While President Trump has followed in few of his predecessors’ footsteps, his administration has done the expected in at least one respect: It has undertaken a Middle East peace initiative in its first year. Most recent administrations have done the same, and all have failed. Will Mr. Trump do any better?
The specifics of the initiative are still being hammered out, but some elements are clear. Most administrations start with modest proposals to build trust between the parties and then, when these efforts have bred mutual suspicion and disappointment, they propose a framework for an agreement just as the process moves toward collapse. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the chief negotiator, have done the reverse, hinting that Washington will lay down the principles of an agreement at the outset of talks, but without imposing them on either party.
A two-state solution might not be in the cards. While talks toward a plan move forward, the administration will undertake a series of confidence-building measures; these might include a Palestinian pledge to resume security cooperation with Israel in return for the transfer of a bit of land to the Palestinian Authority, a limited settlement freeze and economic aid for West Bank Palestinians. This is standard fare.
Mr. Trump will also try to regionalize the process. In exchange for Israeli flexibility, Arab countries in the Sunni coalition — notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — would extend privileges that Israel has long coveted, including overflight and perhaps some sort of diplomatic status, and offer lavish funding to prop up the Palestinian entity that signs an agreement with Israel. The Obama administration attempted to elicit Saudi involvement, too, but King Abdullah rejected its proposal. As the process evolves, the particulars of these canonical provisions will change as well.
In addition, on Wednesday Mr. Trump conferred American recognition on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced that the Embassy will be moved to Jerusalem. He did not, however, define what he meant by “Jerusalem,” only defining it as an Israeli capital whose boundaries have yet to be negotiated with Palestinians. It is therefore unclear what precisely has been formally recognized.
It is possible that Mr. Trump is attempting to lure Israel into concessions through this policy departure and maybe even trap Mr. Netanyahu into responding in kind. But the emptiness of the gesture suggests otherwise. One thing that the announcement will have done is to shore up the president’s evangelical base, who won’t inquire too closely into the practical import of the announcement but will be seduced by the headlines it generates.
The Trump administration seems to believe that after a half-century of failed peace initiatives, the stars have finally aligned. And it’s not entirely wrong.
Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example, have forged a cooperative relationship that could provide Arab cover for a deal on Israeli terms. Indeed, there are unconfirmed rumors that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has told the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to an Israeli offer or resign. By isolating the Palestinians, Saudi cover would work in the same way that Egyptian cover enabled Menachem Begin to deflect Jimmy Carter’s push for Palestinian autonomy at Camp David.
Bill Clinton’s prioritization of an Israel-Syria agreement was meant to weaken Mr. Abbas’s predecessor, Yasir Arafat, who lamented his reduced position by labeling himself “the other woman.” Egypt and Israel, moreover, can now exert pressure on Hamas to pursue reconciliation with West Bank moderates, that way disarming — in theory — Gaza-based rejectionists.
Furthermore, Washington’s assertive stance toward Iran has long been urged by Israel, which has hinted now and then that American pressure on Iran might prompt Israeli concessions to Palestinians. So there might be an opening for a quid pro quo. And, the thinking goes, if Richard Nixon’s anti-Communist credentials gave him the credibility to stage an opening to China, President Trump’s pro-Israeli, pro-Saudi and anti-Iranian positions might enable him to persuade Israel to consider serious compromise.
Finally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is in serious political trouble, and should he fall, his successor might adopt a more flexible attitude.
This is a superficially impressive case, but the whole is far less than the sum of its parts. First, the Saudis are unlikely to pay Israel for something they already get free. The Israeli Foreign Ministry, for example, has already instructed its diplomats to lobby on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s tough talk on Lebanon. Israel will encourage an aggressive American stance toward Iran whether or not the Saudis take a tough line with Palestinian leaders.
Second, Hamas will not play dead just because it is under pressure to proceed with reconciliation. And the moderates lack the capacity to govern Gaza, in any case. Their latest waltz is unlikely to culminate in betrothal.
Third, an American crackdown on Iran is unlikely to yield Israeli accommodation of Palestinian goals. Quite the opposite: Israeli leaders believe that if they can prevail on Mr. Trump on confronting Iran, they can win on the peace process, too. And if Mr. Netanyahu does fall, there is scant evidence that his successor will be more open to concessions to the Palestinians.
The larger point is that successive peace process efforts have failed not because of avoidable misunderstandings, inept negotiating tactics, diplomatic blunders or bad luck. They have failed because neither side wants an agreement on anything like the other side’s terms. (And this is all separate from Mr. Trump’s unfocused volatility, not to mention his ill-timed plan to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Such recognition limited to West Jerusalem might make sense to clinch Israel’s buy-in at the endgame of a negotiation, but not at the very outset, when an ill-defined pledge will antagonize Palestinians and most likely inflame the Arab world.)
The obstacles are structural. On the whole, Israeli voters are more right-wing, more religious, less well educated and more mistrustful of Arabs than they were in the past. The Orthodox Jewish population on the West Bank is growing rapidly, twice as fast as the Palestinian population. Sophisticated surveys also show that Israelis are generally happy with their lives; they will not welcome disruption.
Israel remains much more powerful than the Palestinians and in firm control of Palestinian territories. Accordingly, many Israelis do not perceive a need to give up the West Bank, divide Jerusalem or accept the security risks implied by withdrawal because they regard such concessions as both morally wrong and practically unnecessary. Mr. Netanyahu is reported to believe that liberal American Jews will disappear in the next generation or two and that evangelicals and Orthodox Jews will be strong enough to immunize Israel against American pressure. Israel, in other words, is willing to wait it out.
On the other side, many Palestinians have discarded the idea of a Palestinian state. The alternatives they have are the status quo, the forlorn hope for Israeli citizenship or, for those with the energy and resources, emigration to Jordan and then, maybe, to the wider Arab world. Europe and the United States are no longer welcoming destinations. Political violence is also an option.
Last, a successful peace effort would require the president to lean heavily on Israel, rope in Arab states as deep-pocketed honest brokers and collaborate with leaders on both sides who can deliver in the face of strong — even violent — domestic opposition. There is no such Israeli leadership on the horizon, nor is there any on the Palestinian side as Mr. Abbas prepares his exit.
Nor is American pressure in the cards. For all the talk from successive administrations, a Palestinian-Israeli peace has never been a strategic imperative for Washington. Thus, no administration has been willing to incur the domestic political costs entailed by an imposed agreement along the lines the Trump administration has already disavowed. When strategic interests do come into play, the United States has consistently pursued its own interest, as when it blocked Israeli aircraft from Iraqi airspace during Desert Storm or refused to strike Iran in 2012.
There is no reason to believe that the Trump administration is insincere in its pursuit of an agreement. But against the deeper structures underlying the surface reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Kushner and Mr. Greenblatt will make much of a dent.
Steven Simon, a professor at Amherst College and a co-author of Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance, was senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2012.