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 US is expected to unveil during the coming weeks.
It’s also a point of disagreement between me, and my friend and colleague Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum. Pipes disagrees with a recent column, in which I argue that the putative peace plan that will be presented in the name of US 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.
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 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 the notion of a two-state solution that would end the conflict and bring actual peace.
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.
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 Yasir 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.
Since it is clearly in their interests to do so, Pipes thinks that the Palestinians 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 toward 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 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 reassuring 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’ warning that no one should be “giddy” about Trump recognizing Jerusalem and moving the US 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.
With an Iran empowered and enriched by Obama’s nuclear deal — using Syria as a base to attack 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.