White House confidence in Mideast peace process faces challenges

us defiant un security council oren liebermann_00011607
us defiant un security council oren liebermann_00011607


    US defiant at UN Security Council


US defiant at UN Security Council 01:30

Story highlights

  • A series of diplomatic maneuvers at the UN have left the US increasingly isolated
  • Meanwhile, protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank have left hundreds injured

Washington (CNN)The White House predicted Palestinian and Arab officials would need a "cooling off" period before welcoming the US back into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But two weeks after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, renewed protests and a diplomatic uproar are spotlighting the steep challenges facing US peace efforts.

A series of diplomatic maneuvers at the United Nations have left the US increasingly isolated on the peace process. The UN Security Council unanimously backed a resolution Tuesday rebuking the Jerusalem decision, forcing the US to employ its veto power. The Palestinians are now moving the resolution before the UN's General Assembly, where the US cannot unilaterally avoid censure.
Meanwhile, protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank since Trump's announcement have left hundreds injured. And militants in Gaza have fired rockets into Israel, triggering retaliatory Israeli strikes.
    The popular unrest, international uproar and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' rejection of the US as an honest broker in the peace process are leaving some experts and Arab diplomats questioning whether the Trump administration underestimated the ramifications of its Jerusalem decision and how the White House can recover.
    "I think they underestimated the impact of how the various constituencies would react," said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator. "And they underestimated the impact to the credibility of the mediator."
    At the White House, the administration's peace team still appears confident in its approach, insisting the unrest and diplomatic blowback are only temporary -- not a new reality. The administration also believes that, behind the scenes, it retains the support of key Arab partners for its peace efforts. Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for international negotiations, are continuing to quietly draft an ambitious peace plan, and aren't changing their approach.
    "Nothing has changed in the plan that we're working on," a senior White House official said. "It's not as if all of a sudden we went to page X of the plan, which is part of the Jerusalem section, and said now we have to change this page because of what the President said."
    Senior White House officials told CNN they are confident -- or at least hopeful -- that the region will come to understand that Trump remains committed to brokering a peace deal and his Jerusalem proclamation doesn't dictate the final borders of future Israeli and Palestinian states. But there's been little action from the White House to change that perception, and the US peace team has not spoken with any of its Palestinian counterparts since the President's remarks.
    "We don't think we need to mend anything," the senior White House official said. "There is nothing that the President did other than to reiterate his commitment to the peace agreement. People just need to catch their breath, read his speech again multiple times (and) understand it."

    Outrage over Trump's announcement

    But the President's underlying promise that his decision on Jerusalem does not prejudge the holy city's final boundaries -- an attempt at reassurance -- has been lost in the outrage over his headline announcement. In a conflict where symbolism is everything, the Jerusalem decision has made it harder for Palestinians to overcome a fear, shared by many Arab officials, that the deal will leave Palestinians with a patchwork of disjointed areas of the West Bank with limited self-government and no right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.
    And while the fears and rumors circulating among Arab diplomats may prove untrue, the heightened emotions stemming from Trump's announcement have made it politically harder for Abbas -- already struggling to maintain popular legitimacy among Palestinians -- to come to the table. Diplomats say Abbas is far more likely to walk away and keep up the struggle than to accept what the Palestinians consider a bad deal.
    Privately, Trump sought to lessen the blow of the Jerusalem announcement in a phone call with Abbas beforehand, promising the Palestinian leader that the Palestinians stand to gain from the peace plan his administration is drafting. Similarly, Arab diplomats say Trump has promised their leaders that there will be "good news" for the Palestinians. But for now, the Palestinians remain outraged.
    The White House has to "realize the Palestinians have their own internal politics that constrain their own ability to make a decision," said Gaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who advised the Palestinian negotiating team from 1999 to 2002. "The reaction to Jerusalem in the region affects their ability to accept any major American peace proposal. It doesn't matter whether it is genuine or posturing. They have a political dynamic they have to respond to."

    Shifting dynamics

    The Trump administration's confidence in its approach lies largely in the shifting dynamics in the Middle East, where Israeli and Sunni Arab interests are increasingly aligned over what both perceive as a growing Iranian threat, which has led to quiet, but increased, security cooperation. US, Israeli and Arab officials acknowledged that the alignment could be the factor that allows Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement.
    Even so, several Arab diplomats said their leaders, who are predisposed to support a deal, are now compelled to manage their own people's disappointment and rage -- just like the Palestinian president.
    "What that Jerusalem decision did, it has allowed Turkey, Qatar and Iran to use the issue to rally the street," one senior Arab diplomat said. "It made it harder for the Arab states to press Abbas to accept a plan. And it has created a breeding ground for radical ideology to take shape. It gives extremists a chance to say this is about the US against Arabs and Muslims."
    Even as they were prepared for the Jerusalem decision to set back their efforts, White House officials predicted any derailment would be temporary and that all the parties involved would recognize that the US role in Mideast peace continues to be indispensable -- a confident prediction that remains to be seen.
    "We think the region, including the Palestinians and the Israelis, know that without the US being involved in the peace process, it is unlikely to ever succeed," a senior White House official said.
    Dennis Ross, a top Middle East peace negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said the Trump administration needs to acknowledge and respect -- rather than simply dismiss -- the perception in the Middle East that Trump's recognition of Jerusalem undermines the peace process.
    "You can't tell them this didn't affect you," Ross said. "Perception tends to be reality."
    US and Israeli officials have argued that Trump's historic decision to recognize Israel's claim to Jerusalem could help peace efforts, building up Israeli confidence in the US President and giving him more leverage to seek concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What concessions Trump will be able to extract from Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.
    The Trump administration has been diligent in keeping a tight hold on its draft proposal -- officials say they will release it "when it is ready and when the time is right." But where White House officials have sought to shed some light on their approach, it has only bolstered the perception that they are approaching the peace process from the Israeli perspective.

    Voicing concern

    On a briefing call with reporters on Friday, senior administration officials said they cannot envision a future Israeli state that doesn't include the Western Wall within its bounds, without offering similar consideration to how Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City might be treated as part of a Palestinian state. Palestinian officials and Arab diplomats voiced concern that the comment was an attempt by Washington to put its finger on the scale of the final status of the Old City -- home to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites -- and could further ignite tensions in the region.
    A senior White House official also suggested that after rejecting certain proposals over security during previous negotiations, it was unrealistic for the Palestinians to expect similar terms today. The official noted that Israel's security needs have increased dramatically, due to an increased terror threat and growing Iranian influence, which would be reflected in the Trump administration proposals.
    "Of all the core issues, security is the one issue that did morph over time," one senior White House official said.
    The official insisted the tighter Israeli security needs did not signal a deal that is overall more tilted in Israel's favor than past agreements, but even Arab officials seem to be giving the Palestinians a reality check about what type of deal is ultimately achievable -- and the need to reach one sooner rather than later.
    "Every deal offered to the Palestinians over the course of history has been worse than the one before," one senior Arab diplomat said. "And at some point, the Palestinians must ask themselves if this deal is going to get better two years from now. The answer is no. They aren't going to get better. There is no fantasy deal."