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Trump's 'ultimate deal' for Middle East peace meets resistance, throwing rollout into question

Trump's 'ultimate deal' for Middle East peace meets resistance, throwing rollout into question
In a file photo from March, President Trump, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House in Washington. The two have a friendly relationship. (Associated Press)

Two months ago, the long-awaited release of the Trump administration’s ambitious plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, what the president has called the “ultimate deal,” seemed imminent.

President Trump’s two top envoys to the peace process — Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and advisor, and Jason Greenblatt, a former senior Trump Organization lawyer — had prepared and begun to circulate a 40-page draft.

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But the proposal hit a wall. Persian Gulf Arab states, which have courted and been courted by Trump, flatly rejected terms they saw as radical, pro-Israel and out of line with traditional U.S. policy and international law, according to officials familiar with the peace-seeking process.

Jordan and Egypt, which had similarly promising beginnings with Trump, also scotched the terms.

As a result of that opposition, the administration backed away from publicly revealing its plan and has switched to a different approach: increasing pressure on the Palestinians in hopes of pushing them to the negotiating table.

The Palestinian leadership has refused to talk to the U.S. team since Trump decided in December to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, upending decades of U.S. policy because the holy city is also claimed by the Palestinians.

Kushner and Greenblatt, who have supported right-wing Israeli causes such as the expansion of Jewish settlements in land claimed by the Palestinians, have backed a strategy of punishing the Palestinians as part of an effort — so far unsuccessful — to change their stance. The two men have been joined in their approach by David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, who has also supported the Israeli right wing.

The administration has largely kept its plan under wraps. But based on what officials have presented to other countries and comments by current and former American officials, some details have become known.

The plan would not grant any part of Jerusalem proper to the Palestinians. It would leave in place nearly all current Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And it would allow Israel to retain control of airspace over the entire region as well as the border along the Jordan River on the eastern edge of the West Bank and Israel.

Finally, the plan would eliminate the so-called right of return: the idea that some Palestinians whose families lived in what is now Israel before the nation’s independence would have the right to regain land.

Those terms would require the Palestinians to give up much of their long-standing demands. In the most recent example of the administration’s effort to pressure them into acceptance, the State Department announced Friday that the United States will no longer contribute to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees, calling the it an “irredeemably flawed operation.”

Until the Palestinians stop “bashing” the United States and agree to return to negotiations, they can expect to lose U.S. aid, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said last week at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Arab countries should aid the Palestinians more themselves, rather than expect the U.S. to pay for it, Haley and other U.S. officials say.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration cut in half its contribution to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides schools, medical care and other assistance to 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Jordan.

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The decision announced Friday will end the U.S. contribution entirely, cutting off about $315 million — or about one-third of the U.N. agency’s total annual budget. Critics say that will exacerbate humanitarian problems and foment instability that could threaten Israel.

The Trump administration has several complaints about the U.N. agency, but the one that potentially has the most far-reaching impact is that UNWRA vastly overcounts the number of eligible refugees. The U.N. counts as refugees not just the 700,000 Arabs driven from their homes by Israel’s 1948 independence war, but also millions of their descendants, Haley noted.

She spurred headlines in the Middle East when she added that the “right of return” -- must be reexamined.

The refugee issue is a fundamental cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most experts agree a right of return has become more an abstract idea than a real possibility; under most peace proposals in recent decades, a small number of Palestinians might be allowed to return to land in Israel while most would receive compensation. Still, successive U.S. administrations declined to jettison the concept altogether, saying that the status of refugees should be one of the final issues resolved in a peace agreement.

Veteran Mideast diplomats say the administration’s attack on UNWRA represents an effort to undercut the Palestinians by denying one of their chief demands even before negotiations restart.

“The U.S. drive to change the long-established principles of a deal have been more than music” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Nimrod Novik, former advisor to the late Israeli prime minister and peacemaker Shimon Peres.

“I suspect that he has been the driving force behind it: Take Jerusalem off the table, then take refugees off too,” said Novik, a fellow at the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for Israeli and Palestinian states coexisting side by side. “All before we change attitudes on security and eventually on borders as well.”

The Palestinian leadership blasted Haley’s comments and the cutoff in UNRWA funds as an affront to international law that demonstrated hostility to Palestinians and their rights.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, said Trump’s envoys were proposing that Palestinians form a “confederation” with Jordan, already home to millions of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas and his supporters saw the U.S. proposal as a thinly veiled attempt to subvert the goal of Palestinian statehood.

Kushner and Greenblatt, unable to gain traction on their broader plan, have also sought to turn attention to the impoverished Gaza Strip, a seafront enclave hemmed in by Israel and Egypt. They’ve proposed investment and an influx of aid to Gaza, primarily to be paid for by Arab countries.

That seemed to contradict the U.S. goal of seeing the Palestinian Authority displace Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers.

Kushner has said he was uninterested in the history or background of the generations-old and seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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But diplomats, experts and even the Israeli military caution that siding so heavily with Israel, and taking from Palestinians any hope for eventual independence, could lead to more violence in the region.

David Harden, a former assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who led operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Obama administration, agrees that UNRWA currently “subsidizes dysfunction” and must be reformed. But he said the Trump administration’s approach is likely to backfire.

“You can’t go from 100% to zero [funding] overnight,” Harden said. “It will create a vacuum. And who will step in to fill it? The Palestinian Authority? Israel? No one will pay. And that creates a big opening for Hamas,” the Islamist organization that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S.

David D. Pearce, who served as U.S. consul general in Jerusalem in the George W. Bush administration, echoed that warning.

“It will not create diplomatic leverage to take away funding for schools and health services,” he said on Twitter. “It will create hatred.”

The administration “sees this as an opportunity to realign American policy in a way not seen in 25 years,” veteran Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller said, “and to make it more difficult for successive administrations to reset.”

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