Donald Trump may be uniquely suited to push for Middle East peace: the Israelis as well as key Arab players, each for their own reasons, are all looking like admirers who seek to please. But out-of-the-box thinking will be needed nonetheless.
Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner was in the region last week to hear ideas about a final-status deal. According to a Palestinian official who participated in the meetings, he asked both sides for proposals to take to the U.S. president.
This resurfaces the formula pursued in vain by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which presupposes a near-total pullout from the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and sharing of Jerusalem.
Palestinians say they're giving up three-quarters of pre-state Palestine. Israelis see their small country made smaller still in a hostile region teeming with jihadis and struggle with how to divide Jerusalem between countries that will need a border.
Complicating matters are 600,000 Israelis now living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Various plans envisioned land swaps to incorporate some settlements on the Israeli side — but many people would still need to be removed from their homes, raising real prospects of violence. Resultant maps, with borders snaking around neighboring villages and towns, are all ungainly to various degrees.
Then there's the Palestinian demand for refugees, including millions of descendants, to have at least theoretical rights to return to Israel — a non-starter for most Israelis. In what seems tit for tat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to dutifully recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," even though a fifth of its citizens are Arabs who in many cases identify primarily as Palestinians.
Past more moderate Israeli governments have made offers they considered very far-reaching, but none quite satisfied the Palestinians. With few expecting Netanyahu to even approach the past offers, the focus could soon fall on a partial deal that sidesteps excessive ambition.
In one scenario, a Palestinian state arises on lands Israel can comfortably evacuate under present realities — the existing Palestinian autonomous zones set up in the 1990s, plus other parts of the West Bank, plus Gaza, if the coastal strip can be retaken from the Hamas militants who seized it in 2007. Final borders, Jerusalem and the refugee issue would wait, as would declarations of eternal peace.
"We must not nullify any option for a final settlement. We must only seek to make the interim period as manageable as possible; to enable the parties to get used to the mutual benefits of peace and quiet," wrote Tsvi Bisk in Israel's Haaretz, recommending “‘a little land for a little peace.’”
Despite rising nationalism, the Israeli electorate does want movement and there is an expectation Netanyahu and his right wing would be amenable to a partial pullout — even if they may still need to be pushed on details. Indeed, it might cement further their rule.
The Palestinians have objected to such notions in the past, fearing that Israel will be happy to unload most of the Palestinian population in this way but then never return to the table, rendering the intended interim phase permanent in effect.
That's where the Sunni Arab world being rather assiduously courted by Trump might play a role, offering both sides carrots.
Israel would joyously welcome any normalization — an embassy in Riyadh, trade relations with the Emirates, security cooperation in the Gulf. But the Palestinians, impoverished still and traumatized, may have even more to gain from an Arab embrace: aid and investment for their nascent state, and improvements in the lot of Palestinians who across the region are oppressed in various ways.
Trump may have the leverage to nudge this along. His apparently good relations with key corners of the Arab world may seem odd given his anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric, but they rest on some solid pillars.
First, he has firmly taken the Saudi side in that country's tussle for regional hegemony versus Iran. That contrasts with Barack Obama, who sought to neutralize Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy, and despite reaching a multilateral deal to achieve this is widely seen in the region as an appeaser.
Second, unlike Obama, Trump does not torment authoritarians over human rights. Many of the region's rulers conflate political Islam with Islamic terrorism, justifying crackdowns on dissent — and the new administration seems to not quibble with this. And Egypt's government, which came to power after the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president, feels rehabilitated and welcome in Washington again.
Across the Sunni Arab world there is interest in resolving the century-old Israeli-Palestinian issue and focusing instead on pacifying the smoldering region and containing Iran.
In an unusual meeting of the minds, Israel's nationalist leadership agrees. Gone is American public moralizing over the Palestinians. Instead come exhortations to "deal" — something many Israelis feel the Palestinians never genuinely did in decades of sticking like glue to their core demands.
Indeed, many Israelis had general difficulty warming to Obama. With striking disregard of his repeated acts of support, they seemed receptive to the nationalist message that he was naive at best. And even liberal Israelis are grateful to see a U.S. leadership that calls out the United Nations for what they view as an irksome obsession with the Palestinians at the expense of other oppressed groups around the globe.
It will be extremely difficult for the Netanyahu camp in Israel — which is often joked of as a branch of the U.S. Republican Party — to rebrand Trump as anything but a friend, even if pressure should arrive.
And from Jerusalem to Ramallah and Riyadh, all the players project a view of Trump as mercurial and impulsive enough that he must be handled with caution and a wary smile. It's a landscape that may make the Middle East, for all its vexations, uniquely fertile ground for U.S. diplomacy at the moment.