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World & Nation

A Trump Middle East peace plan initiative minus Israelis and Palestinians

ISRAEL-US-PALESTINIAN-CONFLICT
Jared Kushner shakes hands May 30 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as U.S. special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt looks on.
(Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

Any U.S. hopes of seeing representatives of Persian Gulf countries publicly greeting Israeli counterparts in Bahrain in the next few days as a means of persuading Palestinians to accept a peace plan apparently came and went.

Instead, a piece of President Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan — a top U.S. foreign policy initiative — will be shared during a much less ambitious gathering Tuesday and Wednesday that White House officials are calling a “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop.

The White House website on Saturday posted a plan to help Palestinians that was described as having the potential to facilitate more than $50 billion in new investment over 10 years. Its three initiatives focus on people, economy and government, and could transform the West Bank and Gaza, according to the plan.

“Peace to Prosperity lays out a vision for a prosperous Palestinian society supported by a robust private sector, an empowered people, and an effective government,” the plan says. “It shows what is possible with peace plus investment, and how success is achievable through specific programs supported by a portfolio of realizable projects.”

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No Palestinian representative, however, will attend the gathering in Bahrain. Palestinian leadership has boycotted the United States since Trump’s December 2017 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, omitting any reference to Palestinian aspirations to establish the capital of a future state in east Jerusalem.

And ultimately, the U.S. did not invite Israel to the Bahrain gathering.

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, said the oft-postponed Middle East peace plan’s final presentation will be delayed again, “probably” until early November, because of the Israeli electoral calendar. Greenblatt has said that while the Bahrain conference will address economic steps, the plan’s political components will be announced later.

It is unclear what remains of the “ultimate deal” for Middle East peace that Trump has been championing since his 2016 campaign, and few observers believe he will risk announcing any major peace plan during his 2020 reelection campaign.

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This is a remarkable denouement for a policy Trump was singularly focused on even before taking office, when he appointed Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and protégé, to spearhead the plan.

On Jan. 19, 2017, at an inauguration eve dinner for top Republican supporters, Trump affectionately turned to Kushner, who was seated with his wife, Trump’s older daughter Ivanka, and who had celebrated his 36th birthday nine days earlier. Trump declared, “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.”

Two and a half years later, Kushner, a real estate developer with no previous experience in diplomacy or politics, has shown no signs of bringing peace to the region. The administration is also in the midst of heightened tensions with Iran.

Recent conversations with senior Palestinian and Israeli officials privy to Kushner’s work indicate that neither side expects to be provided with an American road map for Middle East peace in the foreseeable future.

In separate interviews this month, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom are familiar with the Kushner team’s efforts, told The Times they believed the initiative was unlikely to advance beyond the Bahrain workshop.

“It will be the biggest embarrassment for Kushner,” Erekat said in an hour-long interview in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“We appreciate the [nature of the] relationship between Kushner and Trump,” he said, but the workshop is “already a failure.”

Israeli officials confirmed they were not invited to the Bahrain conference.

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In Washington, a senior Trump administration official explained the U.S. decision not to invite Israel as a way to focus on economics instead of politics.

“This is about presenting an economic vision for the Palestinian people,” the official told The Times. “We will not be discussing any of the political aspects to our plan.”

The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have thus far confirmed their attendance.

European Union Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who recently met with Kushner to discuss the initiative, said her organization would send a low-level official to the conference.

Erekat is an old hand at Middle East negotiations. He has known Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for more than 30 years.

Erekat listed gestures of support Netanyahu has received from the Trump administration, including the 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, the withdrawal of American aid to the Palestinians and, in September, the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

“I haven’t seen more damage done to America’s image and interests as I’ve seen during [the Trump administration’s] period,” he said, adding that in his view, “This [Kushner] team wants to brush Palestinians aside.”

Erekat said that between January and November 2017, before relations were ruptured, he met with the task force of Kushner, Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman 37 times — almost once a week.

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He said he believes the United States has no plan beyond the unilateral moves it has already undertaken. “This is it,” he said, repeating, “this is it.”

Avigdor Lieberman, an Israeli hard-liner, seemed to agree, but in starkly different terms.

“Trump has been very helpful,” he said in an hour-long conversation at his office in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem. “This is the first administration that has said the truth to Palestinians.”

Lieberman said the term “peace process” was irrelevant in the explosive region. “You will never see, at least in the next generation, any peace in the Middle East.”

For more than two years, in spite of recurrent postponements, many observers have believed that Trump would eventually present guidelines for a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if only to fulfill his campaign promise.

Daniel Benjamin, director of Dartmouth College’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, believes there would be little to distinguish a possible Kushner plan from today’s facts on the ground.

“The Trump administration’s policy for the region is to give the Israelis everything that Netanyahu wants and set up a scenario in which the Palestinians are forced to reject it,” thus providing the White House with “the excuse it needs to continue a basically punitive policy towards the Palestinians,” he said.

Kushner’s team has not divulged any aspect of the peace initiative. But in public remarks, Kushner strongly suggested that the two-state solution called for under the Oslo accords, a U.S.-sponsored peace process of the mid-1990s, was no longer an important component.

And in recent weeks, Netanyahu, Friedman and Greenblatt each mentioned the potential U.S. recognition of unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War, in violation of international law.

The U.S. State Department has declined to condemn talk of annexation, saying the idea remains hypothetical.

Lieberman, however, is making a play for the support of Israel’s substantial secular and right-leaning voters, who he assesses are unenthusiastic about these more messianic aspects of Netanyahu’s and Trump’s aspirations.

A onetime ally of Netanyahu, Lieberman is viewed as his most formidable rival and acted as a spoiler after April elections when he blocked Netanyahu from forming a governing coalition. That is forcing Israel into a second round of elections, on Sept. 17, for the first time in its history.

Israel’s absence from the Bahrain summit appears close to U.S. acknowledgement of the end of its hopes for a peace process.

Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said, however, that no Trump plan does not equal no impact of Trump’s policies for the region.

In an interview with The Times, Shapiro, a fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the piecemeal implementation of Trump’s vision for the Middle East, with no framework for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, reflects a change in the region’s status quo and in the U.S. role.

The impact of “support for Israeli positions inconsistent with two states, total alienation of the United States from the Palestinians, weakening of the Palestinians’ narrative, and an attempt to get Arab states to look like they have abandoned their political aspirations” is destabilizing, he said.

By not inviting Israel to Bahrain, the United States has spared the leaders of its Persian Gulf allies a poisoned chalice: the domestically untenable image of an Israeli and a Saudi Arabian shaking hands at the expense of Palestinians.

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and Scott Kraft in Jerusalem and Ramallah contributed to this report.


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