When the Trump administration released the economic portion of its Middle East peace plan last week, the avalanche of criticism was immediate and harsh. Even though the president’s foreign-policy team couched the plan as a “vision” of peace rather than an intricate blueprint, its critics weren’t wrong in pointing out that there was little in it that was new, and that its chances of success were nil.
Yet in analyzing the effort, it’s important to note that there’s a difference saying that the plan won’t succeed and saying that putting it forth was the wrong thing to do. That’s because the problem with it isn’t the content, but the context. An effort to shift the focus from a push on Israeli concessions, which are never enough to satisfy the Palestinians, to one in which Palestinian society could be transformed – economically and hopefully peaceably – was long overdue. But as long as the intended beneficiaries aren’t interested in such programs, the “ultimate deal” is simply not going to happen under any circumstances.
The sticking point is clear. Palestinian Authority leaders say they want the investment and aid, but that any discussion of economics must await a political settlement in which they will be given an independent state. Only after they achieve sovereignty, they say, will the aid be welcome or relevant.
That’s a fact that many Trump-administration critics have echoed when dismissing the plan authored by presidential adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. negotiator Jason Greenblatt. They say Trump’s team is putting the cart before the horse and effectively rendering the peace process irrelevant by not focusing on the actual points of contention that separate the parties, like borders, settlements and refugees.
As veteran State Department peace processor Aaron David Miller, who now heads the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, put it: “The Palestinians’ economic problem isn’t a lack of money. It’s a lack of liberty.”
Even if we were to lay aside for the moment that the main obstacle to Palestinian liberty is the tyrannical rule of Hamas in Gaza and that of Fatah in the West Bank rather than Israel, this argument fails to answer the key question that most be posed to critics of Trump’s plan: Why have decades of peace processing by foreign-policy professionals like Miller, who knew a lot more about the conflict and diplomacy than Trump’s Middle East team, always failed?
All previous administrations have paid some lip service to economic issues, with many issuing their own plans that were not dissimilar to the one Trump just proposed. They have all taken the approach the Palestinians say they prefer: how to strong-arm Israel into agreeing to a two-state solution. Yet that strategy never succeeded, no matter how much pressure presidents like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama put on the Jewish state, and no matter how many times Israel said “yes” to two states as they did a number of times in the last 20 years.
The Palestinians had their chance to get the “liberty” they say they wanted in 2000, 2001, and 2008, when Israeli governments put a two-state solution with almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem in their hands. They also enjoyed eight years of an Obama administration that clearly saw Israeli policies as the main obstacle to peace. Still, every time they had the chance to get the state they say they want so badly, they said “no.”
At some point, the foreign-policy professionals should have figured out that the old approach was never going to work.
That is, in essence, what Kushner, Greenblatt, and company have done by attempting to restart the conversation about peace in a different way.
Instead, they think emphasizing policies that will give the Palestinians a stake in peace and promoting measures that will mandate good governance have the potential to change everything. You can call that an attempt to “bribe” the Palestinians into accepting peace with Israel, but all it really amounts to is a reminder that coexistence would create a better reality than the current one rooted in conflict.
Trump was right to try to end his predecessors’ coddling of Palestinian fantasies of defeating Israel, which is what their policies of non-recognition of Jerusalem and refusing to condition aid on ending support for terror amounted to.
The problem is that the Palestinians’ century-old war on Zionism has become inextricably linked to their national identity to the point where it is impossible for anyone inside their political structure to imagine normal life alongside a Jewish state. And even if they could make that leap of imagination, entrenched forces like Hamas and other Islamist groups, as well as the millions of descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees who continue to hold onto the false hope of erasing the last 71 years of history, won’t let them act on it.
That’s why Hamas continues to promote the “right of return” as if the eradication of the Jewish state was a viable option. And it’s why the Palestinian Authority continues to subsidize terror in the form of salaries for imprisoned terrorists, and pensions for their families and survivors, because to do otherwise would be to admit their defeat in a war they haven’t the courage or the good sense to give up on.
If Trump’s plan is going to fail – and it will – it can be attributed to these reasons. It’s not because previous administrations understood the conflict any better, or that the focus on economics is wrongheaded. If this latest approach doesn’t work, then the blame should fall on those responsible – the Palestinians – not on the ideas behind the plan itself.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org.