Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
President Trump has promised to bring his deal-making acumen to the Middle East peace process, in an attempt to break the deadlock that has consumed presidents and prime ministers before him. At present there is no shortage of ambition but no sign of material progress. In pinning this administration so close to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president has risked isolating the key Arab nations whose support would be critical for any progress to be made in the region. Whilst Trump has promised the ‘deal of the century’, there appears to be more cause for concern than celebration.
The Bibi-Trump relationship
President’s Trump affection for the world’s strongmen is well known by now. He has waxed lyrical about Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Kim Jong-Un and Rodrigo Duterte while offending Angela Merkel, Emanuel Macron and Theresa May to the point of isolation. Increasingly appearing to fall into the first bracket, Benjamin Netanyahu has carved out a unique bond with President Trump and those at the top of the administration in charge of the Middle East. Namely Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law and Jason Greenblatt, the former chief legal office to the Trump Organisation and now advisor to the president on Israel. After months of shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh and a shortlist of other Middle East capitals, the optics point to a flourishing relationship between the US and Israel that far exceeds the bilateral rapport with Arab nations.
That hasn’t always been the case. Arab nations were buoyed by early positive signs from Trump. In May 2017, the president posed for orb-grabbing photos with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt and King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. That was the apex in US-Arab relations within this administration. Since then the balance has wildly swung.
Trump visited Israel in May 2017 and received a hero’s welcome as he announced his intention to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognise the city as Israel’s national capital. In March 2018, Netanyahu made the return trip and visited Washington. Afterwards, the Washington Post wrote: ‘No world leader has forged a closer or more public camaraderie with President Trump than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.’
Trump did not make the journey to Jerusalem for the ribbon cutting at the new US embassy in May, but extensions of his presence were everywhere. In the front row sat Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and a handful of other key consiglieres. The roads were dressed with vast “TRUMP MAKE ISRAEL GREAT” banners, whilst others declared “TRUMP IS A FRIEND OF ZION”. In Gaza, thousands of angry Palestinians charged into protests that ended in the bloodiest day in the territory since the 2014 war.
The contrast could not be clearer. Having spent months courting one another, the US-Israel relationship is enjoying a period of significant strength and renewal while other leaders in the region struggle for significance and favour. It is hard to envisage how the US will re-insert itself as a moral mediator between Israel and the Palestinians under such circumstances. None of it feels very ‘art of the deal’.
So what of the promised US plan for the Middle East?
Expectations in Washington and Jerusalem are sky high, but elsewhere cold water is already being poured over a plan that has not yet seen the light of day. Saad El Gammal, head of the Egyptian parliament’s Arab Affairs Committee, has said “most of the Arab world – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have rejected the U.S.-proposed Deal of the Century”.
Simultaneously, the Palestinians find themselves increasingly locked out of talks. The US State Department this week announced it will close the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) mission in Washington, DC. In a statement, the foreign-policy-making arm of the US Government said PLO leaders had failed to engage with US efforts to bring about peace with Israel and attempted to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court. Responding, Saeb Erekat, the PLO Secretary-General, described it as a “dangerous escalation”.
It follows a reduction in State Department funding to the Palestinians, in the shape of $25 million allocated for the care of Palestinians at six hospitals in East Jerusalem. A fortnight before that, the US said it was cutting hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that provides assistance to five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.
All signs point to a proposed deal that will be embraced in Jerusalem but laughed out of the room in the capitals of surrounding nations. The basis of the plan is said to centre around the creation of a new economic development program for Gaza, with similar incentives applying to the West Bank. In exchange for increased economic prospects, the Palestinians will need to concede control over Jerusalem with large settlement zones for Israelis. A deal that handles economic prosperity and national sovereignty as transactional commodities will be dead on arrival.
It’s hard to envisage another Camp David moment
When the American vision for the Middle East peace process is finally published, the eyes of the world will be on its chief architects. The pressure on Messrs Kushner and Greenblatt could not be higher, in a part of the world beset by conflict and territorial wrangling for centuries. But having delivered on his campaign promise to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy accordingly, President Trump might consider his work on the Middle East complete. At the same time, he might find that the encircling of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and a Democratic resurgence at the midterm elections in November more pressing issues to devote precious time to.