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February 22, 2018 4:03 pm

Playing Charades? Or Dealing a Bad Hand in the Form of So-Called Peace

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin / JNS.org

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US officials Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman and Jared Kushner meet in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s Washington envoy Ron Dermer, June 2017. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO via Netanyahu’s Twitter account.

JNS.org – On a day when many of those interested in the Middle East were mulling over new corruption charges leveled at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than the latest bloviating in New York, the UN Security Council meeting devoted to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians didn’t achieve a thing.

The session was nonetheless useful in one sense. If the US delegation is serious about making good on its promise to put forward a new Middle East peace plan, then surely they recognized the gap between reality and what passes for serious discussion at the council. It’s simply too great to be overcome, even if the scheme being devised by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and his team is as clever as they’d like us to think.

The real question about the US plan is not whether or not it will work. It’s why are Kushner and envoy Jason Greenblatt even trying?

Optimists claimed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas struck a moderate tone in his address to the council, in which he advocated for the beginning of a multilateral negotiation where Russia, rather than the United States, would play the key role. But coming as it did only weeks after delivering an antisemitic speech to his people — when he made it clear the PA didn’t recognize Israel’s legitimacy within any borders — why should anyone treat his pose as a would-be peacemaker seriously?

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Abbas chose to treat President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as the end of the peace process, despite the fact that nothing in the American stand precluded a two-state solution or even a redivision of the holy city. Locked in a never-ending struggle with the Islamists of Hamas for support of the Palestinian street, Abbas has torpedoed every peace negotiation since succeeding Yasser Arafat in 2005. His routine of vacillating between inciting Palestinians to violence — such as his vow not to let “stinking Jewish feet” profane Jerusalem’s holy places, which helped set off the “stabbing intifada” — echoed in official PA media (and even schools) with more moderate remarks convinces no one.

Abbas’s goal is to appear sufficiently hostile to Israel and the Jews in order to compete successfully with Hamas for Palestinian public opinion, while doing nothing to instigate fighting that might result in his fall from power.

Sitting in front of Kushner and Greenblatt, US Ambassador to the United Nations Niki Haley summed up the situation when she reminded Abbas that the United States was ready negotiate peace, but had no intention of chasing after him. Moreover, she rightly pointed out that the United Nation’s disproportionate focus on the conflict in a way that demonstrated its consistent prejudice against Israel encourages Palestinian intransigence, not peace.

Administration sources say there will be parts that both sides will dislike, but that the plan provides a path to peace. But since Abbas consistently resisted the overtures of an Obama administration that was more sympathetic to him than that of Trump, it’s hard to imagine him ever saying yes to anything. If he’s unwilling to stop funding terrorism by paying salaries and pensions to terrorists and their families, how is it possible to think that he’ll ever agree to anything that resembles peace?

Nor, to be fair, is Israel’s government in any position to negotiate right now. With Netanyahu under pressure from his right-wing coalition partners and considering calling for early elections to forestall efforts to oust him due to corruption charges, this is not the moment for America to expect him to be risking his political life to make potentially dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. Moreover, despite concerns about his future, Netanyahu still embodies a broad consensus of Israeli opinion about the Palestinians — one that correctly sees no viable peace partner in a possible negotiation. Any attempt to replicate the 2005 Gaza experiment, in which settlements were dismantled, is utter madness.

Yet Kushner is still trying. And he is likely to unveil a proposal at some point in the not-too-distant future.

There are two reasons for this. One involves his father-in-law’s ego. Trump may actually still believe that his negotiating skills can bridge any gap between the parties in pursuit of the “ultimate deal.” The idea of succeeding where all his predecessors failed still entices him, even if the odds — and common sense — are stacked against him.

But a better answer may be that Trump, like every other president, thinks playing at Middle East peace is a necessary part of US diplomacy.

Russia’s UN ambassador issued a familiar warning about the window of opportunity for peace as starting to close. But that window has been firmly shut during the last decade, ever since Abbas walked away from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza, in addition to a share of Jerusalem.

Key Sunni Arab states have tired of Palestinian intransigence and have given up seriously advocating for a solution that would give their brethren an independent state — one that would likely be another unstable target for extremists. Yet considering the importance of the issue to international Muslim opinion, they still pay lip service to the Palestinian cause even while they send signals — as they did after Trump’s Jerusalem statement — that they won’t lift a finger to help. They don’t wish to be accused by radicals and the Iranians of being de facto allies of Israel, even though they are.

That’s why the Arab states want Trump to continue to play the peace-process game in spite of it having no hope of success. It is nothing more than an empty gesture. In that way, another effort at reviving negotiations that everyone knows the Palestinians will reject in one way or another seems to suit the purposes of all sides.

Are there costs to this charade?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Another public failure will strengthen the most radical Palestinian factions and could, especially if Iran thinks it serves their cause, lead to another round of fighting in Gaza, or serve as the excuse for a war between Israel and Hezbollah across a two-front border with Lebanon and Syria.

That’s why Trump needs to rethink starting something he can’t finish. As much as he may crave the ultimate deal, the president should also remember how much he hates losing — and tell his son-in-law to keep his peace plan on the shelf.

Jonathan S. Tobin is the editor-in-chief of JNS — The Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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