Analysis: The downgrading of the “ultimate deal”

Donald Trump’s hope of pulling off the “ultimate deal” – an end to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians – appears to be more distant than ever, with US media reporting a significant downgrading of the US effort.

This week the Washington Post suggested that, with the American Middle East peace plan stalled, the Trump administration was switching its attention to attempting to relieve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Trump’s peace plan, which is being devised by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, has been in trouble since the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December.

In response to the American move, President Mahmoud Abbas declared that the US was “abdicating its role as a peace mediator”. He has since refused to engage with Washington or its peace plan, turning down a meeting with Kushner and Greenblatt when they visited the region last month. The Palestinian president reportedly viewed the offer of a meeting as an attempt to push him into a peace process which is favourable to Israel and whose “real objective” is closer ties between the Jewish state and the Gulf Arab states.

The US initiative, which has been devised over the past 18 months, has been based on the so-called “outside-in” approach – using a peace agreement between Israel and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to break the log-jam in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This approach has been encouraged by two Arab states with friendly relations with Israel – Egypt and Jordan – and had appeared more realistic given Israel and the Sunni Arab states’ shared antipathy toward, and fear of, Iranian expansionism.

But the decision to recognise Jerusalem – followed by the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Israeli capital in May – has effectively scruppered Trump’s plans.

Palestinian anger has been further stoked by the president’s decision last year to slash funding to UNWRA, the UN agency which provides health, education and other services in Gaza and the West Bank. The president’s policy – dubbed “aid for friends” – aims to tie US international development spending more closely to support for US foreign policy.

In a fiery response, Abbas declared: “Damn your money” and called for Trump’s “house to be destroyed”.
Last month, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat underlined the PA’s hostility to the US. “We will not meet them, and that’s the position,” he suggested. He also said Trump had displayed “unprecedented” pro-Israeli bias.

However, it is the opposition of the Arab states, rather than the Palestinians, which appears to have delayed release of the US peace plan.

According to Israeli media reports, during their recent meetings with officials in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Kushner and Greenblatt were warned against unveiling an initiative which is said not to address the issue of Palestinian refugees or recognise East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. The Americans were apparently warned by Arab leaders that any such plan could cause an “earthquake”, Palestinian officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Egypt has no lack of internal problems with terror in the Sinai; Jordan is facing huge internal difficulties and dealing with the implications of the war in Syria; and the Saudis [are occupied] with Yemen and the struggle with Iran,” a Palestinian official told the paper.

“If the administration suggested a plan without Jerusalem and without refugees, it would cause an earthquake. The implications could shake the stability of the entire region, and nobody wants that.”

The Palestinians’ refusal to engage with the US, coupled with a seeming rift between Washington and its Arab allies, is thus said to have led the Americans to shift towards a “Gaza first” approach.

A US-led attempt to relieve the humanitarian situation in the coastal enclave, the Washington Post suggested, “could demonstrate a commitment to the Palestinian people that could make it more difficult for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to continue to rebuff overtures to engage in the peace process.”

Last month it was reported by Haaretz that Kushner and Greenblatt were lobbying the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to invest $1bn to help rehabilitate Gaza. The relief effort would be coordinated by the UN Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov. The former Bulgarian defence minister, who has earned a reputation for even-handedness, has been pushing for an international trust fund to crack on with projects in Gaza focused on electricity, water and sewage treatments.

Israel is both supportive of the “Gaza first” approach and sympathetic to Mladenov’s effort. In February, it presented international donors at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee with a $1bn Gaza infrastructure plan. The Israeli plan – which came with an offer of technology and know-how – included building desalination plants and installing a new high-voltage line that would double the amount of electricity Israel supplies to Gaza. Last month, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Liberman, also indicated the country would back a Cyprus-based seaport for Gaza.

However, the focus on Gaza has been bitterly opposed by Abbas. A statement issued by the president’s spokesman last month said the US was working with Israel to separate Gaza from the West Bank using the cover of “humanitarian aid or rehabilitation”. The goal of this effort, the PA alleges, is to frustrate the establishment of a Palestinian statehood – making Gaza the basis of a Palestinian state, with the West Bank administration granted further civilian powers but not security control – and turn a political issue into a humanitarian one.

The PA statement urged other Arab states not to engage with the Gaza-focused relief effort. “The Palestinian leadership,” it argued, “warns the countries of the region against cooperating with a move whose goal is to perpetuate the separation between Gaza and the West Bank and lead to concessions on Jerusalem and the holy sites … There is no state in Gaza and there is no state without Gaza.” All “plots” to “liquidate the Palestinian issue” would be resisted.

Washington describes such notions as “ludicrous” and insists the US believes “the solution under a peace agreement would be a united Gaza and West Bank, under one Palestinian leadership”.

Perhaps a more important factor in Abbas’ calculations is the fact that the president has been attempting for the past year to turn the screws on Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Last summer, the PA imposed a series of sanctions on Gaza after Hamas formed what Abbas regarded as a shadow administration. This saw the salaries of civil servants slashed; a reduction in the PA’s payments for electricity in the Strip, leading to widespread power cuts; and a slow-down in the processing of applications by Gazans seeking medical treatment outside the embattled enclave.

Although the sanctions were eased following last October’s tentative reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, talks between the two sides appear at a stand still. The sticking point has been Hamas’ refusal to disarm.

Earlier this year, the PA began to ramp up the pressure on the terror group once again. In March, it first failed to pay 38,000 of its staff who are based in Gaza. The following month, it paid salaries but, without warning, cut 20 per cent from them. PA staff in the West Bank were paid as normal.

Abbas has also reportedly delayed payments the PA makes to Israel for Gazans who are treated in its hospitals. This despite the huge pressures faced by the strip’s overburdened healthcare system.

In an effort to frustrate the Americans’ initiative, Abbas is also said to have revived efforts to form a national unity government with Hamas, and has approached the former Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, about leading such an administration.

The US’ “Gaza first” focus has simply heightened the war of words between the Palestinians and the Trump administration. “The Palestinians deserve so much better than Saeb Erekat,” wrote Greenblatt in an opinion piece for an Israeli newspaper, while Mahmoud Al-Aloul, the deputy chair of Abbas’ Fatah party, told a rally last week: “We don’t want your flour, your wheat, or your aid.”

It is the people of Gaza, however, who pay the price for this politicking between Ramallah and Washington. Abbas’ opposition means the US now appears to be struggling to raise the international funds it hoped the Gulf states might provide for Gaza, with a planned summit in Cairo reportedly shelved.