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Trump administration unlikely to achieve historic Middle East peace agreement

Image Credit: Greg Johnston (Flickr: Creative Commons)

With the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem coinciding with the deaths of 58 Palestinian protesters, the possibility of President Donald Trump achieving meaningful progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace looked increasingly remote.

Mr Trump has stated that he seeks the ‘ultimate peace deal’ between the two parties following years of a moribund peace process and is interested in looking at both one and two-state solutions. However, the likelihood of this occurring appears slim when one considers the challenges involved. Leaving aside Mr Trump’s vaunted negotiation skills, there are a number of factors that will make any ‘ultimate deal’ difficult to achieve. Quite simply there is no negotiating position that is currently acceptable to both parties, despite the recent enthusiasm of Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The broad elements of an agreement have long been in place since the 2001 Taba Summit, namely a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps to allow large settlements, such as Ma’ale Adumim, to be incorporated into Israel proper; a token right of return for refugees of the 1948 war and their descendants; the removal of Israeli security forces in return for a demilitarised Palestinian state; Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states; and more recently, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The barriers to achieving final agreement on the above however, are manifold. First, the current situation does not qualify as a mutually painful stalemate, whereby neither party can achieve victory nor is the price of maintaining the status quo tenable. At present, although the situation is fairly dire for Palestinians, Israel can continue the status quo at relatively low cost. While fairly frequent wars have become the norm and bouts of terrorism cause considerable angst, in Israel the death toll remains low and the economy is growing strongly. As long as Israel is able to secure its population from harm, it has little incentive to give up control of large swathes of the West Bank to a potentially hostile enemy. Thus, there is little reason for Israel to give ground on core issues such as the status of Jerusalem when it can continue a policy of subtle annexation of certain areas.

Second, the ability of the Mahmoud Abbas to broker a deal on behalf all Palestinians is limited. Although they recently reached an accord, Hamas and Fatah have seen such unity deals come and go over the last ten years. When it comes to making unpopular sacrifices, it is unlikely that Hamas is willingly to be complicit in making painful compromises or even able to convince its own military wing to accept them. The presence of spoilers such as al-Quds and al-Aqsa brigades, who will almost certainly never accept any agreement, means that the peace process is hostage to extremists. Likewise, for both Fatah and Hamas, the main priority is maintaining control of their respective fiefs in the West Bank and Gaza respectively, rather than achieving a viable a Palestinian state.

Third, changing demographics are making peace harder to achieve. The percentage of Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Israelis has risen from 2.5% in 1990 to 11% today, with a fertility rate of 6.9 children per woman. This group is staunchly against granting land concessions or sharing access to sites of mutual religious significance. This trend is only set to continue, and is already becoming pronounced in the shift in Israeli politics towards the right in recent years.

Fourth, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Mr Abbas have shown themselves to be avid negotiators. Mr Netanyahu has given no indication that he is willing to make any compromises along the lines that Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert had been in previous failed negotiations. Similarly, Mr Abbas has done little to advance the cause of Palestinian nationhood during his 12 years in power. There is a caveat, as Israeli parliamentary coalitions are extremely fragmented and Mr Abbas is 82, so it is possible that neither leader will remain in power for the entirety of Mr Trump’s term allowing more willing negotiators will emerge.

Ultimately, however, it is unlikely that any chance of a deal will be made during Mr Trump’s term. He could put pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table by cutting military assistance or voting against them at the United Nations, but his potential influence should not be overrated given the underlying factors mentioned above. As Israeli comedian Assaf Harel said, ‘a good deal is when you get everything you want’; it is unlikely that anyone can deliver such a deal to both parties simultaneously no matter how good their negotiating skills.

Jeremy Rees is a policy officer and has worked in such areas as international policy, defence and economics. He is the current editor for International Trade and Economics.

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