There’s no reason to envy Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell, US President Donald Trump’s point-people on Middle East peace who will soon be arriving in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to “restart the peace process.”
The trio will land at a time when the positions of all three relevant leaders — President Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — are at unprecedented lows. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a worse time for a US delegation to attempt anything so delicate as “restarting the peace process.”
Trump’s aides are drowning in FBI investigations into the campaign’s alleged ties with Russia, and the White House is struggling to offer a consistent policy on nuclear war with North Korea, let alone a coherent voice on racial violence within America’s borders.
Netanyahu faces a legal sword hanging precariously over his political future. With almost daily updates on the prime minister’s legal troubles, and those of some of his closest associates, it is difficult to see him as a negotiating partner who could deliver an agreement.
If Netanyahu tries to move even a millimeter from the commitments of most of his coalition — no settlement freeze, or any other concessions, for that matter — he will pay for it dearly. All those now urging him to remain in office even if he is indicted will quickly begin demanding his dismissal if he demonstrates the slightest flexibility toward the Palestinians.
As for Abbas, in the wake of the storm surrounding the Temple Mount and the short-lived metal detectors posted there by Israel, the Palestinian leader and his aides have been shouting to anyone who will listen that they have frozen security coordination with Israel, and that Netanyahu is not a peace partner because of his legal troubles, is not interested in a peace agreement, is “doing everything the Israeli right tells him.”
One Palestinian source recently told The Times of Israel that from the point of view of the PA, “we might as well have [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett. Netanyahu is scared of Bennett and doesn’t dare to do anything. So maybe Bennett is preferable, since he’ll be less scared,” the source said.
But Netanyahu’s political position notwithstanding, Abbas’s own standing among Palestinians continues to erode. One key example of this was his decision to further restrict freedom of expression on social media networks. An order issued last week states that anything written against Abbas or his Fatah movement can be interpreted as “an attack on national unity,” and can consequently lead to the arrest of the poster.
PA security forces have recently detained five journalists identified as Hamas supporters.
But despite Abbas’s restrictions, the criticism against him has only grown, in part over the PA’s war against Hamas and its regime in the Gaza Strip. The PA’s restrictions on funding for Gaza’s electricity, water, medical treatments, medicines, and more are growing more strict — and driving Hamas, Egypt, and exiled Abbas rival Mohammad Dahlan into a rapprochement.
Representatives of the Palestinian organizations in Gaza, including Fatah members who support Dahlan as well as senior Hamas figures, recently met in Egypt in an attempt to reach agreements on a “rescue Gaza” operation that included new Egyptian supplies of fuel and other necessities for the Strip. These moves, of course, further weaken Abbas.
When Abbas first became PA prime minister in 2003, then-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon described him as a “chick without feathers.” That description could now be extended beyond Ramallah. Three ragged birds, dogged by political and legal troubles that severely limit their maneuvering room, are unlikely to find the will or political capability to advance any sort of peace agreement.
And yet, despite all that, it must be said: The very fact that each leader finds himself in such a difficult situation could give a rejuvenated peace process some appeal — a kind of long-shot escape hatch from their current troubles that has the benefit of reshuffling each leader’s political deck. For Trump, political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could divert attention from international crises and stalled domestic policies. For Netanyahu and Abbas, a political breakthrough could become the “payoff” that validates their past policies and, in the long term, stabilizes their rule.