The most intriguing subplot about President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan is one that didn’t get much attention in the days leading up to its unveiling this week at the White House. While the international press as well as most Israelis were obsessed with the question of whether the long-awaited announcement of Trump’s proposal would somehow help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win the March 2 Knesset election, the real story was elsewhere.
Rather than trying to see this, as most of Trump and Netanyahu’s critics did, as merely a political maneuver, what observers should be looking for is what didn’t happen. By that I refer to the way Trump’s move set the world on fire with massive protests throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds against the American plan or the vows of the leaders of those countries to assist the Palestinian in fighting it. Except that didn’t happen.
While Palestinian leaders fulminated against the peace plan—in a rare show of unity between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad—the rest of the Arab world simply ignored them. There were a few muted notes of protest from irrelevant voices like the Arab League and some low-key demonstrations in Arab capitals.
But for the most part, the reaction of those whom the foreign-policy establishment had predicted would never stand for an American peace plan that wasn’t predicated on strong U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians was a general shrug of the shoulders.
It’s true that the plan wasn’t received with acclaim throughout the Middle East. Both Egypt and Jordan—two countries that have already formally made peace with Israel—did not attend the White House ceremony, along with representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. Nor did Saudi Arabia, which values an informal alliance with Israel, send someone or openly endorse the plan. Everything about the Arab world’s reaction, either positive or negative, was muted.
Veteran diplomats and media experts have told Americans for decades that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to unraveling all the problems of the region. But they were dead wrong. While Islamist terror groups and Iran continue to incite hate against Israel, most Arabs and Muslims simply don’t care much anymore about the Palestinians’ century-old war against the idea of a Jewish state.
Nor should they. When the rest of the region looks at Israel, they no longer see the Zionist demon that propagandists have preached to them about. Instead, they see a prosperous, strong nation that poses no threat to them and is also an ally against the real danger: the ambitions of Iran for regional hegemony.
The leaders of the rest of the Arab world know that the Palestinians have repeatedly turned down offers of peace and statehood from Israel. While some of the more precarious Arab regimes worry about being pilloried by extremists as allies of Israel, they see no reason to back a Palestinian leadership that has no strategy other than to always say “no” to any effort to broker peace.
That is why Trump was right to label his offer as the Palestinians’ best chance for statehood. Unlike American presidents like Barack Obama, who alienated Israelis, Trump has genuine leverage over the Jewish state. Were Abbas to summon the will to negotiate, neither Netanyahu nor any other potential prime minister would be able to turn down the president’s desire to broker a deal.
And yet, the Palestinians continue to act as if the world is someday going to hand Israel over to it on a silver platter. That’s why they torpedoed Obama’s efforts to win them a state by diplomacy and wouldn’t even talk to the Trump team about peace.
Does Abbas have any real options other than negotiating about implementation of the American plan?
Starting another intifada would be one way to go. But the 85-year-old Abbas and a domestically embattled Hamas know that all that a round of violence would do would be to further impoverish the Palestinian people, and leave far more Palestinians hurt and dead than Israelis.
Another possibility is the notion that they could end security cooperation with Israel and dissolve the Palestinian Authority, thereby forcing Israel to govern the West Bank. But Abbas counts on Israel to defend him and his regime against Hamas. And his corrupt Fatah government would lose out on too many riches from graft, so he’s not seriously considering that either.
There is one other option. He can wait for a Democrat to replace Trump in the White House.
Sadly, all of the Democratic presidential candidates were offering Abbas a lifeline when they criticized the Trump plan for not being generous enough to the Palestinians.
While it’s understandable that Democrats have to attack everything the president does in an election year, they are mistaken to be sending Abbas a message that they can do more for him once in office. They cannot—and not because they don’t want to be as favorable to them as Obama was. The problem is not the lack of an American desire to give the Palestinians a state; that’s Trump’s goal as much as it was his predecessors. Rather, it’s that the Palestinians seem solely interested in perpetuating the conflict, no matter how much it costs them.
Trump’s opponents should take their lead from an Arab world that no longer wishes to waste any more time or lives in a conflict that could have been solved long ago if the Palestinians were ever willing to take “yes” for an answer. It’s time for the Democrats to make good on their pledges to treat Israel and the Middle East as off-limits for partisan warfare, and tell Abbas that if he wants a state, he should start negotiating now. If, on the other hand, they signal that they’ll pressure Israel more than Trump, all they will be doing is setting up the region for more conflict.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.