At first glance, The New York Times headline seems ridiculous. “Trump Team Begins Drafting Middle East Peace Plan,” the story went, and one’s gut reaction is a guffaw.
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The bumbling Donald Trump will succeed where every U.S. president from Richard Nixon onwards failed? A peace team that includes Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman, who stand to the right of most Israelis, will compose the definitive blueprint for Middle East peace that has eluded generations of seasoned American diplomats?
On second thought, perhaps the concept isn’t all that ludicrous. After all, bluster aside, Trump and his team have been surprisingly cautious in their handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Yes, their rhetoric, as shown in Ambassador David Friedman’s settler-ish address to the Zionist Organization of America this week, is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, and, yes, they do turn half a blind eye to Jewish settlements in the territories, but the Trump administration hasn’t moved the U.S.Embassy to Jerusalem, hasn’t declared war on the Palestinian Authority and hasn’t negated the idea of a Palestinian state. It has, on the other hand, kept the region on its toes with repeated promises of a major peace move just over the horizon. And while he hasn’t been touting or tweeting about it much, Trump hasn’t backed down from his pledge to seek “the ultimate deal."
It is also clear that while Netanyahu’s Israel may be savoring an improved atmosphere in its relations with Washington, it is Saudi Arabia that has benefited most from Trump’s election. Saudi Arabia has played an oversized role in influencing the Trump administration and in directing it in what Riyadh believes is a desirable Mideast course, a remarkable achievement in and of itself, given Trump’s harsh campaign rhetoric that targeted Riyadh as the unindicted co-conspirator behind the September 11 terror attacks.
A Saudi-inspired U.S. peace plan could help establish Saudi Arabia as a kingmaker and indispensable go-between, thus buttressing its claim to be the acknowledged regional leader of Sunni resistance to Iranian and Shi'ite aggression. It could further boost the stature of the region’s rising star, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Such bold prominence may belie decades of Saudi caution, but complements the domestic and regional revolution being carried out by the Saudi heir, which is either bold or reckless, depending which Saudi expert you prefer. It was MBS, as he is known, who personally courted and won over both Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner after the November 8, 2016 elections. The Saudi Crown Prince is willing to take the currently clandestine Israeli-Saudi collaboration out of the closet in order to enhance Saudi prestige and to solidify a Saudi-led front against Iran.
To fight the big Satan in Tehran, MBS is willing to forget decades in which it was Israel that fulfilled the role, provided – and herein lies the rub – that the Palestinians and the Arab world do not view the American peace plan as a complete sell-out to the Zionists.
In order to prevent such a scenario, an American peace initiative would have to incorporate elements of the 2002 Saudi and 2007 Arab peace initiatives. It would have to address the issue of a Palestinian state. It would need to come up with some concept of future borders. It might even have to address the issue of Jerusalem. And no matter how creative the administration’s square the circle solutions might be, no matter how many concessions the Saudis can extract from the Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas and no matter what benefits Israel is offered in terms of normalization, security collaboration and regional kumbaya, there is no way that a peace initiative that does not embarrass the hell out of the Saudis would not shatter Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and perhaps even his Likud party, into pieces. It’s basically a binary, either/or situation.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could then try to set up a more accommodating and peace-seeking coalition with parties to the Likud’s left, including Avi Gabbay’s Labor/Zionist Camp, but that seems highly unlikely under the current circumstances.
Given that Israel is already gripped by election fever because of the ongoing criminal investigations against Netanyahu, it is much more plausible that if the coalition breaks up over a new U.S. peace move, the Knesset would decide on early elections. Whether Netanyahu would win those elections, indeed whether he would even be the Likud’s candidate in such elections, depends in large part on how his investigations proceed in the coming few weeks and months.
It is not inconceivable that Netanyahu is actually banking on an American peace initiative as a last ditch Hail Mary that could somehow get him off the criminal hook. Perhaps he has even intimated as much to his bosom buddies in the White House.
An American peace initiative would allow Netanyahu to assume a dual persona, both as the only prime minister capable of withstanding American pressures but also as the only prime minister who can bring Israelis around to accepting it. Under such dramatically existential circumstances, Jewish history would not forgive a nation that sacrificed its savior in its time of need because of his penchant for cigars and his wife’s for pink champagne.
A U.S. peace initiative at this volatile Middle East juncture could have far reaching consequences. Despite efforts to put up appearances, it could ultimately blow up in Mohammad bin Salman’s face and be received as a Saudi betrayal of the Palestinians.
If that is not the case, it is certain to set off a political chain reaction in Israel’s ruling coalition, a large portion of which won’t support a Palestinian deal under any and all circumstances.
Ah, yes, and there’s always the chance, however remote, that it will be President Trump, of all people, who will convince Israelis and Palestinians to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Which would prove, even to unbelievers, that almighty God has a wicked sense of humor.