Since December 2016, a complex situation has arisen involving U.S. diplomatic efforts toward bringing Israel and Palestine aboard a peace process. Generating a rapid improvement of Israeli ties with the Arab world in 2018 is President Trump’s goal, but I believe this plan requires a more constructive approach. In this essay, I will offer three viable alternatives that serve the Trump administration’s intention to establish a stable, two-state solution. First, I will discuss an aggressive, high-risk approach that rushes to negotiations and U.S. leadership in Jerusalem. Next, I will examine a summit-driven approach that establishes steady, internationally supported terms of reference for negotiating a two-state solution. Finally, and most importantly, I will focus on a measured, U.S.-led approach that brings all regional players closer together to change the situation on the ground.
One of the basic rules of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be left until all the other issues are resolved. Negotiators have learned from bitter experience that the room for compromise there is more limited than on any other issue. Moreover, one cannot forget the 2000 Camp David negotiations which collapsed over Jerusalem, sparking the second intifada that led to the death of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis. Yet, a rational solution is still plausible.
The undivided city, for instance, could become the shared capital of the two states. Jewish suburbs would be under Israeli sovereignty, Arab suburbs would be under Palestinian sovereignty, and the Palestinian state would be compensated with equivalent land swaps for the land in east Jerusalem on which the Jewish suburbs were built. Unfortunately, such rational compromises have not proven remotely acceptable to either side. President Trump could decide to ignore all these obstacles and instead adopt a strategy of “Jerusalem first.” He could begin by deciding to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as he promised to do during the election campaign. This would likely spark an explosion of anger in the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim worlds, and generate a rallying cry for Islamic extremists everywhere. If, however, President Trump is determined to go ahead with his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, then wedding it to a preplanned diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict is more advisable than just hoping that the storm of adverse reaction will pass.
Trump might also consider taking up an outside-in approach, which would involve his convening the leaders of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN) and the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) in a summit meeting to announce a set of agreed principles that would serve as the terms of reference for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve a two-state solution. The purpose of convening the summit would be to draw on the collective will of the international community to jumpstart direct negotiations based on these agreed principles. Such principles could be: (I) the negotiations should lead to an agreement that would end the conflict, end all claims, and establish two states living side by side in peace and security; and (II) the border between the two states should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.
Before President Trump decides to fulfil his desire to make the ultimate deal, it is important that he also be willing to bear the political consequences of doing so, as well as take a systematic approach to address the conflict. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians at this moment believe that peace is either possible or desirable because the costs seem too high and the benefits too small. Moreover, given the nature of his coalition, the maximum that Netanyahu can concede falls far short of the minimum that Mahmoud Abbas will insist upon, given the weakness of his position. There simply may be no zone of possible agreement. Therefore, Trump should not assume that this will be an easy lift, his negotiating skills notwithstanding.
President Trump could also choose a more pragmatic effort that lays the groundwork for a two-state solution during his presidency. He could instead focus on the negative dynamics on the ground in the West Bank and work with Egypt and Jordan to promote a united Palestinian leadership with a mandate to negotiate peace with Israel. Under this option, he would need to insist at the outset that Israel stop all construction east of the security barrier that it has built that runs more or less parallel to the 1967 lines inside the West Bank and incorporates the major Israeli settlement blocs as well as east Jerusalem.
President Trump would need to work with President Sissi and King Abdullah on generating a change in Palestinian leadership and reconciling Hamas and Fatah on grounds that would enable a unified leadership to enter peace negotiations with Israel. In return, the building of state institutions and the development of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza initiated by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad should be boosted by a new injection of funds from the U.S., the Arab states, and the international community.
The U.S., despite its current, contested presence on the world stage, should seek support from the international community. Except for outliers like Iran and North Korea, there is an international consensus behind the idea of an American-led effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If President Trump wants to overcome the reluctance of the Israelis and Palestinians to do the ultimate deal, he will need to draw on the support of the international community to achieve it, including the desire of key players, like Putin and Sissi, to work with him. Without their support, he will not have the leverage to move the two sides forward.