Squaring the Regional Solution Circle

April 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah both in Washington this week for meetings with President Trump, undoubtedly the regional solution for Middle East peace came up during their White House discussions. This approach, which has been touted for years by Prime Minister Netanyahu and now seems to be favored by Trump as well, encompasses the idea that Israel should engage with Arab states in order to come to a set of understandings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will eventually lead to Israel’s full integration into the region. Many have seized on this idea as an obvious situation in which all sides win, and from an Israeli perspective, a deal that involves the wider Middle East is far preferable to one that does not.

Nevertheless, there are serious misconceptions floating around about what a regional solution would actually entail and what is workable. As this idea gains currency in policy circles, it is important to understand that different people define it in different ways, and that some definitions are far more realistic and feasible than others.

One of the biggest sticking points is whether a regional solution involves the two-state solution. I recently watched an audience applaud a speaker who said that he favors a regional solution rather than a two-state solution, at which point he quickly interrupted his newfound fans to clarify that the former necessarily involves the latter. Many on the Israeli right, including Netanyahu, speak about a regional process that deals with other issues aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The theory behind this is that Israel and its neighbors have an unprecedented confluence of interests arising from a joint fear of Iranian influence, and that cooperation is inevitable. Indeed, there is already cooperation on intelligence and defense issues that takes place behind closed doors, in addition to the more public coordination that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan due to the peace treaties it has signed with both states. The thinking is that security interests will outweigh all else, and that as private relationships develop and harden over time, Israel’s acceptance by Arab states will follow irrespective of whether there is movement on the Palestinian issue or not.

Relatedly, there is confusion over whether any formal negotiating track with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and others has to involve negotiations with the Palestinians too, even if the subject of discussion is the peace process. The theory here is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is secondary to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been going on for longer, and that the Palestinians will never fully accept Israel’s existence until the other Arab states do so first. Since the wider Arab-Israeli conflict does not include thorny issues like borders – only Syria still has a territorial dispute with Israel – it should theoretically be easier to resolve, as the parties are no longer fighting over anything tangible and the joint security and economic benefits of full diplomatic relations are too large to just throw away. In this formulation, not only does a regional solution not have to include the creation of an independent Palestine, it does not have to include the Palestinians in any way.

Using a regional solution, however, as a way to bypass two states and bypass the Palestinians entirely are both dangerous misconceptions that rest on two fundamental misunderstandings. The first is that Israel can engage with regional Arab states on its own terms entirely rather than on theirs. In order to have any type of negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, you have to get both sides to the table, and the other side has made it abundantly clear that it is unwilling to engage with Israel unless Israel also engages with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli government speak about the regional solution as a way to bypass the Palestinians, but Arab states – including Egypt and Jordan, who already have diplomatic relations with Israel – are adamant that the regional solution will only exist as a parallel track to one that Israel establishes with the Palestinians. One of the easiest ways to identify someone who has never actually read the Arab Peace Initiative or has never had a conversation with an Arab government official is if they talk about the regional process as a way to cut the Palestinians out.

To be clear, Israel does not and should not have to simply acquiesce to what the other side wants; just as the Arab states need not accept Israel’s terms, Israel need not accept theirs. But the API is premised on the creation of a Palestinian state, and Arab governments have never wavered in their public or private declarations that they will not engage with Israel at the Palestinians’ expense. Israel can decide that it has lived its entire existence without formal diplomatic relations with the bulk of its regional neighbors and that reversing this situation is not worth the price, but it is foolhardy to speak as if the price can be waived. People who want to intelligently discuss the prospects for a wider regional peace should minimally understand what it would involve.

The second misunderstanding is that Arab states’ interests will outweigh their domestic politics, or that public opinion and internal political considerations somehow don’t matter in non-democracies. It is easy to see why a state like Saudi Arabia would benefit from closer relations with Israel in spheres large and small, from using Israeli intelligence in developing a joint strategy to contain Iran to buying Israeli technology. But particularly in the wake of the failed Arab Spring revolutions, Arab regimes are highly sensitive to anything that will imperil the stability of their rule, and being seen by their citizens as having sold out the Palestinians is the fast track to domestic unrest. The ways in which these regimes cynically and instrumentally employ the plight of the Palestinians to improve their popularity while not doing anything tangible to actually help the Palestinians is legendary, but the fact that the move is a cynical one does not make it ineffective. So long as the Palestinian cause is an easy rallying cry for Arab publics, their governments are not going to normalize relations with Israel, or even embrace Israel in a limited way, until there is serious movement toward a Palestinian state.

The Israeli government can hope all it wants that this situation will change over time as Arab states view Israel as increasingly indispensable and too valuable not to engage with, but that is not the current state of affairs. If the regional solution is to materialize, it will involve a better appreciation not only of what is possible, but what is necessary.


Taking Trump Literally And Seriously

February 23, 2017 § 1 Comment

Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?

Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.

Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.

In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.

It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.

Trump, Netanyahu, and the Embassy Move That Wasn’t

January 26, 2017 § 1 Comment

As President Trump had promised multiple times during the presidential campaign, the issue of moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was indeed on the agenda during his very first week in office. The result, however, was not what had been promised. Rather than following through on the pledge to move the embassy immediately, and fulfilling the implicit promise of Sean Spicer’s teaser on the day before the inauguration to “stay tuned” on the issue, the Trump administration instead slammed on the brakes. On Monday, Spicer said that no decision had been made on moving the embassy, that the White House was still early in the decision making process, that Trump could do it right now by executive order if he wanted to but was explicitly declining to do so, and that the administration had to consult more with the State Department. Spicer later reiterated the point in response to a question, saying, “If it was already a decision, we wouldn’t be going through the process.”

While some in the Israeli government, such as Miri Regev and Ze’ev Elkin, chose to take a glass half full approach by focusing on the statement that the administration is in the beginning stages of the embassy move, others – rightly in my view – saw this as the first step in a drawn out process that may well draw itself out until the very end of Trump’s tenure as president. Certainly it was quite the turnaround from Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail to move the embassy on day one, and presumably came as a shock to the various pro-Israel voters and organizations that ranked the embassy move as high on their list of reasons for casting their vote for Trump or backing Trump on November 8. Most interestingly, the announcement that any embassy move was not going to be imminent came after Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu had their first phone conversation since Trump took office on Friday.

Like much else surrounding Trump and as I have reiterated before, there is no way of knowing yet precisely what he is going to do on Israel, but this early encounter over the embassy hints at some emerging dynamics that will have impacts on related issues down the line. Not only does this episode suggest that the embassy will stay put for the duration of the Trump administration, it suggests that the Netanyahu government’s unbridled enthusiasm over Trump’s election may have been premature.

Do not underestimate the importance that Netanyahu’s coalition partners place on the issue of the embassy moving to Jerusalem. It figured prominently in the congratulatory messages issued by government officials to Trump after his election, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked made it a centerpiece of her speech to the Institute for National Security Studies conference on Tuesday. An immediate announcement on the embassy was part of Naftali Bennett’s assessment that the next four years of Israeli policy under Trump would be established in the first four weeks of the administration, as Israel would be able to take advantage of a new White House trying to find its footing and create a new set of norms surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. Yet despite the repeated campaign promises and the chaos engulfing the first few days of the Trump presidency, the embassy remains in Tel Aviv indefinitely until further notice.

It is reasonable to assume that two things happened. The first is that the Trump administration heard from Sunni allies in the region – Jordan and Egypt in particular – immediately upon taking office, and that the first thing the White House heard from them was how disastrous moving the embassy would be to their own stability. Skeptics point out that there is no way of definitively knowing whether protests or unrest over an embassy move will materialize or how damaging they would be, but the Jordanian government firmly believes that the U.S. moving the embassy will not only damage their own position but place long term cooperation with Israel at risk. Despite the tangible success of the peace treaty and the various cooperative security and economic projects between Israel and Jordan, that cooperation comes at a high domestic political cost. If the American embassy is relocated to Jerusalem, Jordan cannot do anything that will endanger American assistance, so the only available move to the government to quell popular anger will be to downgrade its relationship with Israel. That will be bad for Israel and bad for Jordan, and an outcome that the Trump administration will want to avoid. It is not a stretch to say that King Abdullah is one of the most popular and credible foreign leaders with Congress, and undoubtedly the nascent Trump administration will view him similarly. The king is the keynote speaker at the national prayer breakfast next week, and it is unlikely that he would show up in the wake of being embarrassed at home by an embassy move.

This suggests that contrary to the hope in some quarters that the Israeli government would be given a blank check by Trump, other regional voices are going to be given weight even when their preferences contradict with the most hawkish pro-Israel position. Perhaps this is because Trump wants buy-in for his top regional foreign policy priority, which appears from his rhetoric to this point to be the fight against ISIS; perhaps this is because he was serious in his desire to make the “ultimate deal” and was told by the Jordanians, Palestinians, and others that an embassy move would destroy any chances of resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution; perhaps it is because a president who had no history of embracing the Israeli right until he ran for president was willing to say anything he thought helpful to get elected and sold the Israeli and American Jewish right a bill of goods. Whatever the answer, it makes no sense for Trump to delay on the embassy move if he is serious about it. The domestic political benefits of doing so evaporate the longer he waits, and by ardently promising to do so as recently as last week and then turning on a dime, he is actually damaging his position with many on the right and with the more hawkish segment of American Jewry. This looks like a repeat of the George W. Bush administration, where Candidate Bush promised to move the embassy while President Bush spent eight years examining the feasibility of it.

The second thing that likely happened is that Netanyahu gave his implicit okay for the embassy to stay where it is. This may come as a surprise to those who are used to hearing Netanyahu or Ambassador Ron Dermer talk about the importance of Jerusalem and the necessity of having the American embassy there, but behind the scenes the embassy is not one of Netanyahu’s priorities. It has been reported that during the Kerry negotiations, Netanyahu did not ask for the embassy issue to be put on the table even once, in contrast to Jonathan Pollard’s release, which he raised consistently in multiple negotiation efforts. The readout of Sunday’s Trump-Netanyahu call mentioned a host of issues, but the embassy move was curiously absent, which is especially surprising given the prominence it had been previously given both by American and Israeli officials. Calling for the U.S. to move the embassy is good politics for Netanyahu, but actually having it moved is a different story. Particularly given what he is hearing from the IDF on the potential fallout and unrest in the West Bank should the embassy move to Jerusalem, Netanyahu does not want to deal with massive protests and possibly a resumption of terror in Israeli cities while he is also going through a series of investigations that present the biggest threat to his continued tenure as prime minister that he has ever faced. While I don’t know that he would ever tell Trump not to move the embassy, he probably did not push back when Trump told him that it was not going to be his opening gambit on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

There is no guarantee of anything with Trump. What he thinks today will not necessarily be what he thinks tomorrow, and I do not think we can impute consistency to his methods or his decisions. For all I know, tomorrow he will announce that he has moved the embassy overnight. But examining the curious way in which events have unfolded so far, it is safe to say that the Naftali Bennetts and Mort Kleins of the world may not have everything in Trump that they bargained for.

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