Palestinians Won’t Buy Economic Peace

On Sunday, the Trump administration said that it would release the economic component of the “deal of the century” in late June. That statement is a walkback of an earlier pledge to release the whole plan after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which end on June 5 and June 10, respectively.

     Ashraf Jabari

More than that, the release of the political component—if one even exists—is yet again delayed until an unspecified date later this year.

The reveal of an economic plan hints that there might be a political plan somewhere, while this continuing delay and uncertainty reinforce the notion that there is not. In either case, the economic portion seems to be real enough, as President Donald Trump’s point man on the “deal of the century”—First Son-In-Law Jared Kushner—has assembled a conference to be held in Bahrain in late June to unveil it and to get the wealthy Gulf states to contribute to it.

This is not the first mention of an “economic peace” for the Palestinians. The Trump administration has made no secret of its belief that it can buy Palestinian acquiescence, a view strongly encouraged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has advocated “economic peace” for many years. Read more at LobeLog

Nine Thoughts On The Latest Gaza Flare-Up

Now that the latest flare-up of fighting between Israel and Gaza has subsided, at least for the moment, here are nine thoughts on the clash, the outcomes, and the implications.

  1. Although the timing is suspicious, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably did not launch an operation in Gaza to forestall a developing accommodation with Hamas. The Israeli incursion that sparked the latest conflagration in Gaza was of a kind that Israel carries out on a routine basis. It was, from all appearances, a routine intelligence operation gone awry. Gaza has been a steady source of political losses for Netanyahu, this time as well. His willingness to consent to Qatari cash coming into the Strip was unpopular in Israel, as was his quick agreement to a ceasefire. There was no good reason for Netanyahu to have intentionally gone down this path. Read more at LobeLog

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

Abbas Fails Again

From the time he took over the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it was obvious that Mahmoud Abbas was going to have a difficult road ahead of him. Replacing Yasser Arafat, the charismatic leader of the Palestinian national movement was tough enough. But, among other challenges, Abbas had to wind down the second intifada without destroying the PLO, try to restore some of the faith Arafat had squandered with his autocratic tendencies, cronyism and human rights abuses, and walk the impossible tightrope of fighting against the Israeli occupation while working with Israel under the terms of the Oslo Accords.

History is unlikely to judge Abbas kindly. The deck may have been stacked against him, but even within that context, he has performed poorly.

The recent uproar over Abbas’s speech to the PLO Central Council was a microcosm of Abbas’s tenure. The context of the speech was set by the United States, and the Trump administration’s decision to be uncompromisingly supportive of Israeli policies. The US had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that is a crucial lifeline for Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, and repeatedly criticized the Palestinians for refusing to kowtow to Israeli and American demands to revive the false hope of negotiations.

Abbas’s speech was fiery anger, a reflection of a man who, at 82, has come to realize that he, like his predecessor, was not going to be the first president of Palestine. More than that, the speech reflected a man who had come face to face with the reality that his strategy had been based on a false premise. For years, both critics and supporters of Fatah, Abbas’s party, had been shouting to the heavens that the United States was Israel’s close ally. Contrary to Abbas’s oft-stated belief, this didn’t mean that the US could get Israel to make concessions but, rather, that the US could not possibly be an honest broker. Even the well-intentioned Barack Obama could not break out of that paradigm.

Instead, Donald Trump forced Abbas to face the fact that the US was there to guard Israel’s interests. Abbas could no longer fool himself, and his speech reflected his anger at the inescapable reality. He criticized other Arab states, Hamas, and Great Britain, all of whom he, correctly, sees as being cards in the deck stacked against him. But the United States drew by far the most ire.

This could have been a pivotal moment. This could have been the moment that Abbas announced a new Palestinian strategy that did not rely on the good will of Israel or the good graces of the United States. But even though Abbas and other Palestinian leaders had, in the weeks prior to the speech, hinted that a new strategy was needed, none was forthcoming. Abbas said that the Oslo process was dead and that the United States could no longer be the sole or even lead mediator, he said little about what was to be done instead.

Abbas said that Palestine would join more international treaties and bodies and called for more states to recognize the state that does not exist. But these are years-old strategies that have gotten the Palestinians nothing. The fact that the Palestinians had refrained from such actions earlier only shows how badly boxed in they were by the US-Israel axis. Yes, Israel always expresses annoyance at these things, presumably because for a moment they remind the world that the international consensus has long been that the Palestinians have the right of self-determination. But it soon passes and Palestinian membership in these bodies or treaties becomes the new normal without changing anything on the ground or in the diplomatic arena.

Failing with Europe

There is one body that has an interest in the two-state solution and the potential to pressure Israel into agreeing to what has been the international consensus for decades: the European Union. Any long-term strategy that has any hope of success must focus on the EU.

Abbas seems to have finally come to accept this fact. He has urged the EU to get more involved in reviving the peace process. But his speech to the PLO Central Council only made it harder for the EU to do that.

Abbas said that Israel was a “colonial project” that had “no connection to Judaism.” These points are, of course, a constant source of thorny debate between Zionists and anti-Zionists. But beyond an academic debate, it’s irrelevant. The only plausible reason to debate the nature of the Zionism of a century ago is to debate whether Israel should continue to be. The Israeli right very much wants to keep that debate alive because it allows their ultra-nationalism to flourish in an alternate universe where the Palestinians can threaten the continued existence of Israel. But the Palestinians can’t, and as such, any political strategy must be based on the reality that the state of Israel will continue. Its future may be in the context of a two-state reality as has been envisioned by the international consensus since the 1980s. It may be a future where Zionist Jews and all Palestinians have reached an accommodation to live together in a single state (as much as I do not consider this to be realistic). But in any case, Israel will continue to be.

Abbas’s dredging up of these ancient debates does more than merely rankle Israelis and their supporters. It also makes it harder to get the European behemoth to begin to change course, and that is where Abbas, once again, fails the test of vision and leadership.

At this moment, there is no possibility that the European Union—which is not only a major trading partner with Israel but also the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians, and therefore is footing much of the bill for the occupation—will put any significant pressure on Israel to change its policies regarding the Palestinians and the occupation. Nor will any of the countries in Europe that Israel cares about—the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, and others—exert that pressure. There are many reasons for this, including security and diplomatic concerns. But there are also political concerns that stem from a collective and deserved guilt over Europe’s historical treatment of Jews. While Abbas’s words have not stirred the sort of firestorm in Europe that they did in some sectors in the United States, they still irritate that wound in the European psyche.

There is real potential for change in Europe. Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and irritation with Israel’s often arrogant and sometimes insulting behavior toward Europe creates potential for a political shift there. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is stronger in Europe and has made more progress there than in the United States.

But the same problem that has stymied groups in the US that support Palestinian rights dogs their counterparts in Europe: the Palestinian leadership. While constantly having to dodge spurious accusations of “supporting terrorism” as well as Islamophobia (a very serious concern in Europe as well as the US), the mainstream Palestinian leadership has failed to articulate a coherent strategy, which cripples international efforts.

Abbas just demonstrated how that dynamic works. He made his plea to Europe in the wake of his speech. The EU refrained from criticizing his speech (much to the chagrin of the Israeli right), but their response to Abbas’s requests was telling.

EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini reaffirmed the EU’s support for a two-state solution, but also urged both sides “to speak and act wisely and consistently with a sense of responsibility.” This was obviously a rebuke of Abbas’s speech to the PLO.

Necessary Leverage

The Palestinian people suffer every minute of every day under the yoke of occupation. Many who support their rights, myself included, have been saying for years that the United States cannot be an honest broker, whether it is led by a man with good intentions like Barack Obama or a reckless and bigoted man like Donald Trump. That reality is finally gaining wide acceptance thanks to Trump’s actions and words.

But that is only helpful if another party gets involved. It will take years to move Europe in the direction of material action, but it can happen. Israel will refuse to comply, it will kick and scream, but if Europe curtails its trade or refuses to continue bankrolling the occupation, Israel will have no choice but to negotiate. The EU could well get other powerful countries to help in such a scenario.

This would be a herculean task. It means major change in European tactics and policies. That can only happen through widespread political pressure in Europe. That will be a fight, fought in a place where spurious accusations of anti-Semitism have much deeper historical and legal implications, especially at a time when genuine anti-Semitism in Europe as well as in the US is on the rise.

The odds against success are great, but there seems to be no better alternative. Those odds, however, edge into impossibility if the Palestinian leadership cannot overcome the obstacles of occupation and history and come up with the sort of strategy for success that has been missing since the first intifada, the Palestinians’ only significant victory to date. Abbas’s successor, wherever he or she may come from and whenever he or she may arrive, must do better than he has.

Regime Change in Iran By Other Means

While the Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) is far from safe from attacks by Donald Trump, it is becoming clear that a Plan B is being put in motion. The United States is clearly a part of it, but this time Saudi Arabia is driving the agenda.

The events of the past week – the sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the massive purge of key political, security, and business figures in Saudi Arabia, a missile heading toward Riyadh from Yemen which the Saudis called an act of war – are all part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) drive to consolidate power. His radical grab, which started in the spring, has dramatically altered the nature of Saudi politics, alienating many in the ruling family, breaking with established norms of quietly dealing with political rivalries within that family, and removing a system of checks on autocratic power that, though weak, were not meaningless.

It is impossible to know how all of this will end, but here are some initial thoughts:

  • This is not just an internal Saudi political matter—it is going to have serious regional and global ripples.
  • There is very good reason to believe that the Trump administration is a partner in this adventurism, and some strong indicators that the Netanyahu government in Israel is as well.
  • At its core, as much as MbS wants to consolidate his own power, this is about upping the ante with Iran in the hopes of defeating the Saudis’ Persian rival.

The Push For Regime Change Continues

Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal has not been the death knell for the JCPOA that the president and the leaders in Riyadh and Jerusalem may have hoped. The European Union stands firm behind the deal, and that has reverberated in Washington. There is a bill in the works in the Senate, informally named for the Republican Senators working on it – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) – but its contents are still unclear, and the clock is ticking.

This does not mean the deal is safe, by any means. European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini found strong Republican distaste for the deal when she came to lobby in favor of it on Tuesday. And even if the December 14 deadline for Congress to act in response to Trump’s refusal to certify passes with no action, Republicans in Congress, as well as the president, could try to shred the deal again.

But the costs have become too clear: undermining faith in any president’s future ability to negotiate, further straining ties with European allies who are already alienated by Trump, and, of course, potentially unleashing Iran’s quick march to a nuclear weapon are all going to be tough obstacles to overcome.

But there is more than one way to change a regime. The Saudis have no reason to hang their hopes for a more aggressive stance toward Iran on whether the JCPOA lives or dies. Nor does Donald Trump. For that matter, neither does Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was recently in Saudi Arabia for the third time this year, meeting with the MbS. It beggars belief that the proximity of that visit and the bold Saudi moves are mere coincidence.

If further proof is needed, Trump provided it. The day after the mass arrests, Trump called King Salman, making no mention of what by that time was already being referred to as a purge. That was, without a doubt, a tacit endorsement. Trump also tweeted a request that a public offering by ARAMCO, the Saudi oil giant, be carried out in the New York Stock Exchange after a key ARAMCO board member had been arrested the night before.

Finally, while the dust was still settling on Monday, Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi purge. All of this strongly indicates that Trump, via Kushner, was informed and gave his stamp of approval to the Saudi actions.

Lebanese Turmoil

The Trump-MbS partnership, however, was not limited to those two players. For Israel, the main obstacles to a closer partnership with the Saudis are external to the kingdom. Although Netanyahu may well be pleased that MbS is consolidating his power, it doesn’t mean as much to him as it might to Trump, who enjoys an open and close relationship with Saudi royalty.

But the announcement by Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri that he was resigning held a great deal of interest for Israel.

Hariri’s stated reason—that he feared an assassination attempt, like the one that killed his father in 2005—is not very convincing. If he was this worried, he never would have taken the job, and the Lebanese military has stated that it is unaware of any such plot. Moreover, it is unclear what Hezbollah and Iran, whom Hariri accused of the plot, would gain from his assassination.

Hariri had just met with a key Iranian official when he was very suddenly summoned to Riyadh where he announced his resignation on Saudi TV. He has not returned to Lebanon since. The overwhelming consensus is that he was ordered to quit by the Saudis to upset the delicate political balance he was maintaining in a Lebanese government largely controlled by Hezbollah.

The Shi’a militia group, however, was working with Hariri to maintain the balance that had been struck nearly two years ago, ending years of instability and governmental paralysis. Hezbollah’s strong connection to Iran gives the Islamic Republic a strong foothold in the Levant and extended its reach beyond territory controlled by its ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis are trying to change that and turn back Iran’s reach.

In an utterly unprecedented move, Israel directed its diplomats to hew absolutely to the Saudi line regarding Hariri’s resignation. As reported by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, the diplomatic cable instructed all Israeli diplomats to parrot the Saudi view that Hariri’s resignation showed how Iran, through Hezbollah, has destabilize Lebanese politics. The diplomats were instructed to make clear to their host countries that Iran and Hezbollah must be viewed as threats and that Israel urged support for Saudi Arabia in its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen.

A missile was apparently heading from Yemen to Riyadh when it was shot down. The Saudis called this “an act of war,” a phrase with ominous potential. Although Israeli diplomats were not specifically instructed regarding that wording, they were told to stress that “the missile launch by the Houthis towards Riyadh calls for applying more pressure on Iran & Hezbollah.”

Meanwhile, the Saudis brought Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh just before the Palestinian Authority demanded full security control in the Gaza Strip, placing a major obstacle in the path of Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas, which had recently reiterated its own solidarity with Hezbollah, reacted angrily to the decision, although it always seemed likely that a reconciliation deal brokered by Egypt, given its antipathy for Hamas, was going to contain a trap for the Islamic militant group. Clearly, the Saudis are hoping to find a way to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories so they can work more openly with Israel, and they see breaking Hamas away from Iran as a key part of that plan.

What Comes Next?

The Saudis are playing a very dangerous game. Although all the indications are that Israel and the United States are backing them, it’s not clear how far that support will go. All three countries are determined to confront Iran, almost certainly with the hope of regime change. This is a goal that cannot be stated explicitly, however, as it would certainly generate controversy in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in Israel. That could lead to political pressure that would limit options. If, however, Iran can be provoked to respond to aggression with military force, it is probable that support for a strong counter-response would grow in both countries, possibly sufficient to blunt any opposition and open up many more options, including military ones.

The Saudis need such a boost. MbS may have consolidated his power through swift and ruthless action, but his policies are not providing him with the basis for ongoing support. Yemen has turned into a quagmire and a humanitarian catastrophe, painting the Saudis, correctly, as brutal and uncaring about civilians. The attempt to isolate Qatar has not met with much success, and that act has jeopardized the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Saudi-backed forces in Syria have by and large come out on the short end of battle there and have been forced to abandon their ambitions of toppling the Assad regime.

MbS needs a win. Lebanon is where he now hopes to get it. The fragile stability Lebanon has enjoyed in recent months is not likely to withstand the Saudi meddling. Hezbollah will have an opportunity now to try to bring the country together to combat “outside interference,” a line which, after a history of Syrian domination, will have considerable appeal across a wide spectrum of the Lebanese people.

Israel, for its part, has been raising the level of its own aggression against Hezbollah in Syria. Netanyahu will try to bring more international pressure to bear against the Shi’a group. The U.S. Congress recently passed new sanctions against Hezbollah as well and urged Europe to add the group to its list of terrorist groups.

Hezbollah cannot afford to give Israel an excuse to attack it. Some see this as a way for Hezbollah to regain some of its old prestige, but the actual result is more likely to be disastrous. Israel is quite capable of decimating Lebanon. Although all of Lebanon would unite in its anger toward Israel, if Hezbollah were perceived as risking Lebanese civilians, many would turn their wrath on the militia group.

Netanyahu, for his part, might like to deal a crushing blow to Iran’s Lebanese ally, but it may not be so easy. Israelis have been living in relative quiet since 2014. Many remember the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and the evacuation of much of northern Israel, and will stand against another such conflict. Hezbollah, since that time, has been careful to avoid giving Israel an excuse to bomb Lebanon again.

Trump has shown no signs of wanting to put US troops at risk. Indeed, he has handed off much of his responsibility as commander-in-chief to his generals. But if Israel is involved in serious fighting, especially if it is not going well, it is hard to say what he would do. He seems absolutely committed to regime change in Iran, even if he has not come out and said so. His uncompromising stance on Iran, combined with the fact that neoconservative heroine Nikki Haley seems to have his ear on the subject, indicates that he is willing to go as far as he feels he can.

Trump and Netanyahu must both walk a tightrope. There is a lot of opposition in the Israeli military as well as in Trump’s own cabinet to igniting a new Middle East conflict in the hopes of toppling the Iranian regime. Yet that seems to be what both men want. Perhaps they pursue such a folly to escape domestic scandals, or because they are myopically ideological, but the reasons are not important. They are on board with Saudi Arabia.

Considering MbS’ track record, this is a risky proposition at best. As Bruce Riedel of the Brooking Institution put it, “The king and his son have embraced the most virulent sectarianism in the modern kingdom’s history against Shia at home and abroad. The Saudis encouraged Lebanese Prime Minister Saed Hariri to quit his post, apparently hoping to isolate Hezbollah. Now the Saudis are saying they are at war with the group. Most likely the gambit will ricochet and benefit the Iranians and Hezbollah.”

Here in the United States, the same neoconservatives who destroyed Iraq are going to support the Saudi moves. Although they might prefer the United States to take the lead, at least diplomatically, they will settle for following the Saudis.

Israel will be less willing to simply adhere to the Saudi plan, but Netanyahu knows that Israeli adventurism against Iran is not an option. The Israeli military and intelligence communities thwarted that idea before, and that was before the nuclear deal, when it was possible to convince Israelis that Iran was an existential threat, even though it wasn’t. Netanyahu is loath to allow other countries to determine the course Israel will follow, but if Trump essentially abdicates leadership on this issue to MbS, Netanyahu will have few options.

As Riedel pointed out, that’s just what Trump has done. So, the Saudis are going to try to up the ante with Iran, first in Lebanon and Yemen, and, perhaps later, elsewhere. Even MbS must realize that a direct conflict with Iran will serve no one’s interest. But if provocations continue, that is one of the paths that might be taken, whether intentionally or not.

Saudi Arabia is now a very unstable monarchy. That could change over time, but it also could get worse. Moreover, MbS’s “bold steps” in Yemen, with Qatar, and even at home have thus far proven to be detrimental for all, including for Saudi interests. This is where the president of the United States has put not only his faith, but the fate of the entire Middle East, with repercussions that will certainly be felt in the United States. That should concern us all.