In spending 26 hours in Israel and an hour in Palestine US President Donald Trump showed his favor toward Israel, as was expected, but also did not let anyone believe peace will come to the region without getting back to negotiations. Something which might actually happen.
Trump expressed during his visit to the region what many of us have been saying for years – the convergence of interests and threats shared by Israel and the surrounding Sunni states, fostered both by Iran and its allies (Hezbollah and Syria mostly) and by Islamic State, opens opportunities for genuine regional cooperation. Even during the darkest days of the past two wars in Gaza I proposed in these pages and in private communications with leaders in the region the need to create concentric circles of cooperation –beginning with what I called “the regional quartet” – Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. The outer circle engages the Saudis, the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, even Qatar and the Maghreb states of Morocco and Tunisia.
The development of the regional approach though was and is predicated on first dealing with the core – Israel and Palestine.
The bilateral approach of focusing solely on Israel and Palestine has failed to produce peace. The regional dimension adds to the equation significant elements for enhancing security, stability and economic development for all involved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has supported the regional framework, but has claimed that enhancing or even exclusively focusing on the outer circle will force the Palestinians to make concessions that might make a deal with his regime possible. But that is not going to happen, and is not what Trump is pushing.
Trump made it clear publicly and, I assume, in private as well that it is in fact the reverse he will work on – the core will bring in the region. Progress must be made on Israel and Palestine to bring in the benefits of regional cooperation. This is exactly what the Arab and Muslim states have been claiming since the Arab League passed the Arab Peace Initiative for the first time in March 2002.
It has been re-endorsed in 2007 and 2017.
US secretary of state John Kerry tried to get concessions from the Saudis when he first began his nine months of negotiations. He begged the Saudis to allow Israeli civilian flights to fly over the kingdom. Their answer was a resounding “in order to fly over Saudi Arabia they must first fly over Palestine.” The $110 billion arms deal and the other $200b.-plus economic agreements that Trump and King Salman signed may have bought some additional positive messages from the region to Netanyahu and Abbas, but even with the new generation of more active initiators in the kingdom, there is a limit to how far Saudi and other Arab normalization with Israel will go without progress on Israel and Palestine.
And even if Trump did not explicitly say the magic words “two-state solution” or “Palestinian state,” the Arabs all know that there are no other viable options or formulas to bring an end to the Israeli occupation and still allow for Israel to exist as the Jewish nation-state. Even if Trump didn’t say the magic words, they will be back on the table as soon as renewed negotiations become a reality.
Trump is a straight shooter – as expected. He put it directly to the Palestinians also that financial support to the families of those who have murdered Israelis is not acceptable. Pressure will be on the Palestinians to find a way out of this practice, which has been going on for years. A compromise might be found by continuing to support the families of prisoners who were not convicted of murder and who could be seen as political prisoners and not terrorists. But this issue too is not going to quickly be removed from the agenda. Nor will it be easy for any Palestinian leader to change what has been going on for years.
Trump’s special envoy for peace, Jason Greenblatt, will be back today to begin to present the details Trump avoided presenting in his speeches. Greenblatt, who has adopted Trump’s primary means of communication – Twitter – will quickly learn that for this process to succeed a lot more must be done behind closed doors, without any tweets and noise that will only bring unbearable political pressure on both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. he quieter the process is the more the outer circles of support, including from Egypt and Jordan and the Gulf States, can be.
Trump is a new character on the scene and one different from all we have known. The Arab media, reporting on his visit in Saudi Arabia, repeated the expression “without precedent” countless times. I hesitate to be hopeful regarding this president. There are serious doubts he will even be able to remain in power for his full term with all of the investigations going on back in Washington. But while he is in power, it is nothing less than fascinating to see how the region is responding to him. There really might be unprecedented chances for real changes to take place. Our past teaches us to be very cautious about raising expectations because when they are not met, we face the next round of violence.
I think that we are coming very close to the inescapable and urgent need for Israelis and Palestinians to look into the mirror and come to terms with their mutual inability to be what they want to be – Israel: the democratic nation-state of the Jewish People; and Palestine: the democratic nation-state of the Palestinian people, without coming to terms with the mutual rights of each other to live in peace in states side-by-side with deep and lasting cooperation between them. Perhaps the Trump card can bring some reality checks to the region and to some genuine hope.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org.