U.S. Official: Trump's Peace Plan Will Cause Discomfort to Both Israel and Palestinians

Officials say plan to 'go beyond broad parameters' and delve into pragmatic issues ■ Sources outside the administration say Trump's team thinks plan could be first to be endorsed by both Israel, Arab states

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a 2010 meeting in Jerusalem.
Alex Brandon / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Trump administration's peace plan will cause discomfort both in Israel and on the Palestinian side, U.S. officials told Haaretz.

"When reading through the plan, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) will be unhappy on some pages and happy on others just as Israelis will be pleased with some pages and uncomfortable on others," one senior administration official explained.   

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The official added that the plan will "go beyond broad parameters that in the past didn't actually solve the problem," hinting at peace plans offered by previous administrations that mostly focused on formulas for resolving the "core issues" of the conflict, such as borders, Jerusalem and security.

The Trump peace team wants the plan to deal with those issues, but also to offer a wide range of pragmatic ideas that will, in the words of the senior official, "make lives better on both sides."

A large part of the plan will focus on strengthening the Palestinian economy and its ties to Israel.  

 A number of sources outside the administration who spoke with Haaretz in recent weeks said that the White House is currently polishing a document which is dozens of pages long, "much longer than some previous plans of this kind," according to one diplomatic source involved in the discussions. 

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) and U.S. President Donald Trump making statements to the press in Bethlehem, May 23, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

A senior administration official refused to confirm the length of the document, but said that the plan is "fairly detailed and lengthy."

The official added that "we need to explain to both sides a realistic way to resolve the conflict, not just to debate unhelpful, calcified talking points."

The administration's peace plan has been under work since mid-2017, when Jason Greeenblatt, Trump's special envoy for the peace process, made his first trip to the region.

Sources who have been in contact with Greenblatt over this period told Haaretz that his main takeaway from the first trip was the close alignment of interests between Israel and the Arab world, which in his view presented a rare opportunity for a breakthrough in the negotiations. 

"It's obvious that the region has changed from just a few years ago," an administration official told Haaretz this week." The Arab world and Israel have many common interests and goals, as well as common threats in the malign activities of Iran, in the region." 

Greenblatt, together with the president's senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the American ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, has focused on trying to use those common interests in order to advance their plan.

Sources outside the administration who are involved in the discussions over the plan told Haaretz that the Trump peace team believes their plan could be the first one ever to receive a positive answer from both Israel and major Arab countries, regardless of the Palestinian position. The administration official did not directly respond to a question on this matter.

The administration, however, is facing a number of challenges on that front. The Palestinian Authority has been boycotting Trump's peace team ever since the administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December. Israeli officials said that Abbas has used the Jerusalem decision to try and drive a wedge between the Arab world and the Trump peace team, and has succeeded to make Arab leaders more hesitant about embracing the peace plan

One Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the administration underestimated Abbas' ability to influence the other Arab leaders, particularly on an issue with religious significance like Jerusalem.

When the administration made the Jerusalem decision, Kushner and Greenblatt both said in private conversations that they believe the anger over the decision will calm down, and that their peace plan will emerge stronger from it over time. 

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, special Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, senior aide Jared Kushner and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in Jerusalem.
Mati Stern / Embassy of the United States, Jerusalem

Abbas, however, has refused so far to end his boycott of the plan, and has continuously accused the peace team of fully adopting Israel's positions at the expense of the Palestinians. He has touted David Friedman's ties to Israeli settlements in the West Bank as proof that the administration is working to promote the agenda of the Israeli right-wing. Administration officials have consistently denied those claims, and have accused Abbas of trying to avoid negotiations and turning the peace team into scapegoats. 

The administration has had to deny dozens of reports over the past year about the alleged contents of their peace plan. In one instance, Greenblatt was asked about reports in Arabic and Israeli media that the administration wants to create a Palestinian state in Sinai. He said those reports were not only untrue, but were in fact "a conspiracy theory," according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation. 

The heart of the peace plan, according to a number of sources outside the administration who have spoken with Haaretz, will be in the West Bank and Gaza.

The administration is trying to promote economic projects in northern Sinai that could improve the situation in Gaza, but those projects are not an indication of a larger policy shift. The administration's main objective in Gaza is to see the Palestinian Authority reinstate its control over the coastal enclave. 

The result of the current tensions between the administration and the PA is that it is unclear whether the Arab world will be able to support the plan.

One dilemma which was described to Haaretz by a diplomatic source involved in the discussions is whether or not it would serve the interests of the United States to have an Arab leader express support for the plan - and then suffer from intense internal criticism, while also providing negative talking points for regional opponents such as Iran and Turkey. 

The plan, this source added, needs to find the "exact spot" where both Israel and the Arab regimes can address it positively - without suffering dangerous consequences at home and in the region. Very vocal criticism of the plan from the PA can make that difficult to achieve. The administration has not yet fully given up on the Palestinians, and continues to express hope, at least in public statements, that Abbas will change course and return to negotiations. 

The administration has tried over the past year to promote a set of smaller initiatives that could create positive momentum for the peace process and show signs of progress on the ground. Some of these initiatives succeeded - for example, a joint Israeli-Palestinian water agreement that was signed last summer - but others failed because of political obstacles in Jerusalem and Ramallah. 

For example, the Israeli Defense Ministry proposed a plan last year, which was strongly supported by the Israeli military, to enlarge the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, located in the West Bank.

The Qalqilya plan would have allowed the city to build new homes for thousands of residents, and while it was an Israeli initiative, if it would have passed it could have been touted by the Trump administration as a sign of progress on the ground. Yet the plan was rejected by the Israeli government because of pressure from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party and by some members of Knesset from the Likud. 

On the Palestinian side, the administration failed to convince Palestinian President Abbas to stop the policy of paying salaries to Palestinian prisoners who were convicted in acts of terror by Israeli courts. Trump himself also voiced anger at Abbas over the issue of Palestinian incitement, particularly after he was shown a video by Netanyahu during his visit to Israel last May, which featured examples of incitement on the PA's official television channel. 

Right now, the administration's main hope of an event that could create positive momentum on the ground is a regional deal for improving the situation in Gaza.

Greenblatt and Kushner convened a regional "summit" on Gaza earlier this year, in which officials from Israel and a number of Arab countries sat down to discuss practical ideas for the coastal enclave. Yet any progress in Gaza will require the participation of the PA, and so far, Abbas has refused to work with the administration, even on this subject. 

Last week one sign of possible change appeared, when the White House decided to release dozens of millions of dollars from the Palestinian aid budget, which were frozen for months because of an internal review on all financial assistance to the Palestinians. The money will go to the PA's security forces, and administration officials explained that it was released in order to allow the continuation of vital security coordination between the PA and Israel. 

Yet, only two days after news of the money's release was published, the relationship between the two sides again soured, after Abbas slammed Kushner for reportedly trying to revoke the refugee status of millions of Palestinians living in Jordan. Abbas cited those efforts by Kushner as further proof that the administration is biased against the Palestinians. 

The White House, however, signaled a "business as usual" approach following that attack.

The senior official who spoke with Haaretz said that "we would like the plan to speak for itself. People will understand they will all be better off after the deal than without it. We believe the people involved are interested in their future and their children's future. This plan will give so much more opportunity to all in the future compared to the situation they have now."