The much-vaunted US Middle East peace plan, advertised by President Donald Trump as the “Deal of the Century,” has once again been delayed. Israel is caught in a political paralysis as its parliament voted to dissolve and send the country to a second round of elections, a mere month and a half since the last round.
The elections will almost certainly delay the unveiling of the plan, which was set to start with an event later this month in Bahrain. The event, slated for June 25-26, was described by the host government as an attempt to “facilitate discussions on an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region, including enhancements to economic governance, development of human capital, and facilitation of rapid private sector growth.”
In other words, a purely economic push for Palestinian development which either ignores or postpones the political elements.
The onset of new elections may lead the Trump administration to further tilt the deal in favor of Israel in order to assist Netanyahu in his re-election efforts. The plan will not be released before September 17 this year and will also likely await the end of the difficult process of Israeli coalition formation. According to some reports, the political section of the plan will not be released until well into 2020. Since this is a presidential election year in the United States, that development could doom it to permanent irrelevance.
There is rife speculation that the plan will now be used to bolster the ailing Netanyahu in the elections and in his efforts to (yet again) attempt to build a coalition. The American president was not exactly objective when he commented on the decision to go to elections again. Trump said sorrowfully that, “It looked like a total win for Netanyahu, who’s a great guy. That is too bad. Because they don’t need this. I mean they’ve got enough turmoil over there. It’s a tough place.”
Hoping things will work out with Israel's coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2019
Trump will act in Netanyahu’s interests as his re-election campaign begins, since he will not want to alienate evangelicals and Jewish pro-Israel donors when he needs them most. Therefore, the plan is already being shaped in a manner which benefits Netanyahu and his political agenda. This is a concerning prospect for the Palestinian Authority (PA). It had already been leaked that the plan would not endorse a two-state solution. This would renege on the stated American policy of the last two decades and fly in the face of international community consensus.
The prospects of an even greater pro-Israeli tilt in the plan were confirmed when its architect, Jared Kushner, gave a rare television interview. He needlessly questioned the Palestinians’ ability to practice self-governance. When asked if the PA was ready to rule, he said, “That’s a very good question. That’s one that we’ll have to see. The hope is that they, over time, will become capable of governing.”
He cited the “need to have a fair judicial system … freedom of press, freedom of expression, tolerance for all religions” before the Palestinian areas can become “investable.” This seemed calculated, assuming the comments were not sheer incompetence, to drive the already distrustful Palestinians further from the negotiating table.
Whatever influence the Israeli elections have on the plan, the “Deal of the Century” was for all intents and purposes dead on arrival. The Trump administration lost all credibility when it moved the American embassy to Jerusalem. This led the Palestinian Authority to boycott talks until the decision has been rescinded.
The futility of the process was revealed when Palestinian leaders from both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip announced they will boycott the Bahrain event. PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi explained that Palestinian participation would be counter-productive since it is “just an economic workshop … [and] another way of rewarding Israel again and maintaining Israel’s control of our land and resource.” China, the United Nations and several Arab states will also not attend the event. Not to mention that the other party to the supposed agreement, the State of Israel, was not invited. This mind-boggling display of incompetence makes for a rather inauspicious start to the renewed peace process.
Peace without Palestinians?
It is indisputable that attempting to launch a peace process without the participation of one of the principal parties is a fool’s errand. Even if Israeli elections had not been called again, the plan was always going to be completely one-sided and unacceptable to the Palestinians.
The Trump administration has already moved the embassy to Jerusalem, recognized the annexation of the Golan Heights, ceased funding the UNRWA organization which aids Palestinian refugees, and closed the PLO offices in Washington D.C. They are making it very clear that they are a biased and essentially malicious mediator.
The bankruptcy of the plan is so overt that even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lost faith in it. Pompeo spoke at a private event held by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week and showed a palpable lack of faith in the plan.
Audio leaked of the secretary of state admitting that the deal could turn out to be “unexecutable” and “may be rejected” by the Palestinians. He added, “I get why people think this is going to be a deal that only the Israelis could love.” While this is the consensus in diplomatic circles, it is still striking to hear it from the administration’s top diplomat.
From day one, the entire approach of the Trump administration towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been shaped by the desire to shore up its political base. There was never any reason to believe that the “deal of the century” would take Palestinian needs into account in even the most cursory manner.
Israeli elections will not alter the moribund trajectory of a plan which was never intended to advance the peace process. What may seem like a fatal blow to the plan is more akin to shooting a well-preserved corpse. It makes a lot of noise and defaces the remains, but has very little influence on the well-being of the subject.