columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Why the Palestinians can’t say ‘yes’ to Trump

Daniel Pipes argues that Israel should worry about a Trump peace plan. But the odds are against Abbas or his successor mimicking Arafat’s Oslo deception.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. Credit: Shealah Craighead/White House.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Can the Palestinians finally not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity? That paraphrase of Abba Eban’s famous quote provides the key question to ask about the Middle East peace plan the United States is expected to unveil during the coming weeks.

It’s also a point of disagreement between me, and my friend and esteemed colleague Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum. Pipes disagrees with my May 22 column, in which I argue that the putative peace plan that will be presented in the name of U.S. President Donald Trump is nothing for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to worry about.

The Trump plan will reportedly be predicated on a two-state solution and necessarily involve Israel withdrawing from much of the West Bank. Under virtually any circumstances, it would be opposed by most of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. But given the recent behavior of the Palestinian Authority and the continuing threat from Hamas in Gaza, there is little current support for such a scheme outside of the far left. Even in theory, the notion of repeating Ariel Sharon’s Gaza experiment in the far larger and more strategic West Bank strikes most Israelis as not so much misguided as utterly insane.

Nevertheless, I argue that there is no need for Netanyahu to treat such a plan as a crisis. As long as the Palestinians remain unwilling to make peace under any circumstances—let alone on terms that are clearly less generous than the ones offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001, or Ehud Olmert in 2008—there is no reason to think that they won’t reject the Trump plan out of hand.

Pipes and I agree that the Trump plan is doomed. We both believe Palestinian national identity is inextricably tied to their century-old war on Zionism. That makes it impossible for them to accept, at least under present circumstances, the notion of a two-state solution that would end the conflict and bring actual peace, as opposed to a mere pause in the fighting before it resumed under less advantageous circumstances for the Israelis. I further agree that the only way for peace to be made possible is for the West to cease putting forward futile peace plans as long as the Palestinians fail to explicitly concede defeat and admit that their long war against the existence of a Jewish state has failed.

But Pipes disagrees with my confidence that the Palestinians will continue to say “no.”  He argues that this may be a moment like that of 1993, when Yasser Arafat pretended to make peace with Israel long enough for the Oslo Accords to be negotiated and signed. Though the pretense was soon dropped, the damage had been done, and Israelis have lived with the bloody consequences of that deception and their own understandable willingness to believe in the hope of peace. Oslo provides a precedent for the Palestinians not missing an opportunity to empower their terrorist leaders by means of a brief deception.

The question now is whether history can repeat itself—with either Abbas or whoever succeeds the ailing Palestinian leader accepting Trump’s terms without ever intending to achieve peace and pocketing the concessions that he will make to them. Since it is clearly in their interests to do so, Pipes thinks that they may accept Trump’s plan.

I disagree because the political edifice Arafat created as a result of his Oslo ruse makes it virtually impossible for a successor to play the same game. Post-Oslo Palestinian politics is, if anything, even more predicated on the notion that credibility belongs only to those who threaten or commit violence against Jews. Far from having more leeway to compromise, they have less now than Arafat had in 1993.

Moreover, the Fatah leadership is constrained by its rivalry with Hamas in a way Arafat didn’t have to contend with. Any move towards a two-state solution that means accepting a Jewish state and giving up the “right of return” for the descendants of 1948 refugees will boost Hamas and undermine Fatah’s hold on power.

If Trump were willing to go as far as his predecessors in pushing for Israeli concessions, especially on Jerusalem, there might be some reason for Netanyahu to be concerned about the Palestinians taking the bait. But with the Americans only offering the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis (rather than all or part of eastern Jerusalem) as the capital of a putative Palestinian state, there is simply no way that any of their leaders can agree to even discuss it. If they wouldn’t back down for someone as sympathetic to their ambitions as President Barack Obama, they’re not going to do it for Trump, whom they view as an enemy.

Is Trump sincere about wanting Middle East peace? He’s more interested in opposing Iran, as well as in assuring his Sunni Arab allies in that struggle than in empowering the Palestinians. But there’s little doubt that his ego is such that he covets the glory of brokering the “ultimate deal.” If the Palestinians were willing to negotiate, he’d probably make the Israelis “pay” for Jerusalem and his appropriately tough stance on Iran.

But Netanyahu knows that he can sit back and simply wait for the Palestinians to reject Trump’s efforts, as they have already warned the Saudis—who told Abbas to accept Trump’s offer—they will do.

Pipes’s warning that no one should be “giddy” about Trump recognizing Jerusalem and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv is sensible. But it is equally sensible for the pro-Israel community to understand that the current administration has rejected the failed Oslo mindset that governed the actions of Trump’s predecessors. Trump’s instinctive distrust of the foreign-policy establishment’s conventional wisdom means that he thinks the Palestinians have to be held accountable in way that Obama, Bush and Clinton did not.

While a diplomatic ingénue like presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner might actually believe that the peace plan he has helped craft will succeed, Trump’s current foreign-policy team of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton is clearly more realistic. That’s why, although caution is always commendable, predictions that U.S.-Israel relations will inevitably return to the same toxic dynamic that characterized them under the Obama administration are wrongheaded.

With an Iran empowered and enriched by Obama’s nuclear deal—using Syria as a base to attack the Jewish state—and Hamas undaunted by the failure of its latest assault on the Jewish state, Netanyahu has plenty of security challenges to contemplate. But a Trump peace plan with the Palestinians is still likely to be the least of his worries in the coming months.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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