Both Israelis and Palestinians are chafing under the Trump administration’s plans to revive the long-moribund peace process.
Jared Kushner’s shuttle diplomacy to the Holy Land late last month may have caused more issues than it resolved. No sooner was the presidential envoy back in the air after meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah than an anonymous report came out that President Donald Trump was considering walking away from the entire peace process gambit. No matter that the story, from the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, was sketchily sourced to a “Palestinian official,” nor that a senior administration official quickly denied it, calling it “nonsense.” It spread like wildfire, picked up by other news outlets and propagated on social media; people seemingly wanted it to be true.
Trump will almost certainly not give up on his efforts to broker what he has termed the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians — an agreement that he thinks is “frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” In his short time in office, Trump has already hosted both sides’ leaders at the White House, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories himself, and now sent his son-in-law to the region. Yet this most recent iteration of the U.S.-led peace process is already showing signs of strain.
The new U.S. administration approached the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, as it did most other issues, with a clear strategy: to do the opposite of its predecessor. It jettisoned Barack Obama’s overemphasis on halting Israeli settlement expansion and has not committed to final status talks between the two parties, an effort primarily undertaken by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and 2014. Indeed, Trump did not even publicly utter the words “two-state solution” or “Palestinian state” on his recent trip. The new president even managed to dilute Palestinian preconditions during the Obama era for entering such talks, namely an Israeli freeze to settlement construction and the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. There is a “new” paradigm (that’s not so new) about a regional peace deal between Israel and all its Arab neighbors. Yet it’s still beholden to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
What has remained constant is the old peace process idea of mutual “confidence-building measures,” or, as the White House now likes to call them, steps that “reaffirm” the two sides’ “commitment to peace.”
But the effort could still run aground due to obstacles in both countries’ domestic political environments. On Israel’s part, the Trump administration has reportedly requested that Jerusalem take steps to improve Palestinian economic life in the West Bank. The first manifestation of this was a package passed by the Israeli cabinet on the eve of Trump’s visit in May, which included improved access and movement for Palestinians to and from the West Bank, especially at the Allenby border crossing to Jordan; an expanded industrial zone; and retroactive legalization of thousands of existing Palestinian homes in the West Bank’s “Area C,” which totals about 60 percent of the entire territory. These steps were largely recycled plans long in the works inside the Israeli military. Yet Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon recently called them part of the “Trump framework,” hinting at more economic steps to come.
The “Trump framework,” however, threatened to be derailed the other week by Israeli bickering over the approved expansion of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, which abuts the 1967 “Green Line” between the West Bank and Israel.
In truth, the Israeli cabinet had passed the plan last year as part of its “carrots and sticks” approach to combating Palestinian terrorism. “It wasn’t a coincidence that we chose Qalqilya,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman explained. “Qalqilya was one of the quietest cities in this whole last wave of terror [beginning in late 2015]” — and would therefore be rewarded.
The problems arose when settler leaders caught wind of the plan, viewing it as an under-the-table transfer of Area C territory to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as is his wont, balked in the face of right-wing pressure. He at first denied knowledge or memory of the entire plan. Faced with recorded minutes of the cabinet meeting, he then allowed that it did take place — but that he would hold a new cabinet meeting to revisit the proposal. All of this for several thousand new homes in a Palestinian city encircled on its western edge by Israel’s security barrier and already extremely densely populated.
For his part, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party called the plan “threatening” and said he would work to block it. “The Palestinians have never-ending land in Areas A and B” of the West Bank under their control, he said — which is both false and beside the point. The boundaries were set two decades and 1 million Palestinian residents ago. Demand for housing outstrips affordable supply, leading to exorbitant prices in the major cities — a concept likely not alien to real estate veterans like Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations.
“In everything, we lead, and we bring the government along with us,” Bennett vowed, directly challenging both Netanyahu and Trump. The Qalqilya plan, and others like it, may ultimately pass; it will reportedly be up for discussion again in the coming weeks. But Bennett and the settlers will likely extract a major price from Netanyahu in the process.
For the Palestinians, Trump’s request represents a more difficult hurdle to overcome. After effectively agreeing to return to talks without any of their preconditions met, they have now been asked to do something themselves: end incitement against Israel and stop the payment of stipends to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and the families of “martyrs.” The request, on the face of it, isn’t that unreasonable. As Trump put it in May after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded, and even rewarded.”
But in both public statements and private conversations, Palestinian officials are livid about the new request. They view the emphasis on these stipends as a sign that the United States has adopted Israel’s talking points and as a ploy by Netanyahu to deflect attention by injecting new conditions onto the Palestinians. More to the point, Palestinians view prisoners and their fallen as national heroes and the stipends as a form of social aid. “One out of every three Palestinian males has spent time in Israeli prison. Is any rational human being going to claim that … one-third of Palestinians are terrorists?” Abbas recently stated through a proxy at the Herzliya Conference, an annual policy gathering in Israel. “Payments to support families are a social responsibility to look after innocent people impacted by the incarceration or killing of loved ones as a result of the military occupation.”
It’s unclear if Kushner and Greenblatt were swayed by such arguments. Upon their landing in Israel, the American envoys paid a very public condolence visit to the family of a slain Israeli border policewoman, who was killed by Palestinian attackers. Abbas conspicuously failed to condemn the attack, and his Fatah party posthumously adopted one of the attackers as its own. Reports subsequently came out that Kushner’s meeting with Abbas was “tense,” a point the White House eventually denied.
Stopping these payments would be very difficult for Abbas — “political suicide,” according to one Palestinian official. According to one poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 91 percent of Palestinians oppose such a measure (although a competing survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy indicates a bit more flexibility).
The PA did in fact cut off around 270 recipients in the Gaza Strip the other month. A move could be made to differentiate between payments to “heavy” security prisoners with blood on their hands, as Israel calls them, and the genuine political prisoners that Abbas spoke of. Cutting off families, including widows and orphans of slain Palestinians, would likely be another matter altogether.
The irony is that both prisoners and “martyr” families are paid out of the same official coffers as the PA security forces that work — in tandem with Israeli forces — to stop such attacks. And just as Abbas’s Fatah party and its local affiliates often laud terrorist acts, incitement by official PA media organs significantly decreased after the outbreak of violence in late 2015, according to a senior Israeli military officer responsible for the West Bank.
“Abbas is stronger than ever,” the Israeli officer recently told Foreign Policy. “I don’t see a ‘twilight period’ to his rule yet.”
Unpopular and in the 12th year of what was supposed to be a four-year presidential term, foreign observers often perceive the 82-year-old Abbas as weak. Yet since last fall, he has managed to completely kneecap a rival movement in his own party, re-emerge on the international stage, and contain a potentially tricky prisoner hunger strike led by a senior Fatah member. The security situation in the West Bank has stabilized due to continued coordination between the PA and Israel. And Abbas is now consolidating his rule in the West Bank by squeezing the Gaza Strip, which has been under Hamas control since 2007.
It is in this context that Trump is making demands of Abbas and why the cutting of the salary payments is viewed with such alarm in Ramallah. It runs the risk of undermining the veteran Palestinian leader right in the midst of his push to consolidate power domestically. A Palestinian delegation is set to visit Washington again in the coming weeks to continue the discussion.
For Netanyahu, putting the issue of terrorist salary payments on the peace process agenda was a masterstroke — yet he is not completely free of worry either.
Like Abbas, the Israeli prime minister is also in consolidation mode, shoring up his right-wing base ahead of a looming decision by authorities regarding his corruption investigations. Tellingly, after the Qalqilya episode, Netanyahu warned his own political camp about the possible ramifications of undermining the government. “I would like to remind [everyone] what happened the last time a right-wing government was shaken from the right,” he said, a reference to his first term in office in the late 1990s when he was undone by right-wing anger at his peace overtures toward the Palestinians. The warning, in other words, could cut both ways.
Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas wants to incur the wrath of Donald Trump. They are playing the peace process game. The question is what happens when Trump’s high-level deal-making crashes into the ground-level reality of Abbas’s and Netanyahu’s internal politics. “[F]orging peace will take time,” the White House stated after Kushner returned from his trip. The leaders of Israel and Palestine likely hope so.
*Neri Zilber is research associate at the Rubin Center, focusing on Middle East politics and culture. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.