In March, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Donald Trump’s special peace envoy and proclaimed that “a historic peace deal is possible.”
Now the Trump administration is reportedly planning to unveil a blueprint that it hopes will provide the framework for a long-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. It is being crafted by the administration’s special peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, and the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. Media reports say it might be announced next March, although President Donald Trump has reportedly yet to see it.
But Congress is expected to add a wrinkle to the mix by adopting legislation that would freeze U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it stops using American aid to reward Palestinian terrorists for killing or attacking Israelis and Americans. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the bill in August and the House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to consider it this week.
It’s one of several uncertainties that could make a deal difficult to finalize.
The legislation is named for Taylor Force, a 28-year-old U.S. Army veteran who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist in March of last year while touring Tel Aviv. Under Palestinian law, the terrorist’s family is rewarded with a lifelong pension that amounts to three times the average Palestinian salary. In all, the PA spends some $344 million it receives from the U.S. and other donor countries to pay monthly stipends to terrorists and their families.
“Only countries that act within the bounds of civilized nations can be taken seriously as possible partners for peace.” -Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.)
The sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), told The Jewish Week in an email that he does not foresee this legislation impeding serious process efforts.
“To those concerned this bill would interfere with a future peace process between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli Government, I would ask how they can take an entity like the PA seriously when it pays terrorists for killing Israelis and Americans,” he said. “Before a peace process can begin, the Palestinian Authority must immediately stop glorifying terrorism by paying terrorists and naming streets in Ramallah after Palestinians who murder Jews. Only countries that act within the bounds of civilized nations can be taken seriously as possible partners for peace.”
Although there have been no leaks about what the administration’s peace proposal might contain, issues that must be addressed are widely known: the future status of Jerusalem; security arrangements; Palestinian refugees; borders and mutual recognition.
David Makovsky, who served in 2013-14 as a senior advisor to the special U.S. envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, told The Jewish Week that three other U.S. administrations have tried and failed to achieve peace and that he is not optimistic about a new round of talks.
Makovsky, now director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, said that rather than pursue final settlement talks, he would rather see the Palestinians and Israelis “get a solid single.” To do that, he said, would mean that each side “responds to the gut fears of the other side. … [Dealing with that fear] is attainable.”
Another person involved in prior peace talks, Gilead Sher, who served as chief Israeli negotiator at the Camp David Summit in July 2000 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton, said he too does not believe a full-fledged agreement is currently possible. But he, too, believes success could come with an incremental approach.
“I also don’t believe we have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Any long-term arrangement would be similar to the Clinton parameters or the [Ehud] Olmert proposals to Abbas in 2008 and other initiatives that were laid out throughout the years. However, if the president succeeds in establishing a three-pronged process that combines a regional dialogue with the Arab quartet — Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates — with bilateral talks complemented by a series of independent constructive steps and a reality that preserves at least the conditions for eventually [creating] two states for two peoples … . I’m not talking of a plan that delineates borders and final-status arrangements. I’m talking of something more modest and humble. We need to gradually walk towards a two-state reality that step-by-step would eventually provide the conditions for a two-state solution.”
“We need to gradually walk towards a two-state reality that step-by-step would eventually provide the conditions for a two-state solution.” – Gilead Sher
Sher, a co-founder of Blue White Future, which developed alternative approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that “without America and the other international players, such a process is not possible.” He noted that one of the “deficiencies” of the Camp David Summit is that there was no “substantial dialogue with relatively moderate Arab states on these issues, and this contributed to the rejection [of peace proposals] by [Palestinian President] Yasir Arafat.”
A spokesman for J Street said his organization, too, believes that pursuit of a two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict.
The peace proposal might come in two parts, according to Aaron David Miller, a vice president and scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who served as an adviser to six secretaries of state. The first might be a “general statement of principles that recognizes both states and some of the core issues, with a recognition that a two-state solution is the goal. The second part might be composed of political and economic confidence building measures — freedom of movement and other steps between Israelis and Palestinians that build confidence, assuming the process moves forward.”
Asked what the parties would be expected to sign, Miller said: “The Palestinians are not signing up for anything without a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and the refugee issue resolved.”
And Israel will not agree without a host of issues resolved, including security arrangements in place.
Avital Leibovich, the American Jewish Committee’s Israel director, said the Trump administration appears determined to succeed and that she believes “there will be concessions on both sides. But one issue on which Israel will not move aside is its insistence of Palestinian recognition of Israel’s presence as a Jewish state. This is something that is a major pillar in a future agreement.”
Among the more challenging issues will be the future of Jerusalem, borders and the Palestinian refugees’ demand for a right of return to Israel, Leibovich said.
“The settlement issue they will be able to bridge because the settlements are built in blocs that will be annexed to Israel,” she said. “That will not be a major challenge.”
There are outside forces that could disrupt the peace process, among them the three-week-old reconciliation agreement between Abbas’ Fatah Party and the terrorist group Hamas, which relinquished control of the Gaza Strip. Leibovich noted that there have been other reconciliation agreements that have failed in the past and said she is “not sure if this one will last more than weeks. … We need to see who will be the Fatah leader and what will be the positioning of this party on the Palestinian street. The last thing we need are Palestinian suicide bombers unhappy with the deal.”
Another unknown is the Israeli legislative elections, which are scheduled for Nov. 5, 2019.
“They may result in a shuffling of the Israeli political situation,” Leibovich said. “We don’t know yet what new political parties there will be. There are 14 now. … I think the different parties are becoming more and more centrist; the gaps are not so big between the major parties. And in the past the ultra-Orthodox were not critical partners on foreign affairs.”
But Gil Kahn, a political science professor at Kean University in Union, N.J., said he believes the Israeli government is in no rush for a peace deal. Although it will sit down for talks, he said, it will ask for proof of the “sincerity and commitment of the Gulf States and the Palestinians before it is ready to move.”
Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said the U.S. should push for “significant and impactful changes on the ground so as to demonstrate tangible improvements to the two populations” even before a final agreement is achieved.
Writing in The Cairo Review, Kurtzer said these actions, along with 10 other steps the U.S. should take “would constitute a vision of peace for the publics in the Middle East to contemplate.”