It apparently befalls every new American president to be greeted as a potential messiah by moderates in both the Israeli and Palestinian political class. The flipside also holds – that hardliners, especially on the Israeli side, go into a defensive crouch any time a U.S. president launches himself (it is invariably a ‘him’) at the Holy Land.
It is hardly surprising, then, that even before the intelligence leaks to Russia episode, the Israeli media had whipped itself up into quite a frenzy in advance of President Trump’s visit, which comes in the wake of having already hosted both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House.
Both the fear and the enthusiasm coursing through the veins of the respective camps will likely prove to be misplaced and much exaggerated. When it comes to how this plays out, a lot more is known than is unknown, even if this particular President adds some intriguing new ingredients to the mix.
Here are some of the rather safe bets for political pundits to start placing.
The Israeli playbook under Prime Minister Netanyahu will center around running out the clock on the American willingness to invest in peace – hyping the insolubility and complexity of the conflict while evading blame.
For Israel’s leadership, it is a desirable outcome for the President to reach the conclusion that this ultimate deal cannot be done. Netanyahu is adept at attrition tactics and at deploying reasonable sounding distractions and red herrings. The Jerusalem embassy move is one example, Palestinian payments to the families of prisoners another, a priori recognition of the Jewish State a third.
In all these cases the Israeli position - no progress before the given ask is resolved - can be portrayed in eminently sage terms. In all these cases a deeper understanding of the conflict unearths that these are traps, designed to derail any prospect of progress and to undermine any Palestinian interlocutor. Israel’s leaders are betting that most administrations only achieve that deeper understanding as they are about to leave office.
On the Palestinian leadership side, the initial instinct has been one of self-preservation. Generally speaking, Palestinian leaders have three broad options in pursuing their people’s freedom and rights: armed struggle; pressing Israel and its allies nonviolently utilizing international law, sanctions and local civil disobedience; or appealing to the apparent self-interest and better angels of Israel and its allies in negotiations – in short, the peace process.
In choosing the latter path, the Palestinians have tethered their fortunes to their relationship with the U.S. The Palestinian leadership, it seems, had reason to fear abandonment under President Trump and worked on ingratiating themselves with the new administration. That effort will now morph into an attempt to engage with a U.S. peace effort in anticipation of Israeli stonewalling, hoping that Israeli rejectionism having been exposed, America will take action.
We have been here before. The Palestinians serially underestimate the effectiveness of Israel’s red herring playbook, and overestimate the American appetite to act if, or more frequently when, Israeli foot-dragging is acknowledged.
On the U.S. side, the playbook regularly loses sight of American national interests and fails to get much beyond falling into these Israeli traps, often with an assist from domestic politics.
Just as unhelpful can be the niftily labeled and packaged shortcuts that Israel, or those close to Israel in Washington D.C., introduce mostly as another ruse to circumvent hard political choices.
Exhibit A – ‘the outside-in regional peace’, even though the Arab Peace Initiative has been on the table for over a decade and a half, while the current Israeli approach is to improve regional relations as part of avoiding, not advancing, de-occupation. Another example might be the ‘security first’ mantra, ignoring the extensive existing Israel-Palestinian security cooperation as well as detailed security plans for how a two-state deal would work, already fleshed out by American generals and rejected by Israel. And the list could go on.
If the sides do take to the field again for peace talks, many of the plays can be anticipated, and the threats of a failed or compromised peace push almost certainly outweigh the opportunities. Cumulative failed peace efforts take a toll. Giving it one's sporting best is no substitute for learning the substantive lessons of the past, or for not blinking when the inevitable need for a showdown with Israel arrives. The Trump administration, however, shows some inclination to frame the issues in ways that further indulge Israeli unreasonableness and thereby further distance peace (witness, for instance, the predilections of Ambassador David Friedman).
Nevertheless, opportunities will exist and that is partly why yet another American administration is gearing up for a new season of the Peace Process Show. This time around, plot variables mostly center on the unorthodox character of the new lead – President Trump. That unpredictability can in itself be an asset, keeping the different actors (and, it seems, their spooks) on their toes.
More importantly, should he pursue a genuine breakthrough, President Trump can (on this issue) carry the U.S. Congress and political class in ways denied to his predecessor. Likewise, in Israel the (distorted) optics are such that getting on the wrong side of Trump will carry political costs for Netanyahu, whereas clashing with Obama served as a political energizer.
These potential advantages Trump has, though, will only make a difference and be useful if the new administration bears in mind two simple truths.
First, the incentive structure for progress versus continued bad behavior is stacked all wrong on the Israeli side. Experience tells Israeli policy-makers and public opinion that undermining peace, international norms and laws is treated with impunity while benefits (trade deals, diplomatic upgrades, military aid) accrue to Israel regardless.
Secondly, U.S. policy can greatly influence that Israeli cost-benefit equation. America can exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian asymmetries or help level the playing field – especially when not acting alone. If faced with clear choices, accompanied by a smart and honest mix of incentives and disincentives, then both Israelis and Palestinians may well still be capable of choosing peace.
Daniel Levy is President of the US/Middle East Project.
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