Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan: Doomed To Failure

The regional tour of Donald Trump’s primary Middle East envoys—his lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—has concluded. So, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of the peace plan the Trump team seems to be formulating.

Only the Trump team seems particularly eager to see this plan come about, which is telling. It is hard to be optimistic about the deal, given that the Kushner & Greenblatt Traveling Road Show met with everyone involved except the Palestinians. No matter what Jason and Jared may have heard, none of their Arab interlocutors is in a position to move forward on a deal that the Palestinians have summarily rejected.

Trump approaches the entire question of Palestine transactionally, in line with his approach to most issues. This view was reflected in an interview Kushner gave to the Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds. He told reporter Walid Abu-Zalaf, “At the end of the day, I believe that Palestinian people are less invested in the politicians’ talking points than they are in seeing how a deal will give them and their future generations new opportunities, more and better paying jobs and prospects for a better life.”

If Kushner believes that a slight uptick in average household income will obscure Palestinian concerns about settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, and the very nature of their national existence, he is gravely mistaken. But the entire interview seems to reflect just such a view. Referring to Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh’s statement that the US efforts were doomed, Kushner remarked that the “Palestinian leadership is saying those things because they are scared we will release our peace plan and the Palestinian people will actually like it because it will lead to new opportunities for them to have a much better life.”

These statements make it clear that Kushner has not only misunderstood the Palestinian leadership, but Palestinians in general. US negotiators have routinely, and justifiably, been accused of being deaf to the pulse of the Palestinian people, but Kushner seems even more hard of hearing than usual. And there is virtually no chance that Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, or certainly Trump himself know any more about Palestinian sentiments than Kushner does. Continue reading at Lobelog

Jerusalem of Tarnished Gold

Take a particularly provocative and grandstanding Israeli government and shift its focus from Hamas and Gaza to Jerusalem and you have a 8148113621_de93dc64a3_kmost explosive recipe. That potion is being stirred now, and the results could shake up the status quo in a way that we have only seen a few times in Israel’s history.

Much of the recent news narrative starts with the wounding of Yehuda Glick, a US expat who emigrated to Israel as child and became one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed “Temple Mount Movement.” In reality, this chapter of the endless and bloody saga of the Old City of Jerusalem began with the last Israeli election. That poll brought into power the most radically right-wing of Israeli governments, representing an odd mixture of zealous Zionism, modern Orthodoxy in Judaism and a curious impulse to completely disregard centuries of Jewish law regarding the Temple Mount. We’ll get back to that later, but first it’s important to recognize the potential fallout from further escalation.

The recall of Jordan’s ambassador to Israel is no small matter, and it reflects just how important this issue is to the Hashemite kingdom. Despite having lost the West Bank to Israel in 1967 and having relinquished its claim to it in 1988, Jordan is still the guardian of the Jerusalem holy sites for the Muslim world. This status is precious to the Hashemites, and the prestige it brings is a crucial element for their continued hold on power.

The Israeli threats have escalated steadily since the election and then ticked up sharply in the spring, when the Netanyahu government began its anti-Hamas crackdown throughout the West Bank, under the false cover of searching for kidnap victims the Israelis already knew had been brutally murdered. Tensions and demonstrations in Jerusalem were escalating throughout the summer, while everyone’s attention was, quite understandably, focused on Gaza.

This was the inevitable result of an intensely nationalistic government believing it had finally done away with the façade of negotiations in which Jerusalem was a central issue. Brazen statements, provocative visits, and then crackdowns and harsher limits on Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque were all to be expected.

One question that these events raise is whether this is the intention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the result of his unwillingness to challenge his coalition partners and members of his own party on a passionately populist issue. I tend to lean toward the latter belief, as Netanyahu has usually shown himself to be the sort of leader who does nothing unless he’s pressured by politics. In either case, the Israeli actions have raised concerns from Washington to Brussels to Cairo and, most resoundingly, to Amman.

Despite the peace treaty with Israel being massively unpopular in Jordan, where the majority of the citizens are Palestinian, it has not been a cause for major internal upheaval. For Jordan, peace has not only brought financial and diplomatic support from the United States, it has also opened up a new market with Israel, which exports goods to Jordan and thereby to the rest of the Arab world, despite the ongoing regional boycott against Israel.

Tinderbox

But now there is unrest and unease in Jordan. King Abdullah’s support of the United States’ efforts against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has helped rile some of the more radical elements in Jordan, adding to the tensions that already existed between the government and more mainstream Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The country is undergoing a severe economic crisis, with massive unemployment, even while it is also burdened with refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom have sharp complaints about their treatment.

These conditions make Jordan a tinderbox. And Jerusalem is just as sure a fuse for a Jordanian tinderbox as it is for an Israeli-Palestinian one. These are the factors that led King Abdullah to recall his ambassador from Israel. Only once before, when Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan, has peace between Jordan and Israel been so threatened.

The Israelis have surely given this consideration, but they likely estimate that Jordan would not dare abrogate its treaty with Israel. Such a move would surely endanger Jordan’s support from the US, and that could be fatal if, indeed, internal conflict does break out in the Hashemite kingdom. Ultimately, Israel probably believes that unless it tries to threaten the authority of the Islamic Waqf, which is the body that administrates the Temple Mount, or otherwise officially changes the status quo of the area, Jordan will not withdraw from the treaty.

That’s a reasonable assessment, but it should not be banked on too strongly. Given the precarious situation in Jordan, its leadership’s main concern now is avoiding an outbreak of civil conflict altogether. Even though the Jordanian military is far superior to that of, say, Iraq, a popular uprising triggered by conflict over the Jerusalem holy sites could quickly spread to encompass the mass dissatisfaction with both the economic conditions and Hashemite rule in the country in general. Abdullah does not want to gamble on his ability to contain all of that anger. Though unlikely, that concern does give him a reason to potentially take the bold step of ending peace with Israel, and deal with the consequences of that step later.

For Israel, such an outcome would mean near-total isolation again. Even the Sisi government in Egypt would have a difficult time continuing to work with Israel all by itself. Egyptians remember well the isolation they experienced from the rest of the Arab world after their treaty with Israel was first struck. It took a very long time, even after they were re-admitted into the Arab League, for Egypt to regain a position of some stature in the Arab world.

New Path

The entire approach the international community has taken toward Jerusalem needs to re-evaluated, and quickly. For years, Israel has treated Jerusalem as a flashpoint it could manipulate for nationalistic reasons, and for a long time, young Palestinian Muslims (sometimes all of them under the age of 50, other times the cutoff age has been as low as 35) have been unable to go to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. To be sure, there have also been many incidents of Palestinians using Friday prayers as a launching pad for protests and stone-throwing, sometimes down the hill at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall.

Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli soldiers and police blocking Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem on March 14, 2010. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Now, Jerusalem is being used by different parts of Israel’s governing coalition. The further right elements are crystallizing nationalist fervor around it. Netanyahu, for his part, is using the violence that Israeli actions are stirring up to blame Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas as part of his campaign to convince people that all of Israel’s opponents—IS, Iran, Hamas, and the PA as led by Abbas—are essentially the same enemy of not only Israel, but the entire world. And, of course, Hamas, and Fatah as well, are using the Israeli actions as a rallying cry, spurring people to both organized and individual acts of resistance and/or terrorism.

But it’s high time reality set in and we understood this to be an issue of nationalism manipulating religion to its ends. Many of the Jewish Temple Mount activists claim that they are pursuing a civil rights issue. After all, they argue, if the Muslim right to pray at their third holiest site is sacrosanct, shouldn’t the Jewish right to pray at their holiest site be at least as high a priority?

Sorry, but that’s not what this is about. Religious Zionism has twisted many Jewish precepts over the years. But even Israel’s chief rabbis have reiterated continuously that Jews must not pray on the Temple Mount or even walk upon it for fear of treading upon the area of the Holiest of Holies, which was inside the Temple and where only the High Priest may enter.

Religious Zionists are split on this issue, as some religious leaders have, in a rather arbitrary fashion, decided that going up to the Temple Mount is acceptable. And, it must be noted, that this notion is an entirely modern phenomenon. It is only in recent years that even religious Zionists have tried to completely negate this particular tenet of Jewish tradition, which has been undisputed for most of our history.

As with so many issues regarding Israel, this is not about Judaism. In fact, it’s not about the terms of much of mainstream Zionism, either. It is a brazen effort by far-right nationalists, some because of a radicalized messianism, some with more secular motivations, to lay claim to Jewish rule over Jerusalem as a whole. It is of a piece with the escalating efforts by Jewish Israelis to spread the colonization of East Jerusalem in the hope of making a unified, Jewish Jerusalem a fait accompli.

Israel is playing with fire on a number of levels here, with the Palestinians and with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Thus far, the government has been justified in its belief that the United States and Europe would do nothing more than issue the usual condemnations, not recognizing that Israel’s actions could make compromise on Jerusalem a practical impossibility.

But at some point the US and EU must recognize that if Israel continues to increase its antagonism on the issue of Jerusalem, it’s going to radicalize a lot more than just the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as complicate their efforts against IS and other concerns in the Arab World. If they don’t take some action to reign Israel in soon, they will also be paying the consequences.

Gaza Peace Talks: Hamas’ Dilemma

Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues on the diplomatic front with the opening of two sets of talks this week in Cairo. One set will have Egypt brokering discussions with Fatah and Hamas on the future of governance in the Gaza Strip, while the other will see Egyptian and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives shuttling between Hamas and an Israeli delegation.

Although Egypt brokered the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel that ended 50 days of rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel, which devastated the tiny strip, it cannot have escaped Hamas’ notice that Egypt has an agenda of its own—and it is shared with just about every other party involved.

A sign of what Hamas will face was displayed this weekend, as UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry worked on achieving an agreement for 250-500 international observers to monitor reconstruction projects in Gaza. The purpose of the monitors would be to ensure that all materials brought into Gaza, and all the work done with them, is exclusively used to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and public buildings that were destroyed by Israel’s recent onslaught. The UN would be working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to guarantee that outcome.

Hamas is facing the consequences of the unity deal it agreed to back in April. At that time, Hamas was losing popularity in Gaza, was seeing what support it had in the Arab world evaporating, and found itself unable to pay civic employees. But the events of the summer changed things, at least for the time being.

Now Hamas is riding a wave of popularity after facing Israeli bombardment again and coming out battered but not broken. Qatar, whose support remains dubious, acted more supportive during the fighting. And, Hamas thought, the ceasefire arrangement would get the understandably disgruntled and desperate workers see some kind of paycheck. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having angered many Palestinians by wavering sharply between public condemnations of the Israeli onslaught and continued cooperation with Israeli security in the West Bank, Hamas had reason to reconsider the unity agreement.

But it accepted the agreement, which now seems like a trap. Abbas is insisting that the unity government be allowed to take over the administration of Gaza. Hamas is surely aware that in that event, the PA would have to embark on a campaign to control the violence in Gaza as it did with the West Bank. In other words, even without agreeing to disarm Gaza—an Israeli demand—the PA would, in fact, do just that. And, with no elections currently scheduled, Hamas could find itself completely marginalized.

This is, without a doubt, exactly what Egypt wants. Certainly the leadership knows that any attempt to disarm Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza would be met with resistance. But Hamas, at least, is still substantially weakened after the battle with Israel. Egypt might reasonably expect that this fact will lead to a different outcome than the 2007 battle between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in a decisive Hamas victory. Moreover, Abbas has very little legitimacy in Gaza, but if he becomes the Palestinian face of reconstruction and of a marked improvement in the lives of the people there, it would be enough to slowly drain more support from Hamas.

It may well be that, if successful, Egypt would press Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and even allow the construction of an airport and seaport there. This would create a comparative economic boom in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and could keep things calm in the region for an extended period. For Israel, the downside would be increased diplomatic pressure to get back to serious negotiations about a two-state solution. That is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared when the Palestinians struck the unity accord, and the reason why he manipulated the murder of three young Israelis to lead to a much broader attack on Hamas.

But Netanyahu also knows that if there is one thing Israel excels at it’s negotiating endlessly with no results. He also knows that Israel’s behavior in Gaza angered many leaders around the world, particularly with the repeated attacks on UN facilities and the blatant targeting of civilians. Israel’s denials and claims of accidental actions have been greeted with skepticism at best, even in Washington (everywhere, that is, with the obvious exception of the halls of Congress). Israel’s position is not nearly as strong as Netanyahu thought it would be when the fighting stopped. Therefore, it may be that Netanyahu will accept the Palestinian unity government if it can marginalize Hamas.

Egypt certainly will work hard to convince Netanyahu to do so. Netanyahu reaps some benefits from having Hamas, which maintains some degree of control over Gaza but is a frightening specter to Israelis. Israel also enjoys having the Palestinian body politic split between Gaza and the West Bank.

But Egypt, under its new-old regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is quite keen to wipe out what they see as the last vestige of Muslim Brotherhood political power in the region. Egypt gets no benefit from the Palestinian split, and in fact would probably prefer to see the PA under Abbas assume control of Gaza to sideline Hamas. The hope would be that such a PA would work with Egypt to strangle ties between Gaza and militant groups in the Sinai, enabling some indirect assistance in that endeavor from Israel.

But most of all, Sisi wants to wipe out Hamas as a player in the region. That’s not necessarily what Israel wants. But even if the PA once again controls Gaza, and the strip and the West Bank become one territorial unit again, that is a far cry from the circumstances that would create real pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

The UN simply wants to rebuild Gaza, although it’s not very happy with Hamas either, after the group was caught using UN facilities to store weapons. Still, Robert Serry is likely inclined to focus on humanitarian relief rather than regional politics. But in order to do that, it needs to work to ensure that Hamas is not involved in that reconstruction.

Hamas knows all of this, but cannot simply refuse to go to these talks just because they’re in Cairo. Without these negotiations, international relief will not come into Gaza. Egypt has them in a difficult spot.

But Hamas also must be expected to abide by the unity agreement it signed. It knew this was part of it, and if circumstances have made that agreement less palatable, that is the risk it took. What it needs to do now is press for elections as soon as possible, under the terms of that same unity agreement.

By the time such elections could be held, some of the luster will have come off of Hamas’ steadfastness over the summer. And, if it does agree to allow the PA to take over Gaza again, it will also likely be abdicating its position as the leading revolutionary group among Palestinians. From that point on, other factions will be raising weapons against Israel and, quite likely, the PA as well.

Egypt certainly believes that this will eventually lead to Hamas’ disappearance. More sober minds in Israel probably fear that this will strengthen more radical groups in the Palestinian Territories, and they are probably correct.

But in the last analysis, the Palestinians must be unified. In that future, Gaza can be helped and the Palestinians can at least potentially have a representative leadership. The pitfalls are many, and the motives of the various players are dubious to say the least. But the alternatives are all far less likely to produce progress.

Egypt’s Gaza Truce Proposal: What Does it Mean?

This article appeared originally in an edited form at LobeLog.3286231988_476f56d43a_b

According to reports, Egypt has given both Israel and Hamas a take-it-or-leave-it plan for ending the current round of violence. It bears examination, not only for its own intrinsic worth, but also for the implications it has. As of this writing, Hamas has indicated it does not find the proposal “sufficient” in addressing their demands, and Israel has yet to respond directly.

Here is what has been reported: Continue reading

The Lying Game: Failing in Gaza

The fighting in Gaza will continue for some time, as a ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt fell apart. Despite the bellicose language Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has employed over the past week, it was Hamas and not Israel that rejected the proposal. This was, to be sure, the direct result of that proposal not meeting any of Hamas’ demands for a ceasefire and, because as one Israeli official put it, “…we discovered we’d made a cease-fire agreement with ourselves.” The dynamics of this turn of events are important and tell us much about how the ground has changed in the region. We first must ask why Hamas rejected the Egyptian proposal. They have been rather clear about their reasons:

  1. Hamas felt, quite correctly, that Egypt had essentially negotiated this deal with Israel, then presented it as a fait accompli to Hamas. In fact, they said they first heard about it through social media.
  2. Hamas has declared that they intend to come out of this round of fighting with some gains. In particular, they want to end the siege that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007, the release of all the prisoners who had been re-arrested recently after being freed in exchange for Hamas freeing Gilad Shalit in 2011, and the negotiation of a long term truce, as was agreed in 2012, but never acted upon. The terms of the proposal offered no such relief, or any real change to the status quo.
  3. Many among Hamas and other groups believe this proposal was deliberately put forth by Egypt as one Israel would accept and Hamas would reject, in order to legitimize further attacks on Gaza. The way things have unfolded, they may be correct.

Those reasons may show a certain rationality in Hamas’ refusal to accept a ceasefire. Wisdom and real concern for the innocents suffering under Israel’s bombings are far less apparent, however. In fact, Hamas’ refusal to accept the ceasefire completes the process of wiping from the memory of much of the world the fact that Israel initiated this round of fighting.

Rarely has Netanyahu been more accurate than earlier yesterday, when he said “[If Hamas] doesn’t accept the ceasefire proposal…Israel will have all the international legitimacy to broaden its military activity in order to achieve the necessary quiet.” Indeed, Hamas’ decision does exactly that. There will still be expressions of concern from various quarters, but for the most part, pressure on Israel to stop its onslaught from the US, EU, UN and even many Arab states will diminish essentially to zero. It is hard to imagine that the refusal is going to lead to a better deal. The only thing that might, and only might, do that is a massive uptick in civilian deaths from where the number is at now. Hardly something anyone would wish for. So, while Hamas may have had very good reason to reject this deal, it does not seem that rejection is a better option.

Indeed, one may argue that accepting the ceasefire deal with certain reservations may have put Hamas in a better position. At least the massive uptick in death and destruction in Gaza would have been stemmed, even if temporarily.

Egypt’s New Position

Hamas has issued a statement rejecting further Egyptian efforts to mediate a ceasefire. They will now accept only Turkey or Qatar in that role. Those are, not coincidentally, the only two significant states who support the political goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the new Egyptian regime joins Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States in despising.

Egypt has now demonstrated that not only has its position on Hamas hardened since the ouster of the Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi, it is even more antagonistic to Hamas than former President Hosni Mubarak. Given this, it is likely that the role Mubarak frequently played as a broker between Israel and Hamas is not one that the current General/President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can assume, and this was a failed attempt to show that he could.

This will please Netanyahu, who is surely seeing the new Egyptian regime as much more to his liking than anything that ever came before it. But it is going to complicate matters for the United States, all the more so as Israel is not likely to accept Turkey or Qatar as an intermediary. Without Egypt as a broker, the US is going to have a much harder time stabilizing these periodic escalations between Israel and Hamas. This, again, may suit Netanyahu, who believes US President Barack Obama is much too quick to try to end conflicts. But it also makes Israeli decisions as to when to back off more complicated, as the US will not be able to give Israel a way out that shields its leadership at least a little from the political fallout of ending these operations while Hamas is still in control of the Strip.

Hamas’ Weakened Position

Hamas is facing serious isolation. Egypt was surely never very sympathetic to Hamas, even when Morsi was in office. It is now even more firmly in the US-Israeli camp. Hamas’ support for Syrian rebels and the slow thaw of relations between the United States and Iran has (to Netanyahu’s chagrin) cooled the Hamas-Iran relationship, and Qatar has had to back away to some degree from its support of the Brotherhood and its affiliates like Hamas due to pressure from other Gulf states. This is why, despite the forecasts by many that this latest round will end with the status quo more or less maintained, Netanyahu, and probably also Mahmoud Abbas, believes a severe blow can now be struck against Hamas.

Netanyahu believes, not without reason, that this can be done without resorting to the kind of all-out assault, and even re-occupation, which is being pushed by his right flank in Israel. Consider the Islamist group’s current position. It was already struggling to pay workers in Gaza and had been arguing with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah about who bears the responsibility. Egypt’s harder line has been stifling the “tunnel economy,” which was the only method for bringing many goods and supplies into Gaza that Israel would not permit to pass through its blockade. Hamas seemed to have nothing but rhetoric to offer to deal with the situation, and it was losing standing among the Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Islamic Jihad and other, more radical Palestinian factions, which Hamas was generally preventing from taking violent actions against Israel from Gaza, were accusing Hamas of abandoning its revolutionary ideals. Add to this the loss of much of its support from the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, in the wake of the decline of the Brotherhood throughout the region, and it’s not hard to see why Netanyahu believes that, even if the outcome of the current fighting is merely an agreement to go back to the way things were, he will still come out a big winner.

He may be right. But it is more likely that Israel’s continued attacks will cause the various factions to rally together, as they have in the past, strengthening Hamas’ position. It is also more likely to exacerbate the already dire predicament Abbas is in, as he has cracked down in the West Bank to prevent anti-Israel protests during the fighting, sacrificing what little respect and confidence the Palestinians had left in the PA President.

To Cease or not to Cease

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions fighting in Gaza can certainly make the case that they have successfully stood firm under Israel’s attacks while demonstrating that they can shoot their missiles throughout Israel. The rockets being used in many cases were actually made in Gaza, along with what they have been able to smuggle in from outside. The fact that the locally made rockets include some of the medium range ones that have been penetrating farther into Israel than ever before is one reason Hamas is perhaps in less of a rush than one might think to stop the fighting.

The calculus, though, is cold and fails on a number of levels. The most obvious failure is the suffering of the people of Gaza. Over 190 Gazans have been killed, the vast majority civilians. These deaths do raise a great deal of anger among Palestinians against Israel, but to what end? There does not seem to be any victory, or even small gains, on the horizon for which these people are dying. When the fighting dies down, Israel will be the same villain in Gaza it always was, but people are surely going to wonder why the fighting went on for as long as it did with no gains in sight. And that is really the nub of it — there seems to be no hope for Hamas to achieve any of its goals, such as lifting the maritime blockade on Gaza or easing the border crossings. If they are hoping that other forces — such as those in Lebanon, which have lobbed a few projectiles across the border and to which Israel has responded quite forcefully — will be opening another flank against Israel, they are not paying attention to events in Syria and Iraq, which are occupying the efforts of Hezbollah and other parties that might be willing to engage Israel.

There simply isn’t an endgame that represents progress for Hamas. In 2012, when then-Egyptian President Morsi brokered an agreement, Hamas could claim a few minor concessions from Israel (which never really materialized once there was no pressure on Israel to follow through with them). There will be nothing of that sort here, but Hamas seems to be desperately clinging to the hope that it can extract something to base a claim of victory on.

That’s a terrible gamble. It is much more likely that the refusal to agree to a ceasefire is giving Netanyahu exactly what he wants: the chance to deliver a blow to a weakened Hamas regime in Gaza. Hamas has given Netanyahu the means to do this without having to overcome the global opposition that was apparent at the beginning of the current fighting. Their refusal is understandable. Israel has repeatedly failed to live up to prior agreements, and this entire thing does look very much like a setup cooked up by Egypt and Israel.

Still, it seems like the rejection of the ceasefire plays into Netanyahu’s hands even more than going along with it would have. Hamas was faced with two bad options. Some may say they chose the lesser of two evils, but they seem to have opted for the path of salvaging some pride while losing more innocent lives and gaining nothing.