At a private gathering at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London on February 28, David Makovsky and Dennis Ross – two men with a deep understanding of the decades-long peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis – spoke frankly and at length about US President Donald Trump‘s “ultimate deal”.
Makovsky is an author and journalist who covered the often anguished twists and turns of the journey to reach the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995. Ross was appointed President Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy in the first Clinton administration and in that capacity helped to broker the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, commonly referred to as Oslo II in 1995.
Both men are seen by critics – justifiably or not – as being sympathetic towards Israel: Makovsky is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) which is closely linked to the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC; Ross, after leaving his post as envoy, returned to WINEP as a counsellor and distinguished fellow.
What was abundantly clear from their comments was that the peace deal, whose details remain a closely held secret, is doomed to failure. As Makovsky put it “if it was left to the advisers, they would say do not pursue this deal.” He added that the risk of failure was high and “every failure comes with a cost”.
This is the fourth attempt at a comprehensive peace deal and the cynicism on both sides, after decades of effort, is running higher than ever before. Ross noted that “both sides have lost faith”; without faith, he argued, there is no chance of a deal. “What has been completely lost is the sense that there is the possibility a deal can be reached. That possibility has to somehow be recreated.”
Resurrecting the peace process is a major challenge in itself, but what makes it even more difficult to achieve for the Trump administration is the fact that the triumvirate delegated with this mission – Trump’s son-in-law Kushner, Trump Organisation lawyer Jason Greenblatt and Trump campaign adviser David Friedman – is seen as closely linked to the illegal settler movement in the West Bank.
Kushner’s family foundation has funded a settlement. Friedman, Trump’s appointee as ambassador to Israel, has argued that the settlements, contrary to international law, are not illegal. Greenblatt, confounding experts as well as common sense, has decreed that the settlements are “not an obstacle to peace”.
In keeping with the president’s approach to foreign affairs, Kushner has eschewed the systems and structures that in normal times are used as essential tools of diplomacy. He shares his father-in-law’s egotistic view that he has no need for the machinery of government nor the thoughts of wiser and older Middle East experts. In his very limited world view, this is just another Manhattan real estate deal writ large.
Makovsky called the triumvirate’s approach “close-holed”; other practitioners see the obsession for secrecy and the refusal to consult knowledgeable Middle East peace negotiators as simply paranoid.
No wonder then that there is an absence of faith on the Palestinian side. Kushner seems to believe that his project, which Makovsky called “economy plus-plus”, will convince the Palestinian leadership to give up some, if not all, of their “hot button” issues in return for economic benefits. These core issues remain the right of return for refugees, borders based on the 1967 Green Line, security and occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a viable Palestinian state.
The benefits that are supposed to flow, in Kushner’s mind, like water in the desert, will come in part from the largesse of the Gulf states, in particular, Saudi Arabia. He, of course, has a special relationship with the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). (The crown prince has boasted that he has Kushner “in his pocket” so the relationship may not be quite what Kushner thinks it is.)
However, the Saudis are not prepared to stump up unless the US does too. Given Trump’s erratic and unpredictable approach to foreign policy, there is no guarantee whatsoever that will happen, a point not lost at all on the Saudis.
While it is true that Israel has worked assiduously to gain the support of key Gulf leaders, who view it as a bulwark of support against Iran, Ross said that “Arab leaders will never say publicly to the Palestinians that you must accept the (Kushner) deal.”
In a best-case scenario, he said, Arab leaders could say “we have questions and reservations but this does form the basis for negotiations” – in other words, a starting point and nothing more. Then the strategy would be to get Europe on side. That would leave the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in a bind and in Ross’ opinion he would be “forced to come to the table.”
However, the only way that could work is if the key demands, the hot buttons, of the Palestinians are met in the plan. While virtually nothing else is known about the 50-page document that Kushner has prepared, it is clear that it does not address these demands in any meaningful way.
Makovsky expressed his concern that the deal was “set up for failure”, and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was counting on Abbas to say no”, thus delivering to the hard-right settlement parties the result they wanted after supporting his re-election bid.
With news that the Israeli attorney general will proceed to indict the prime minister on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, the election itself has been thrown wide open. Trump and Kushner have intimated that “the deal of the century” will be released sometime after the election on April 9. But whereas before it would have tumbled out in a political space secure in Netanyahu’s re-election, now the deal faces uncertainty in Israel as well as the anger of the Palestinians.
No one who has given it much thought really expects the plan to do anything other than fail. But when seasoned veterans like Makovsky and Ross confirm that view, it is a safe bet that Trump, the self-proclaimed great dealmaker who fell flat on his face at the Vietnam summit, is set for a repeat performance in a fractious and volatile Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.