The Middle East peace plan, repeatedly reported to be close to full unveiling, promises to offer both Israelis and Palestinians in Trump speak ‘the Deal of the Century’. Premonitions into the peace strategy offered by the White House, including the administration’s hither to approach to the so-called final status issues identified during the 1993 Oslo Accords, leave little doubt as to the plan’s would-be reception. Particularly across the wider Arab world, where adherence to the Palestinian cause – albeit reduced – still holds public consensus, the official publication of a Trumpian strategy that rejects key negotiation matters will demand a strong repudiation.
Trump’s exacerbation of the Middle East power balance equally challenges the ongoing multi-track negotiations led by Qatar and involving Hamas and Israel, as the advancement of the parties’ geopolitical objectives requires the maneuverability to defy the espousal of traditional stances – interests that are best served by a more subdued US diplomacy.
For those familiar with the political chimes that embody the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the spring and summer of 2018 offered a staunch reminder of the national social and political turmoil, not to mention the ever-changing regional geopolitical dimensions, that characterize the 70-year-old crisis.While initially a grassroots initiative, the Return Marches held in Gaza – intended to protest Trump’s Jerusalem decision and to commemorate Palestinians’ uprooting since 1948 – once again turned the world’s attention to the plight of those living in the tiny strip of land, in large part the result of the decade-long economic blockade implemented by Israel and Egypt in 2007. The resulting tensions on the border, simultaneously, offered Hamas the means to cement its long-sought domestic and international political legitimacy. Through Qatari diplomatic channels, Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by its indirect interlocutor – and Israel have engaged in truce talks with the aim of alleviating the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and avoiding a full-scale war. At the same time, the avoidance of further bloodshed and improving economic conditions, including through the planned establishment of a sea corridor in Cyprus, enable Hamas to subdue the popular challenge of dominant fundamentalist Salafi and other Jihadi movements in Gaza.
Qatar’s interest in the Gaza Strip is no novel occurrence; since 2012, the Qatar National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza(GRC) has been active in renovating and building destroyed infrastructure.In February, the Qatar-America foundation, citing Mohammed E. Al-Emadi, chairman of GRC and Qatar’s Gaza envoy, reported that between 2012 and 2018, Qatar had spent upwards of 400 million on reconstruction projects in Gaza.For Jason Greenblatt, one of Trump’s peace pointmen, Qatar’s partnering with Israel to provide aid to Gaza was supposed to “end […] support for Hamas.” Yet beyond the provision of development aid, Qatar’s assumption of a mediatory role between Hamas and Israel – first confirmed in June – serves its own international agenda.
The subject of an ongoing economic and political blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its allies, the small Gulf state seeks to depose the Egyptians of their role of chief regional negotiators by favoring Hamas-Israeli cooperation over the intra-Palestinian reconciliation sought by the el-Sisi regime. To date, several Cairo-sponsored reconciliation attempts between Hamas and Fatah have failed; the most recent agreement of October 2017 crumbled earlier this year. According to Al-Elmadi, the Qataris are well-placed to assume the role of a credible partner, because, as the envoy disclosed to Al Jazeera, “the Egyptians are not trusted by Hamas. This is because more than a year ago, the Egyptians made many promises to Hamas to achieve reconciliation with Fatah, among other things, but they did not deliver on their promise.”
For Israel, too, Qatar offers an interesting partnership, as one that promotes the administration’s short-term and long-term objectives. The Trumpian Middle East strategy is one which, to date, appears to align with that of Israel. The unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital last December, the refusal to apply internationally-recognized terminology to the Occupied Territories, the recent withdrawal of all aid funding to UNRWA, and the desire to strip millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees of their rights and status closely align with the policies and narrative put forward by the hawkish Likud party, which has, save a four-year hiatus from 2005-2009, ruled Israel continuously since 2001.
In the short term, a successful Qatar-brokered mediation with Hamas allows Israel to establish the desired security on its borders, while also diverting economic and social responsibility on the occupied strip to the oil-rich Gulf state. In the longer term, Israeli (in)direct engagement with Hamas also enables the continuation of the ‘No Partner for Peace Narrative’, initiated by former Labor PM Ehud Barak after the failure of the July 2000 Camp David, to thwart any substantial peace accord. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has continuously emphasized that any and all agreements on Gaza must run through Ramallah. Commenting on the potential ramifications of forging a deal between Israel and Hamas, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman correctly noted that sidestepping the Palestinian Authority would not only constitute a “tremendous prize” for Hamas but equally create a further obstacle to peace as “the Palestinian Authority should be part of the solution for the Palestinians of Gaza and Palestinians as a whole.”By isolating Abbas, Israel’s partner in security cooperation, the Israeli government also appears to reject the recommendations and warnings of the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet, who realize that sidelining the increasingly-frustrated octogenarian poses a regional security risk.
All indications point that Trump’s Middle East peace strategy, which has been under work since mid-2017, will be dead on arrival. The administration’s desire to challenge decades of failed peace-making initiatives is not an unlofty one. Nevertheless, the appointment of a peace team characterized by a pro-settlement approach, the sought disruption of UNRWA’s work and, in the words of President Trump, “taking Jerusalem off the table” demonstrate a tone-deaf approach to the complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the alienation and undermining of an already weak interlocutor as a means to further negotiations is symptomatic of a misunderstanding of sound international diplomacy. In her study of the failure of the Oslo Accords, Hilde Henriksen Waage concluded that the exacerbation of the overwhelming imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians by a third-party facilitator acting as “Israel’s helpful errand boy” inevitably distorted the outcome of negotiations; in the end, according to Waage, the only results that can be achieved when this diplomacy is adopted are “no more than the strong party will allow.”
In response to Trump’s recent demand for Israeli concessions and the promise that Palestinians will get “something good” in return for his recognition of Jerusalem – statements that contradict previous reports – Netanyahu asserted that the publication of the plan had no “urgency.” The undesirability of a diplomatic quid-pro-quo is clear: changing geopolitical perspectives do not mean Netanyahu’s current interlocutors will expend the political capital that involves publicly challenging positions that the Palestinians – and the vast majority of the Arab world – reject.