Around the halls: Brookings experts on the Middle East react to the White House’s peace plan

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk in the midst of a joint news conference on a new Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

On January 28 at the White House, President Trump unveiled his plan for Middle East peace alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu. Below, Brookings experts on the peace process and the region more broadly offer their initial takes on the announcement.

Natan SachsNatan Sachs (@natansachs), Director of the Center for Middle East Policy: This is a demonstrably successful peace plan between Israel and the United States, the only two parties present for the unveiling (or indeed the crafting) of this “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future for Israel and the Palestinian People.” The reaction from many people in Israel, where I am at the moment, is gleeful.

The essence of the American logic — to the degree that there is one — appears to that a “realistic” deal must reflect the fact that Israel essentially won the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that terms necessarily favor the victor. There is, of course, a grain of truth to that, but one glance at the map in the Vision is enough to see what a farce this is. The Palestinian state would be completely enclosed by Israeli sovereign territory (including Gaza’s territorial waters, permanently), and cut into at least six main blocs of land, connected by highways.

There is nothing stable or viable about the chimera they are proposing, any more than the status quo is stable. In fact, this would be much less stable than the status quo in the long run. Whereas the current reality can hold together with at least an illusion of a future settlement, an end-of-claims proposition along these lines seems to suggest the whole conflict boils down to residual bitterness on the part of Palestinians, bitterness that can be waived by American decree and a huge economic inducement. If only that were true.

There is nothing stable or viable about the chimera they are proposing, any more than the status quo is stable.

While there are some ostensibly difficult elements in the Vision for Netanyahu’s right-wing partners — a Palestinian state, some limitation on settlement construction for a four year period — they’re mostly conditional and postponed. For a state, the Palestinians would have to meet a variety of conditions, including the demilitarization of Gaza and disarmament of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (both worthy causes, and perhaps reasonable conditions — and both outside the power of the Palestinian Authority). It’s not happening soon, even according to this Vision.

In fact, Netanyahu’s preferences on nearly everything are reflected here. From Jerusalem, where the current security barrier would be the border between Jerusalem and a new al Quds (or, the plan says, “another name determined by the State of Palestine”), to refugees, to borders, this is not far from what Netanyahu would have preferred in a vacuum. I believe his statement that this is an “historic opportunity” to set Israel’s borders is not just election rhetoric. He believes it. He’s been working toward something along these lines for many years.

Of course, it’s easy, and correct, to dismiss this plan by saying that any future Democratic president is likely to move on from this plan, adding it to a long list of failed plans. But there’s little solace in that for anyone hoping for actual movement toward resolution of the conflict. First, application of Israeli law to the settlements is now likely to happen long before the U.S. elections. Second, any future Democratic-led plan will be met by the same logic — the Israelis, in such a future case, could try to wait a Democratic administration out, hoping for a Republican administration to follow.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on Middle East PolicyTamara Cofman Wittes (@tcwittes), Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: The Trump proposals released yesterday were formally presented as a basis for negotiations, but that’s not in fact how they are structured. They are structured as a diktat. The administration has made it clear that it plans to recognize Israeli sovereignty over all the land indicated for the Israelis in Trump’s map, whether the Palestinians accept it or not. That makes the Trump plan an imposed outcome.

This is not the first attempt by an American president to dictate terms to Arabs and Israelis on how to resolve their dispute. Republicans’ favorite president, Ronald Reagan, tried it too, early in his tenure. Such American plans always failed in the past because they were rejected by Israeli leaders who insisted that peace could not be imposed, but had to be negotiated directly between themselves and their adversaries, the Arabs who refused to recognize Israel’s existence and the legitimacy of its presence in the Middle East.

The current Israeli prime minister has chosen to abandon that long-standing Israeli position and instead to grab what he can get from an American president who doesn’t sweat the details. It’s notable that both he and Trump face tough re-election fights election this year, as well as perilous legal challenges, and so their incentives at the moment are very short-term and self-interested. This American president’s diktat today may not be worth much a year from now; the Arab-Israeli conflict will still be here.

Bruce RiedelBruce Riedel, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: The “logic” of this diktat is that the Arab states will press the Palestinians to accept the “last chance.” So the predictable hostile reaction of the Palestinian Authority can be ignored, while the Arabs do the arm-bending behind closed doors.

Three Arab states — Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE — reportedly did send their ambassadors to the White House ceremony. None is a surprise. It’s more interesting that the two Arab states with peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, did not. The initial response from Jordan to the plan is to reaffirm the traditional Arab view of the necessity for Israeli withdrawal from the occupation to the June 4, 1967 lines. The Jordanian position is certain to be hostile to the administration’s plan. King Abdullah is under enormous pressure at home to stand with the Palestinian Authority.  The parliament just passed a bill that prohibits the import of much needed natural gas from Israel.

Arab foreign ministers will meet on Saturday in Cairo to discuss the Trump proposals. The Palestinian Authority will likely get strong validation. Already the grand imam of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and university lambasted the plan at a conference in Cairo in the presence of many of the Sunni world’s leading religious scholars.

“Our identity as Arabs and Muslims is over… I felt totally ashamed watching Trump with the Israeli leader,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb said.

Tayeb’s commentary got big play in the government-controlled media in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are the key player in the Trump logic. The administration is counting on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman to deliver. But the history of the last three years shows the king has consistently taken a hard line on the Palestinian issue and especially Jerusalem, over-ruling any sign of accommodation by his son. King Salman chaired three summits to castigate the administration’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Just this weekend, the kingdom rejected an olive branch from Israel that would encourage Israelis to travel to the kingdom and reiterated its policy that Israeli passport holders can not enter the country.

The initial Saudi response to the Trump plan has reflected the complex characteristics of the Salman era.  An editorial in the government-controlled Al Arabiya paper urged the Palestinians to enter direct negotiations with Israel without accepting the plan. The king spoke with Mahmoud Abbas and repeated the traditional Arab position and strong “steadfast” support for the Palestinian Authority.

President Ronald Reagan tried to get the Arabs to accept his plan in 1982. Despite considerable pressure, King Hussein rejected it. The Trump plan is likely heading for the same outcome.

Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings InstitutionHady Amr (@HadyAmr), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy: President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for Israel-Palestine is, very sadly, for Israelis and Palestinians more like the “farce of the century.” First the timing of its release is suspect at best: It appears to be an attempted distraction during the very week that Trump’s impeachment trial is underway and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the first sitting Israeli prime minster to face indictment. He is going into the third Israeli election in under a year.

But far worse, and far more importantly, it is proposal that is more a design for a Palestinian prison than Israeli-Palestinian peace — and simply does not comport with the core American value of freedom. Our Declaration of Independence highlights “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but Americans would never accept to live unfree under the exclusive control of a foreign government (let alone a long-time antagonist). The Jewish people would never accept it for themselves. And the Palestinian people will never accept it either. Indeed, Trump and Kushner’s proposed entity for the Palestinians is essentially enveloped by Israel. Exits and entries from the West Bank are through Israeli territory, and exits are controlled by Israel. The entity’s international shipping ports would be in Israel — not in Gaza, which would not have an international port.

The main threat the plan poses to the prospects for peace are that the embattled Netanyahu is using the plan’s release to say he will now begin annexing parts of the West Bank where Palestinians hope to one day build a state. This is an effort to boost support among Israeli right-wing voters in the upcoming elections. Annexation of land acquired by military force violates international law, as well as the modern international order upon which global stability is built.

But fortunately, the international community and thoughtful leadership in Congress have clearly stated their objections to the plan. On the day the plan was released, 12 leading U.S. senators sent President Trump a letter swiftly and resoundingly rejecting his “one-sided” Israel-Palestine plan, which they wrote would “disregard international law … and undermine existing U.S. policy regarding … unilateral annexation.”