"The Trump peace plan is like the Loch Ness Monster: no one has any proof that it even exists"
Alon Pinkas, former Consul General in New York City
What does the Trump administration believe it stands to gain from the consolidation and promotion of the regional peace plan?
Essentially, the Trump administration is continuing its predecessor’s foreign policy in the Middle East - a gradual but steady withdrawal. The design and the definition of the foreign policy priorities are different, the undertones are different, and the style is very different - but the direction is clear: shifting the center of gravity of the U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East.
The American disengagement from the region stems from several reasons. In general, after many years and numerous military engagements to secure its interests there, the U.S may no longer see a significant upside to its deep involvement in the region and the relationship with the Arab world. Accordingly, it has shifted its attention and focus of interests to East Asia. Moreover, in recent years the U.S has achieved energy independence, which made its traditional reliance on oil from the Middle East almost redundant.
Because the Middle East is diminishing in significance and importance for the U.S, it is unclear why the Trump administration would bother spending resources and time in the peace process. Indeed, the seniority of the officials appointed to promote this issue is a clear indication of its significance in American eyes. In the past, the peace process was handled by the President (Carter, Reagan, Bush Senior, Clinton, Bush Junior, and Obama are examples) or by the State Secretaries (most prominent of which were James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and John Kerry). In addition, powerful and experienced special envoys and fully staffed teams were appointed to push the process forward.
In contrast, Trump appointed three individuals who lack experience, background, or any relative advantage to lead this issue: his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his two lawyers, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador in Israel. This team appears to lack qualifications or qualities required to deal with this issue, despite their goodwill.
Trump may be guided by a simple principle – to attempt to do what his predecessors did not do or failed to achieve – and this principle guides him in other matters as well. However, it is entirely unclear what the administration assumes or expects to achieve by presenting a policy plan of any sort, when - though its full details have yet to be revealed - it is already clear that the Palestinians will not be willing to accept it.
Photo: Courtesy of the author
What does the administration fear it might lose?
It is unlikely that the Trump administration has any concern whatsoever, because considering the above, it has practically nothing to lose. The current administration cannot present a better or a more serious plan than the Clinton Plan, which was presented by the departing President in December 2000 and in January 2001, and certainly cannot make a greater, more serious and more comprehensive effort than State Secretary John Kerry's failed attempt in 2014.
The only thing Trump might fear is being labeled as a failure, but the effort that will be made to avoid this will be relatively small. The evidence is clear: the inexperienced team that was appointed to formulate the peace deal; the fact that both Secretaries of State – Rex Tillerson and his successor, Mike Pompeo, have seemingly no active role in the process; and the lack of intricate staff work in the State Department and in the National Security Council.
I should note that a Palestinian rejection of the plan would be bad for the U.S. because it will reinforce the perception of its inability to mediate in this conflict. However, since all his predecessors also failed in that same task, Trump will not be held personally responsible for its failure. The administration can always say “we tried, but the conditions are still not ripe.”
How can the Trump administration promote the peace plan, and contribute to its chances of success?
Relations between the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinians being what they are nowadays, it is hard to see how the administration can seriously promote any plan whatsoever. First, Israel and the Palestinians do not show any sign of willingness, desire, or political and leadership capability to engage in meaningful negotiations. On the Israeli side, we have a right-wing coalition, which in practice rejects the two-states model. On the Palestinian side, we have a weakened Palestinian Authority, devoid of vision, which lacks control over part of its territory and may be on the verge of collapse. This is an almost impossible situation for launching any peace plan. Had both parties really intended to move forward, even Hamas' unwillingness to take part in the process and its attempts to disrupt it would have probably failed.
Theoretically, in order to lay solid foundations for negotiations, the U.S. should have presented a series of confidence-building measures, published guiding principles, and put together a team that can successfully assess the state of forces and approaches to the various issues, and examine the capability and willingness of both parties to begin a dialogue. In practice, however, the Administration has done none of those things – nor any other groundwork to advance serious negotiations. On the contrary: with a series of declarations, and a resolution to move its embassy to Jerusalem without providing the Palestinians any compensation, the administration effectively made itself a mediator that is not equally acceptable to both parties.
What measures on the part of Trump's administration can harm the chances of the peace plan?
The Trump administration has no real policy in the Middle East, in the same way it lacks a coherent foreign policy in other regions in the world. The American withdrawal from the region reduces the chances of significant negotiations and an eventual deal in the Middle East.
In addition, a series of statements turn the presentation of the plan into a show, nothing more. The plan – to the extent that there even is one – becomes a kind of “Loch Ness” plan, like the monster that allegedly lives in the Scottish lake: many argue that it exists, hundreds claim to have seen it, some swear that they even took its photo, but no one has any proof whatsoever that it exists.
Alon Pinkas was a political advisor and chief of staff to four Israeli Ministers of Foreign Affairs, a member in the negotiation teams with Syria and the Palestinians, a member in the Israel-US strategic planning team, and served as Consul General of Israel in New York.