Whatever one thinks of the Trump administration and its approach to Middle East peace, you have to give the Trump team high marks for its ability to keep a secret. Speculation has abounded for months about what Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and their colleagues are working on and what their peace initiative will contain, whenever it is unveiled. For those who wish their efforts to be successful, Sunday’s New York Times reporting on the details of the Trump plan are not encouraging.
According to the Times story, following Kushner’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) summoned President Abbas to Riyadh and presented him with a plan that sounds like something out of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wildest dreams. It would involve sovereignty over non-contiguous territory in the West Bank – presumably Areas A and B, and some parts of Area C – with a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis rather than East Jerusalem, and no evacuation of settlements from Area C. It is unclear whether this would be a final status agreement or an interim accord that could be expanded later, but its terms are more in line with maximalist Israeli positions rather than any sort of compromise. The Times further reported that MBS heavily pressured Abbas into not only sitting down at the negotiating table but accepting a deal on these specific terms, and that he is prepared to use his financial leverage to reward Abbas for accepting or pressure him to resign if he rejects it.
This report is curious in a lot of ways. For starters, Kushner himself publicly caused reason to doubt its veracity at the Saban Forum on Sunday by extolling the importance of a final status agreement that will put many of the issues between Israelis and Palestinians to bed. The terms as described by the New York Times story do none of that, and instead sound like a series of half measures in preparation for something else down the road. The problem, of course, is that trying to convince the Palestinians to sign off on something to which literally no Palestinian leader could acquiesce will doom any later part of this plan, since it will never get past the first step. If the Trump administration used MBS to float a trial balloon, it backfired spectacularly, but it also goes against the grain of Kushner’s preference for a comprehensive deal – a preference that he expressed so strongly that he even endorsed the concept known as linkage, which holds that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will make the region’s other problems go away. President Trump’s qualifier in his recognition of Jerusalem’s capital yesterday that it does not prejudice final status issues also points toward a desire for a comprehensive deal over interim half measures.
Furthermore, Kushner and even more so Greenblatt have spent most of their time as Mideast envoys in the region listening to various actors and soliciting their views. It would be unusual, to say the least, if after hearing not only from Israelis and Palestinians but from our Arab allies – all of whom want to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict behind them but do not want to be seen as complicit in shafting the Palestinians – the Trump team determined that the smartest thing to do would be to concede every single Israeli dream demand and not give the Palestinians a win on any front. It is immeasurably naïve to think that anyone, let alone MBS, could pressure Abbas to accept a deal along these lines, and even making the attempt carries consequences. If the Palestinians think that the U.S. is trying to carry out Netanyahu’s agenda down to the last letter rather than try to mediate between the two sides, they will stop engaging with the Trump administration on these issues entirely. After all, American influence with the Palestinians is not economic – the amount that Washington provides the Palestinians annually is less than 5 percent of the Palestinian Authority budget and the United States does not actually fund the PA directly – nor is it military. It comes from the important role that the U.S. plays in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, and the theory that only the U.S. can bring the Israeli government around to a deal that is equitable to both sides. If the U.S. actually crafted a deal along these terms and attempted to ram it down the Palestinians’ throats, then the likelihood of continuing Palestinian engagement with this administration is as close to zero as it has ever been since any trust from Ramallah will have evaporated.
Finally, if MBS actually agreed to give cover to Trump and try to force this deal as reported on the Palestinians, it would make him one of the world’s highest stakes and most reckless gamblers. The crown prince has spent the past months taking a series of risky moves, such as allowing women to drive and decrying religious extremism in Saudi Arabia and arresting princes for alleged corruption, that appear to be popular with ordinary Saudis but that have infuriated the kingdom’s religious and plutocratic elites. He is also upending the status quo in the face of an impending economic crisis, as Saudi Arabia has spent down one-third of its currency reserves in the past three years in order to deal with low global energy prices. The bet that MBS is making is that his reforms will transform the economy and win him overwhelming support among the masses before some of his disaffected rivals can make a move against him, but he can ill afford to give his opponents any excuses. As Saudi expert Bruce Riedel noted at Saban Forum over the weekend, if King Salman were to die in his bed, there is a good chance that MBS would be assassinated before the night was up. In this environment, MBS would be literally sticking his neck out in pushing a deal that favors Israel so heavily, the Palestinian cause still elicits strong emotions from ordinary Saudis even if the kingdom’s elites may not actually care about the Palestinians. After roiling Saudi leaders, taking a gamble on Israel like this would be foolhardy at best, suicidal at worst. It suggests that either the Times story is erroneous, or that MBS assesses risks differently from nearly anyone I have ever encountered.
The New York Times story does not inspire confidence in what has been an opaque process so far. To the extent that the reporting is correct – and it was sourced to multiple actors from multiple countries – it portrays a highly inexperienced and overconfident team that believes it can ignore domestic politics in a number of states while orchestrating a deal that would probably set back the overall cause of a negotiated peace rather than advance it. On top of yesterday’s announcement regarding the embassy and Jerusalem, it suggests a team that is shooting while blindfolded and trying to hit a moving target, rather than a team that is focusing on what is possible in the current context and then figuring out how to get there. Rather than an ultimate deal, we may be headed toward the ultimate balagan.