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‘Team America’ Peace Envoys: They Came, They Saw, What’s Next?

By Charles Bybelezer | The Media Line

August 27, 2017

US President Donald J Trump and Jared Kushner meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel May 22, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)
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After latest high-profile visit, attention shifts towards formulation of U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

They came, they saw, they left—and to little fanfare at that.

Expectations were already tempered ahead of this week’s visit to the region by U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace envoys. It was always going to be an uphill battle for special adviser Jared Kushner and lead negotiator Jason Greenblatt, in particular, as the wheels of the two-decades-long effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict churn ever so slowly, when at all.

And following the latest meetings between the U.S. delegation and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, it appears as though “Team America” is no closer to reaching a breakthrough to reestablish any meaningful negotiating process.

Besides the predictable platitudes and exchange of catchwords such as “positive,” “productive” and “possible,” few if any new ideas were reportedly presented, with one senior Palestinian aide reiterating that the U.S. delegation refused even to commit to the two-state model; namely, the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel. And while Abbas expressed “appreciation for Trump’s efforts…to achieve a historic deal,” comments made earlier this month to dovish Israeli lawmakers are perhaps more representative of the Palestinian leader’s frustrations.

“I have met with Trump’s emissaries to the Middle East about 20 times since the start of his tenure,” Abbas was quoted in a statement transmitted by Israel’s Meretz Party. “I have urged them to emphasize to Netanyahu [a commitment to the two-state solution and to the cessation of building across the 1967 borders], but they have refrained from doing so.… I don’t even know how they are dealing with us, because his entire administration is in chaos.”

In February, Trump declined altogether to box himself in on any of the so-called “core principles,” clarifying that he was instead “looking at two-state[s] and one-state…[and could] live with either.” The position was reiterated ahead of Abbas’ meeting with Kushner by a State Department spokesperson who asserted that, “we are not going to [pre-determine] what the outcome has to be—it has to be workable to both sides. And I think that’s the best view [so] as to not really bias one side over the other.”

Moreover, according to reports, Kushner told Abbas that Trump would not take a firmer stance on Israeli construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank, as doing so could end up toppling Netanyahu’s government. Notably, the Palestinians were also unable to obtain a commitment to develop economically what is termed “Area C” in the 1993 Oslo Accords—the section of the West Bank under both Israeli administrative and security control.

On the flip side, Israeli media claimed that the Palestinian leadership reinforced its refusal to halt payments to prisoners in Israeli jails.

In the result, some Palestinian officials have warned that, in the absence of a public declaration by Trump on where he stands on these issues, the PA will once again turn to international bodies to achieve their goals. A senior official recently told The Media Line that the Palestinians would return to the UN and International Criminal Court irrespective of the outcome of the Trump envoys’ latest mission.

Nabeel Amro, a former Palestinian Information Minister, elaborated on the recent meetings. “The results are very humble,” he expressed to The Media Line, “as there was simply an agreement on the importance of scheduling further talks. While the Palestinian leadership has few options, this will be viewed as nothing more than an opportunity for Israel to entrench its occupation.

“The probability,” he continued, “of gathering all sides at one table for negotiations is really small. The American administration is working from a perspective that supports Israel—this much is clear.”

In this respect, the engagement with the Israeli side did, in fact, appear more cordial, with Kushner affirming in advance that relations between Washington with Jerusalem were “stronger than ever.” For his part, Netanyahu said that there were “a lot of things to talk about,” not only including how to advance the peace process, but also regarding regional security, in general.

According to Omar Omran, a professor at Birzeit University, despite the U.S. administration’s desire to convey a position of neutrality, the Palestinians are skeptical. “Kushner and his family support building illegal settlements in the West Bank—it is a problem,” he declared to The Media Line. “Kushner is not fair to the Palestinians, he only grasps the Israeli positions.

“The Palestinian leadership,” he concluded, “can say all it wants that the meetings were successful, but the actions and results on the ground are what matter.”

It is perhaps a lack of singular focus on Palestinian grievances that most irks the PA and most significantly differentiates Trump from his predecessors, who with laser-like determination previously honed in on extracting Israeli concessions as a precursor to unlocking the potential for reconciliation. For Trump, however, pressuring Jerusalem no longer seems like plan A, B or C; nor does it appear that Palestinian demands, some accepted as near-gospel for over a generation, will continue to guide the process or be used as an excuse to explain away the lack thereof.

The ball is now in Trump’s court; however, his range of action may be limited due to troubles at home. “The U.S. president is embroiled in his own domestic affairs,” explained Yossi Shain, the Romulo Betancourt Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, to The Media Line. “He came to the Middle East in March when he was in a very strong position, but he lost that touch and this is looming over him. That stature is difficult to regain and that impinges on his ability to act, as it will be very difficult for him to get collaboration from regional partners once they view him as weakened.”

According to Dr. Shain, also a Professor of Comparative Government and Diaspora Politics at Georgetown University, both Netanyahu and Abbas are similarly handicapped by internal politics, with the Israeli premier currently under investigation for “fraud, breach of trust and bribes;” whereas Abbas’ mandate technically ended nearly a decade ago and he faces a population of which a majority want him replaced and, in large part, has not been conditioned to make compromises for peace.

As such, in Prof. Shain’s estimation, the process has arrived at “a stalemated situation unless Trump does something very dramatic in his deep need to feel legitimacy.”

After eight months of extensive shuttle diplomacy and feeling both sides out, will Trump move to formulate a coherent policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If so, will he hold firm and attempt to carve out a new peace path, conceivably within a regional framework somehow acceptable to all parties? Or will he, like many before him, stumble along the pre-existing winding road to Never Never Land—or perhaps altogether abandon the effort?

As Husam Zomlot, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s envoy to Washington, succinctly put it following the latest high-profile push by American peace-processors: “We need them to tell us where the hell they are going.”

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