Amir Tibon confesses he felt overwhelmed by the flood of newsworthy developments when he took over as Ha’aretz correspondent in Washington just as Donald Trump was inaugurated.
So overwhelmed that he was thinking of giving it all up, he told a meeting last month at the Reconstructionist Congregation in Montreal, sponsored by Canadian Friends of Peace Now. But after talking to a veteran correspondent, Tibon, 29, learned he was not alone, that all reporters in Washington felt the same way about the news onslaught under Trump.
He decided to forge ahead. The co-author with Grant Rumley of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus Books), Tibon said he was surprised that Trump’s main point person in seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal – his cracker-jack real-estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt – at first appeared to have been making headway.
The surprise stemmed from the fact that neither Greenblatt, nor his fellow negotiator, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have had experience in this kind of work, or expertise in the core issues of the world’s most intractable conflict.
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Ha’aretz writer weighs in on Trump and peace process “Everybody was laughing about it: It was claimed that they have no clue, yet the impression they were making was very positive. Greenblatt had meetings with both sides more than a dozen times, Jared went to Saudi Arabia and had this great meeting with the crown prince.” Tibon said.
Greenblatt also met refugees and West Bank Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Suddenly, what appeared to be an emerging positive climate changed radically when the U.S. tossed aside decades of precedent – that the final status of Jerusalem would form part of an Israel-Palestinian peace deal – and in May moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“This move was not really about the American Jewish community, it was mainly for his Evangelical Christian supporters,” Tibon said, but the effect on the peace effort was devastating. It resulted in a severe setback for the entire strategy under which Greenblatt and Kushner were operating, which was to overcome what was seen as the weakness of previous efforts, and from which in their final stages Palestinian negotiators walked away.
The Jerusalem Embassy move undercut the Greenblatt-Kushner strategy, which was “to get the Arab world on our side, to put a lot of pressure on the Palestinians to accept a plan.”
“The most important actor in their plans was MBS (Mohammed bin Salman),” Tibon said. “The young crown prince of Saudi Arabia said openly that Israel has a right to exist, that he wants to be close to Israel, to have relations there. Israel and Saudi Arabia are aligned against Iran, which is the main problem in the Middle East, the main enemy.”
The strategy was to get Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other Arab states to push the Palestinians into accepting a reasonable two-state deal, while Israel would get basic security parameters. However, the Jerusalem move “gave nothing to the Palestinian – a very emotional, religious, symbolic issue,” Tibon said.
The reaction from Ramallah was immediate.
“The Palestinians announced they are cutting all ties to the American administration. It’s been almost a years, and they have kept to it,” Tibon noted and the Palestinian Authority has stronger support in the Arab world than before.
“The Saudis are giving him (Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas) money, the Jordanians are aligned with him against the peace plan, and the Egyptians are begging him to cooperate with its efforts to bring peace to the Gaza Strip,” he explained. “The Americans have lost their influence.”
Can the U.S. resume an active and useful role in Mideast peace moves? It can, he said, because longer term, the Trump strategy is correct, that powerful Arab states “really do want to get close to Israel” and can be expected to put pressure on the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates see Israel as a common partner against Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni extremist groups Al Qaeda and ISIS. Being allied with Israel makes sense, since it has the best intelligence in the Middle East, the strongest military, strongest economy, and most educated population.
To get back on track and resume efforts with the support of Arab allies, the Americans will have to “shift the parameters more toward the Arab side.” That would be necessary to avoid the Arab states being accused at home of “treason – selling out the Palestinians and surrendering to the United States and Israel.”
If such a plan ever gained support, the Trump administration would then have to sell it to his base, both proIsrael hardliners, such as mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, and Evangelical Christians.
“Will they support a Palestinian state and some kind of Palestinian representation in Jerusalem?” he asked the audience.
He did not have the answer, though he noted that younger Evangelicals are more even-handed in their views of the conflict than their parents. A solution that gives the Palestinians a framework with some form of status in Jerusalem will be essential to gaining broad support in the Arab world, he added.
Finally, reflecting on Barack Obama’s failure in 2014, Tibon said he has come to believe that a slow approach to a final peace deal might be the way forward.
“Economic measures, security measures, and movement on settlements, and (toning down) incitement on the Palestinian side – there are a lot of things that can be tackled before you solve such questions as what do we do about Jerusalem.”
But there has to be a mutual and fundamental commitment to move toward a final endgame — “two states, with security, peace — and start with measures on the ground to create a reality today.” Opinion surveys indicate that a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis want a two-state solution, but even larger majorities do not believe it is possible.
“That could be changed, with very small changes on the ground that could create an atmosphere of optimism, and a sense of momentum.”
And that requires political will, which, Tibon said, is not now forthcoming from Israeli or Palestinian leaders, while from the American side a lot depends on what negotiating moves lie ahead.