This week, Jason Greenblatt, a Trump senior adviser, met with Israeli and Palestinian leadership
Aaron David Miller: While Trump's approach to the conflict may be the least bad option, so far it's proven unworkable
Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Over the last two days, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser on international negotiations and longtime lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – now in a virtual coma.
The chances of the Trump administration waking the patient up, let alone facilitating a real road to recovery, are well … pretty close to zero. Even Greenblatt opined he was in a listening only mode.
Very little has changed in either the Palestinian or Israeli willingness to take risks on the big decisions required to sustain any kind of peace process that might move – even over time – to a two-state end game. Indeed, one of the results of the Netanyahu-Trump meeting in Washington was to call into question the whole premise of the feasibility and desirability of such an outcome.
Still, there’s definitely a new peace process conductor in town and a new tune, too, which has moved away from the one-note, two-state solution that has characterized US policy for almost 30 years. That approach may well be the least bad option for solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But, so far, it’s proven unworkable.
So does the Trump administration have a new approach? And can it work?
Not Obama: A month in, one thing is stunningly clear. The Trump administration has so far rejected most everything its predecessor said and did on this issue. By this time in 2009, Obama had appointed a high-level special envoy. Then, in March 2009, Obama gave his now famous Cairo speech – an unprecedented outreach to the Arab and Muslim world. And in perhaps a major miscalculation, he passed up an opportunity to visit Israel that year.
Not in Trumpland: Elections have consequences. And on Arab-Israeli peacemaking we’ve seen some of the old, but mostly the new. The Trump administration, in questioning the value of a two-state outcome, has changed the US frame of reference; deescalated the settlements by making it a private rather than public conversation; and seems to believe it can quietly reach a set of understandings on the issue with the Israelis, which it can then sell to the Palestinians and Arab states in exchange for concessions.
Enter the Arabs: Indeed, if there is a single significant change in the new administration’s approach, it’s the idea that the Sunni Arab states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Emirates – can be the drivers to entice the Israelis to the table and to support and pressure the Palestinians to come, too.
This has been tried before without much success. But the new factor seems to be premised on the emerging mutual hostility both share toward Iran and Sunni jihadists. The question is whether this “outside in approach” – making the Arabs a central actor rather than a supporting one – will produce a happier ending.
The new alignment between Israel and Arabs is real. What is less so is that these Arab states will reach out publicly to Israel and pressure Palestinians without substantial concessions from the Israelis – including a settlement freeze and some political horizon promising a Palestinian state.
Who’s playing whom? Not too put too fine a point on it, but the Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states have their own agendas in Washington and are, to a large extent, playing the new guy in town. Netanyahu can’t believe his good fortune. His visit to Washington strengthened him at home, certainly among the right; dodged and diluted the issue of Palestinian statehood; and the slap on the wrist on settlements during the presser with Trump only helped him domestically by giving him a talking point to restrain his most conservative MPs.
Abbas is desperate, and his nice words about fighting terror and incitement after his meeting with Greenblatt have become pro forma. Given his deep unpopularity on the Palestinian street, he’s in no position to make concessions without major ones from Israel.
And the Arab states eager to be in Trump’s good graces may be telling him much that he wants to hear. They are eager to solidify bilateral relations, in the case of the Saudis, for more US support in Yemen, and in the case of Egypt, to secure more military assistance.
Bottom line? Is anyone really serious about the peace process?
How serious is Donald Trump? And that applies to the President, too. During the campaign, he consistently spoke of his desire to try to take on the peace process, touting his negotiating skills and that of his son-in-law, the putative Middle East envoy Jared Kushner.
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I can only say I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence as Trump seems to have in Kushner. This is mission impossible or at least implausible. To make any kind of peace process real will require painful decisions – even if a way can be found to temporarily bypass the big issues, like borders and Jerusalem.
And it will take the personal involvement of a busy and easily distracted President.
Still, I am looking forward to the moment when the Trump brand, applied to golf courses, ties, wine and steaks, is stamped on a peace initiative. I’ve seen the wild times on the peace process over the years, but this might well be the wildest.