STATE DEPARTMENT - The United States could be a mediator in talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a senior U.S. official said, a day after President Donald Trump unveiled a detailed Middle East peace plan.
Touted by Trump as a “win-win opportunity” for both sides and a “realistic two-state solution,” the long-awaited Middle East peace plan was praised as a victory by Israel but was rejected by the Palestinians.
“If there are things that [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas doesn’t like, then come to the table and tell the Israelis that, under the auspices of the United States. It’s the best opportunity he’s going to get. It’s not going to get better from here,” Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, said Wednesday in an interview with VOA.
Previous U.S. administrations have facilitated dialogues between Israel and Palestine, setting parameters for a potential deal. Trump was seen as making a departure, choosing to release a detailed plan that appears to be supported only by Israel.
The following are excerpts from VOA’s interview with Hook. They have been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the peace plan. How can the plan succeed, given the rejection from the Palestinians?
Hook: Well, this is really a question for the Palestinians. I think when you talk to Arab leaders in the region, they’re increasingly frustrated with President Abbas, who keeps missing opportunities to make progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, President Abbas is living up to a stereotype that he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. So, this is the most serious, realistic and detailed plan that has ever been presented to the Palestinian leadership in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
We engage with the Palestinians. President Trump has met with President Abbas a number of times, including at the White House. Jared Kushner and I have traveled around the region. We’ve been to Saudi Arabia and UAE and Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, many, many times. This is our best thinking on the best resolution. It’s a proposal, it’s not a final deal. If there are things that President Abbas doesn’t like, then come to the table and tell the Israelis that, under the auspices of the United States. It’s the best opportunity he’s going to get. It’s not going to get better from here.
VOA: So, you are saying the United States could be a mediator of the talks?
Hook: Yes. And I think when you look at the statements by Arab nations, they’re very pleased that President Trump has shown leadership and presented a serious, good-faith and detailed plan to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Keep in mind that the Middle East today is very different than it was even 10 to 15 years ago. When you talk to Arab leaders in the region and ask them what concerns them the most, they talk about Iranian aggression. They’re making sure that ISIS doesn’t reemerge, the civil war in Syria, the threat of violent extremism. The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is starting to go lower and lower on the list of importance in the Middle East. And so, President Trump said yesterday it’s not going to get any better from here, this proposal. This is as good as it’s going to get for the Palestinians. And the Israelis have now offered the Palestinians a state with defined borders, and a capital in eastern Jerusalem, and a commercial investment plan of $50 billion so that we can lift the Palestinians out of poverty.
VOA: One of the specific requirements is a complete dismantling of Hamas. How realistic it is to get Hamas to disarm?
Hook: Well, it is certainly the right thing to ask for. And whether the Palestinian people can get out from under the burden of Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad, that remains to be seen. We want the world to isolate Hamas. This is a terrorist organization that is ruining the lives of the Palestinian people in Gaza. And we know the Palestinian people want their own state. We have created a path to that state, but it’s going to require Hamas renouncing violence against Israel. And it’s going to require Hamas to disarm. But this is what the rest of the Middle East wants to see happen. They’re tired of this conflict going on, decade after decade. What we proposed is new, is innovative. It’s a breakthrough in the context of the history, because no country has ever gotten Israel to agree on a map for a future state of Palestine. It’s a very big deal. It’s 80 pages.
VOA: One of the proposals is the high-speed rail connection between Gaza and the West Bank. What does the U.S. envision to achieve with this proposal?
Hook: Well, in order to have a Palestinian state, it’s going to have to be connected. And so, we propose a high-speed rail that would connect Gaza and the West Bank. Now, keep in mind that this proposal more than doubles the land currently used by the Palestinian people. ... This is a great opportunity, but the high-speed rail allows the Palestinians — whether they live in Gaza or the West Bank — to move people and to move goods. And it’s a new and innovative thing. When you look at the economic plan, it’s amazing how we could transform the Palestinian territories into a thriving state. But the Palestinian leadership needs to grasp this opportunity. Look, President Abbas is doing just fine. He’s rich, his friends are rich, his family’s rich. His people are poor. And if he wants to make his own people economically independent and politically independent, he should come to the table. But if he wants to keep them trapped in poverty, he should keep rejecting our plan.
VOA: Moving forward, what are the diplomatic efforts to bring the U.N. Security Council on board with this plan, including UNSC permanent member China, who appeared to have politely rejected the plan?
Hook: Well, China’s wrong. We did listen to the voice of the Palestinians, and we listened to them until they decided to stop talking to the United States. That was a mistake. I can’t fix mistakes like that. It’s up to them to come to the table. I imagine China probably put out that statement without even reading the plan. What you find is a lot of governments have talking points that they keep in their desk drawer, and then anytime something comes up, they reach for the same tired old talking points. This [plan] is new. There’s nothing like this that’s been done in the history of this conflict, which goes back to 1920. That was the first act of violence by Palestinians against Israelis. Then you have the U.N. propose a plan for a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, and it was rejected by Arab countries. And then they fought wars of aggression against Israel three times. You now have Israel saying to the world: These are the borders that we can live with. And here are the borders that we think the state of Palestine can live with. If countries like China can’t see the enormous advantages of this, I can’t help them.
VOA: What’s the prospect of more prisoner swaps between the U.S. and Iran amid the rising tensions?
Hook: Well, I was very pleased that I was able to negotiate through the Swiss a prisoner exchange with the Iranians. It shows that even in times of great tension, we can still find ways to work together.
There are still five Americans that are wrongfully detained in Iran. I’m doing everything I can to win their release. It’s a priority for President Trump, so I don’t get into specifics, but I am still working on this on a daily basis, trying to make progress. Keep in mind that [those detained] Americans that are there, they’re wrongfully detained, they’re innocent. And in light of a lot of the pain and suffering that the Iranians have been causing lately, it’d be a good time to show the world a different face, a humanitarian face, and to release not just the Americans but dual citizens from other countries that are also wrongfully held.
VOA: Are you concerned that media focus on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s contentious relationship with NPR takes the focus away from the Middle East peace plan and the situation in Iran?
Hook: No, I don’t think it takes that away from it. I’ve been on NPR many times. Many people in the administration have. I’m not going to go beyond what the secretary said about the interview. But, no, it has not distracted us.