White House Officials Tell Haaretz Peace Plan Still on the Agenda - and Could Surprise Skeptics

The Trump administration thought recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would ultimately push the process forward

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President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, March 5, 2018
President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, March 5, 2018Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Last December, in the days before President Donald Trump’s speech recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the two White House officials in charge of his Middle East peace plan – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – were busy working the phones. They put out calls to foreign diplomats, senior journalists and influential policy experts in Washington, signaling one clear message: The Jerusalem move isn’t going to harm the administration’s peace plan. To the contrary, they argued: Time will prove that the historic and controversial move only strengthened it.

Kushner and Greenblatt were aware of the anger the speech was going to create on the Palestinian side. They braced themselves for what the administration defined as a “cooling off period” with the Palestinians. But they rejected any notion of a crisis in their peace efforts, and insisted that after emotions calm down, negotiations will remain the best route for all the parties involved in the conflict.

“They had it all figured out – they could clearly draw a scenario of how this decision would cause some obstacles in the near future, but make things easier down the line,” said a person who received a call from the White House before the Jerusalem announcement, and asked not to be named.

Another person briefed by the administration less than 24 hours before Trump’s speech told Haaretz, “They didn’t outright say it, but you could read between their sentences that they believed this would make Israeli concessions more likely in the future. I believe them that they truly thought this would turn out to be a positive thing for the peace process.”

Today, almost four months after the speech, resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations doesn’t look any more likely than it did before Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. The Palestinian leadership, which expressed some hope about the peace process in the first months of the Trump presidency, has been boycotting the administration ever since December. Israeli and Palestinian officials who spoke with Haaretz described the Jerusalem speech as a point that changed the trajectory of the peace talks, causing the Palestinians to swap cautious optimism for disappointment and despair.

Despite these circumstances, however, the small team within the administration that is responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian file isn’t showing any signs of giving up on the goal set forward by Trump last year: reaching “the ultimate deal,” an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. They insist a peace plan is still on the agenda - and claim it could surprise skeptics.

Last week, Kushner spent two evenings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the two spoke at length about the administration’s peace plan. A week earlier, Kushner and Greenblatt hosted representatives from 20 different countries, including Israel and many of its Arab neighbors, for an international summit focused on finding solutions for the economic and security situation in Gaza. Absent from that meeting was the Palestinian Authority, which received an invitation, but chose not to attend.

“We’re realistic. We never said this was going to be an easy lift,” one senior White House official told Haaretz last week. The same official added that the administration was continuing to work on the peace plan. In recent weeks, it has been reported that the plan is close to being finalized, yet the White House still hasn’t set a date for releasing it.

Among the issues that will determine when the plan sees the light of day are the political situation in Israel, the security situation in Gaza and the West Bank, and the fallout from the administration’s decision on whether or not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. The administration is still hoping to see the Palestinians become part of the process, but is not ruling out publishing the plan even if the PA continues its current boycott.

The Palestinians have been stating for months that the administration is going to fully adopt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions, and release a peace plan that will be unacceptable to any Palestinian leader who wishes to survive. The senior White House official who spoke with Haaretz said these claims are false.

“We said from the beginning, we’re not going to impose a deal. We’re looking for a realistic deal that will be sellable on both sides,” the official explained, adding, “If it’s only sellable on one side, what’s the point of all the effort?”

By “sellable,” the senior official meant a deal that an Israeli and a Palestinian leader could each present to their publics and convince a significant portion that it is worth pursuing. “It needs to be something that both sides can say, ‘There are some things I don’t like about this, but it’s a realistic path.’ As the president has said, both sides are going to have to make hard compromises,” the official added.

Another White House official involved in the process said, “If we were not serious about advancing a realistic plan, we wouldn’t have invested the time and effort we did. There is no point to such investment for something that has zero chances at succeeding.”

Israeli officials who are in regular communication with the American peace team told Haaretz about two key potential obstacles to the Palestinians’ acceptance of the impending plan. One is the general skepticism on the American side about the possibility of evacuating settlements in the West Bank in the near future, a view expressed by Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during a meeting he had with American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem last month. The second is the possibility that the administration will accept Netanyahu’s demand to give Israel overriding security responsibility over the entire area west of the Jordan river.

If they become part of the plan, these two positions would mean the continuation of the status quo, with all the settlements remaining in place, and the IDF continuing to be a daily presence in the lives of millions of Palestinians. There is no official indication that these ideas are indeed part of the American peace plan, and so far the administration has denied numerous reports about the plan’s contents. But if these policies are eventually adopted by the American side, the Palestinians will probably see it as a plan for maintaining the occupation, perhaps with some slight gestures to decrease its “visibility” for the average Palestinian.

The Israeli officials who spoke with Haaretz said there are indications the plan may also include things that Netanyahu won’t find easy to accept, such as a Palestinian capital in the suburbs of Jerusalem or a partial settlement freeze. The White House, it should be noted, has constantly denied reports claiming that the plan will turn Abu Dis, a town located east of Jerusalem, into the capital of a future Palestinian state. On settlements, it has stuck to one constant line – that “unrestrained” building in them is “unhelpful” to peace – and has denied reports about a more specific or nuanced policy.

In general, the White House has referred to many reports about the potential contents of the plan – including the assessments made for this report by Israeli officials – as speculation and guessing that don’t accurately reflect what they are working on.

The Israeli officials estimated that if the plan indeed includes elements that are less comfortable for Netanyahu, he will try to delay his response to it, in the hope that the Palestinians will reject it before he does, thus saving him a possible confrontation with the right-wing base of his party and coalition.

Following the Jerusalem announcement, along with Trump’s insistence that it had taken the issue of Jerusalem “off the table,” the Palestinians have expressed openness to the idea of international mediation that would include the United States, but not in a leadership position, since they no longer consider Trump an “honest broker.” Abbas outlined such a position in a speech to the United Nations last month. Palestinian and Israeli officials told Haaretz that the American team is opposing that idea, and wants to put down its plan before bringing in any potential mediation partners.

The American team was encouraged last month when King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the most outspoken Arab leaders against the Jerusalem speech, said in an interview that there was no replacement for the United States’ leading role in the peace process. Israeli officials believe, however, that overall, the Jerusalem declaration has made it more difficult for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries to take a leading role in supporting the Trump peace initiative. This is something the White House strongly disputed, noting that Trump’s successful relationships with prominent leaders in the Arab world, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, are an asset for the peace team.

“The president has a very good relationship with key players in the Arab world,” the senior White House official said. “The Arabs didn’t like the Obama administration’s policies. Now, even if they didn’t like certain decisions, like the Jerusalem decision, they see that the president is a man of his word. We know that they’re essential, and that we’re not going to have a successful peace deal without their support – monetary, emotional and in other aspects.”

The administration, however, isn’t expecting the Arabs to coerce the Palestinians, and is aware of the limitations of Arab pressure in this issue. Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Haaretz last week, ahead of Trump’s meeting with Prince Mohammed, that “there is a very strong incentive for the Gulf states to get closer to Israel – mostly because of Iran – but that doesn’t mean they can force a peace plan on the Palestinians.”

The administration insists, at least publicly, that finally the decisions will have to be made by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders – and that nothing can be imposed on either side. For a Palestinian leader to accept the peace plan, however, it will have to indeed be “sellable” on the Palestinian street, as the senior White House official who spoke with Haaretz stated. “The question is, what do they define as sellable,” asked one Western diplomat who has been briefed on the administration’s efforts. “Do they realize what it would actually take for a Palestinian leader to return to negotiations with Trump after the events of the last four months?”

Netanyahu, for his part, has said on a number of occasions lately that he is not aware of any deadline for the peace plan’s publication, but that he does believe it will ultimately be released. “These are not the usual mediators,” he told some Israeli officials. “These are business people with creative ideas.” A Palestinian official seconded Netanyahu’s words, saying, “They aren’t regular negotiators – and maybe that’s the problem.”

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