; it weakens and delegitimizes a moderate Palestinian leadership committed to the path of negotiations and opposed to terrorism; it places obstacles in the way of progress toward a two-state solution and excludes significant international elements that could contribute to the advancement of peace; it further alienates Israelis from Palestinians and makes it even more difficult for those among them who still want to meet and cooperate, while providing a tailwind for proponents of annexation in the Israeli political arena.
While Israel sees a great friend in Trump, the moves his administration is leading on the Israeli-Palestinian issue only serve to damage Israeli interests in striving for peace. Israelis who aspire to promote peace must take a stand against these moves despite the difficulty in confronting Israel’s best friend in the world, certainly during an election campaign. Just as leading figures in the US Democratic Party know how to criticize Israel’s policy on the Palestinians when necessary, so elements in Israel’s opposition should criticize the conduct of the American president and point out its negative repercussions when he distances prospects for peace.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of the Mitvim Institute.