Donald Trump fancies himself the world’s greatest deal-maker, and now he’s pitching himself as the man to broker the deal that finally ends the historic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump’s angle is to stress that if Israel wants more open and systematic cooperation with the Sunni Arab states against the common Iranian enemy, Israel has to make peace with the Palestinians. Apparently, Trump got this idea from the Arab oligarchs he spoke with in the first stop of his Middle Eastern trip.
I’m never inclined to credit Trump with sincerity, but I think that in his own naively narcissistic way, he really does believe that he’s on to a great idea. He’s not.
Let’s assume, for purposes of discussion, that the grand anti-Iran alliance that Trump envisions is a worthy cause. (It is not, as Roger Cohen argues persuasively in the Times.) Trump’s pitch to Israel is premised on the hope that the opportunity to work with Arabs against Iran could induce Israel’s leaders to offer a fair deal to the Palestinians. But the Iranian “threat” to Israel has always been more hot air than substance. Israeli intelligence has said as much, and deep down, Bibi Netanyahu probably understands this as well, though it has always served his purposes to inflate any plausible threat to Israel’s security. Iran, the bugaboo of the Sunni Arab states and the Americans alike, is the most natural current target.
On the other hand, Netanyahu and his coalition allies really, really want to annex as much of Judea and Samaria as they can get away with. That means keeping all or practically all of the Israeli colonies on the West Bank and expanding them as much as possible. There is no way that the opportunity for a grand alliance against Iran would shake that determination. Which means that no Israeli government is going to be willing to give up enough land to make a genuinely sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state possible. And no Palestinian leader, no matter how “moderate,” could accept less and survive politically. So, no deal, unless Israel is subject to tremendous pressure. Where is that pressure going to come from? Not from the United States. Not from Donald Trump.
(Yes, the Palestinians—both on the West Bank and in Gaza—also pose serious obstacles to a peace settlement. But the most basic, intractable obstacle is Israel’s determined grip on the West Bank.)
So, what is likely to happen with Trump’s peace initiative? Kevin Drum has ably sketched out the most likely scenario, so I’ll quote him at length. (Warning: this is not encouraging reading.):
Anyway, we all know where this is going, right? Benjamin Netanyahu wants to stay on good terms with Trump, and Trump wants a peace deal. Everyone on the planet knows perfectly well that Netanyahu has no interest in this, but he’ll string Trump along anyway. A “peace process” will be set up, Jared Kushner will preside over a meeting or two, and Netanyahu will settle back and wait for some kind of bombing or other terror attack to declare that he tried but the Palestinians just can’t be dealt with….
The whole thing will be a ridiculous charade, and everyone except Trump will know it.