WASHINGTON – Until a few months ago, Mideast media outlets closely tracked the movements of Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy to the Middle East. Every visit to a country in the region was worthy of commentary on top of the news reports, as the media eagerly awaited the release of the administration’s peace plan.
This week, the White House announced that Kushner and Greenblatt would both take part in the mid-February summit in Warsaw on the future of the Middle East. While Haaretz and other news outlets have briefly reported on the Americans’ travel plans, the news didn’t create the interest of previous stories about interactions between the Trump administration and regional leaders.
The main reason is that the peace plan is now considered in the region to be in a state of hibernation. Washington’s intensive preparations for its release, which geared up in the last months of 2018, slowed down once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for an early election. Now the earliest the plan could be published is in mid-April after the April 9 vote; there’s a chance the release could be further delayed into the summer.
Greenblatt and Kushner, according to a senior White House official who spoke with Haaretz this week, aren’t concerned about the skepticism or low expectations regarding the plan. They’ve viewed low expectations as a positive from their earliest days working on the issue – something that would allow them to surprise everyone.
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Many experts and former officials are highly skeptical about the plan. They assume it will adopt so much of Netanyahu’s worldview on the conflict that it will have zero chance of support in the Arab world. Others believe the plan will never see the light of day because of political calculations and Trump’s desire to preserve his base among evangelical Christians. When that’s the level of expectations, the administration can only surprise the many skeptics.
Trump, according to the senior official who spoke with Haaretz, has been briefed on the plan – and he supports it. As has previously been reported, the administration has a document a few dozen pages long that touches on every core issue of the conflict, and also on many economic aspects. Trump probably hasn’t read every page, but he’s committed to the general framework.
The plan, according to the senior official, has a strong “regional context” behind it. Trump views it as part of his broader objective of “creating new alliances in the Middle East.” That’s the main reason Kushner and Greenblatt will be in Warsaw this month with Netanyahu and top officials from a raft of Arab countries.
It’s undeniable that since Trump took office, the public signs of Israel and the Arab world getting closer have increased. Netanyahu visited Oman last year. Leaders of other Gulf countries have praised Israel publicly for its military actions against Iran and Hezbollah. These developments are continuing a trend that began before Trump took office, but they’ve definitely intensified under his watch.
Still, there are still clear limitations to the Israeli relationship with the Arab world, and the administration is aware of the Palestinian issue’s impact on those limitations. Late last year the administration tried to persuade Arab countries to support, or at least not oppose, a UN resolution denouncing Hamas. Yet every Arab country voted against the resolution, leading to its defeat.
The administration wants to strengthen the coordination between Israel and the Arab world against both Iran and Sunni terror groups. The peace plan is viewed as an essential part of that effort.
Last year the White House told Haaretz that the plan would be “sellable” to everyday Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not clear, however, what the administration views as sellable on the Palestinian side.
From the river to the sea
On the Israeli side, it seems two key words will help present the plan to the Israeli public. The first is “security.” Vice President Mike Pence, the administration’s most popular spokesman to the evangelical world and the Jewish right wing, has stressed in speeches over the past two years that even if peace will require tough decisions for Israel, the Trump administration will never compromise on Israel’s security.
Some in Israel interpret this as meaning that, in a future peace agreement, Israel will have complete military and intelligence control over the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – even if that area gets divided into two independent states, Israel and Palestine. (No part of this hypothesis has been confirmed by the administration.)
Complete military control from the river to the sea has been Netanyahu’s position for years, and his main challenger on April 9, former military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, made a similar promise when he launched his election campaign this week.
But if Israel indeed will receive full security control over a future Palestinian state, what will the Palestinians get to make the plan sellable to their own people?
When Israelis hear Netanyahu and Gantz talk about military control, they imagine the ability of military units to arrest dangerous terrorists and stop weapons from being smuggled into the Palestinian state. When Palestinians hear that phrase, they imagine Israeli soldiers putting up roadblocks and checkpoints within the Palestinian state, arresting suspects in their own cities, and confiscating land “for security considerations – with their own government completely helpless and humiliated.
The other word that seems an essential part of making the plan sellable on the Israeli side is “regional.” Opinion polls in Israel over the past decade clearly show that while Israelis are pessimistic about peace with the Palestinians (and many on the right aren’t even interested in it), there is still significant support and optimism regarding a broader “regional peace.”
The White House, almost two years after beginning its work on the plan, still refuses to release any details. But if we assume, based on public statements, that Israel indeed will get “security control” and “regional peace” out of the plan, the question of what the Palestinians will get still hangs in the air. This is the greatest mystery surrounding the plan, the question with the highest potential of political danger for the administration.
The senior official who spoke with Haaretz said the administration understands that “compromise is hard,” thus “some people won’t like elements of the plan.” But there is a belief in the White House that when the plan is viewed in its entirety and not through selective and unverified leaks, “the critics will realize that it is a realistic basis to resolve the conflict and chart a new future.”
As Haaretz has reported, the plan won’t be a take-it-or-leave-it document. The leaders in the region won’t be asked to accept it as is, but to agree to it as a basis for peace talks. “We hope that the leaders in the region will consider the many positive elements of the plan and be willing to engage on the plan,” the senior official said.
‘Committed to the Palestinian people’
Some skeptics – and some of the administration’s supporters on the right – believe that the plan will be constructed in a way to ensure complete Palestinian rejection; it will then be used to foster a separate channel of negotiations between Israel and the Arab world. The administration has denied this from the start. According to the senior official, “ultimately, everyone understands that only the Israelis and Palestinians themselves can resolve this conflict.”
The administration also insists it’s not trying to bypass Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in any way, even though it has had no official communication with the Palestinian Authority since December 2017, when Trump “took Jerusalem off the table,” as he put it.
The senior official told Haaretz that "the PA’s boycott has seriously hurt the Palestinians and the PA’s reputation around the world. The administration is committed to the Palestinian people – in both Gaza and the West Bank – and we believe that when the Palestinian people see the plan they will see a great future for themselves."
But so far the relationship has been characterized by an endless stream of headlines about Washington ending its support for programs in the Palestinian territories. Even programs benefiting Palestinians in areas controlled by Israel, such as hospitals in East Jerusalem, have lost American support.
The United States was overwhelmingly unpopular among everyday Palestinians even before those steps were taken, and its popularity sank even lower last year. This makes any attempt to sell the plan to the Palestinian side even more complicated – though the administration’s riposte is that in terms of raw polling numbers, the decrease in the United States’ image hasn’t been dramatic.
On Friday the president’s son Donald Jr., who often advises his father on political issues, shared a story about the United States cutting all funding to the PA security forces, and described it as “great.” This came after weeks of the administration striving – and failing – to convince Congress not to cut the funding because the PA security forces work in coordination with Israel to thwart terror attacks.
The Don Jr. tweet perhaps doesn’t represent the administration’s policy, but it does represent a deeper problem: Trump’s right-wing base has strong anti-Palestinian elements that are in sync with Israel’s most right-wing political forces. Any deal that’s sellable to the Palestinians would contradict the views of these Trump supporters.
When will we find out if the skeptics were right about the plan being a one-sided document, or if the administration has managed to surprise everyone, using the low expectations to its own benefit?
Probably not anytime soon. The Israeli election isn’t the only consideration regarding the timing for releasing the plan. According to the senior official who spoke with Haaretz, other factors include the period after the election when a new governing coalition has to be formed, and “sensitive” dates such as Passover, Israeli Independence Day (Nakba Day for the Palestinians) and Ramadan.
On one thing, however, the administration is adamant. Despite rumors to the contrary, White House officials insist that Kushner, Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman are in tandem on all recent decisions regarding the plan. “The peace team is also fully coordinated with the State Department and the National Security Council,” the senior official added.
Trump remains popular in Israel despite criticism over his recent decision to withdraw forces from Syria. The Israeli right wing rejoiced over Greenblatt’s denial of a Channel 13 report last month that outlined some of the concessions Israel would supposedly have to make under the Trump plan.
But if the plan truly contains what’s required to make it sellable to the Palestinians, the administration will sooner or later have to contend with criticism from the right. Thanks to the election, it has a few more months to prepare for that.