'We say what’s on our mind; we speak the truth'

US: The fact that we’re pro-Israel doesn’t mean we can’t mediate peace

As White House readies its peace proposal, senior official dismisses the need for equivalency as a ‘vestige of talking points from decades ago’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The White House views its role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as that of a facilitator, a senior US official said this week, rejecting the notion that some sort of “equivalency” between the two sides was required to successfully mediate a final-status peace deal.

Rather, the administration is proudly supportive of Israel and does not feel the need to try to counterbalance any pro-Israel statement with some carrots for the Palestinians, or to add a line about Palestinian grievances every time it laments Israeli victims of terror attacks, according to the senior official.

“The US is a strong ally of Israel. The administration, from the president on down, is not embarrassed to defend Israel where Israel needs to be defended, whether it’s on the Gaza border, on the Hezbollah tunnels, the Syrian border, wherever it is,” the senior official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Asked about the widespread perception that the US is no longer an “honest broker,” the senior official dismissed that concept as “a vestige of talking points from decades ago,” adding that there is no country or international organization that “does not have a strong relationship with one side or the other.”

“We don’t believe that in order for us to work on a peace effort we need to have an equivalency, where we can only say certain things about Israel if at the same time we also say something about the Palestinians,” he said.

“Not only does that not work; we don’t think it’s right. We say what’s on our mind; we speak the truth. The truth may be uncomfortable for some people. But we cannot solve the conflict without being open and honest. Ultimately, it’s all about the plan: either it’s a good plan that’s workable for the two sides, or it isn’t.”

The official was referring to the administration’s much-expected proposal for an comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which Washington is expected to release in the weeks after the April 9 Knesset elections.

In recent weeks, Trump’s special envoy to the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, has conducted some contentious Twitter exchanges with senior PA officials over US-Palestinian relations and so-called Twitter diplomacy.

Greenblatt, who has been working on the peace plan together with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, responded to the attacks by saying that his door remains open to Palestinian officials, who would like to discuss the administration’s policies vis-a-vis the Middle East.

The official reiterated that meetings with “ordinary Palestinians” were taking place on a regular basis.

“They express deep frustration with their leadership. They believe that their leadership has eroded their standing in the world, not just in the US, but around the world. They want to engage with us and they want to see what is in the plan. They want a better future, and they know the key to that involves the US,” the official said.

People are seen outside the Palestinian Liberation Organization Delegation office in Washington DC on September 10, 2018. (AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

Since US President Donald Trump unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, and subsequently moved the US embassy to the city, the Palestinian Authority has refused to engage with administration officials, arguing that Washington was no longer qualified to play a leading role in the peace process.

Relations between Ramallah and Washington further soured after the administration surprisingly cut financial aid to agencies supportive of Palestinians, and closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative office in the US capital.

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the Arab League Summit in Amman, March 28, 2017 (Wafa/Thair Ghnaim)

The US administration remains hopeful that once the plan is released, Palestinian leaders “will realize how much the Palestinians can gain from the plan,” the senior official added.

The US will not try to force either side to accept the peace proposal, he said, adding “but we believe we can put forth a credible, realistic and fair plan that could bring this conflict to an end; to dramatically improve Palestinian lives, maintain Israel’s security and allow Israel to integrate into the region in a way that even two years ago no one would have imagined it could.”

When the plan will see the day of light has not yet been decided, according to the official, acknowledging that there are “numerous considerations” that may play a role and push the date back to mid-May at the earliest. These include the Israeli elections (April 9) and subsequent coalition building process, the Passover holiday (April 19-26), Ramadan (May 5-June 4), and Israeli Memorial and Independence Days (May 7-9).

“Our goal is to release the plan at a time when it has the best chance of success. There are a lot of factors that go into making that decision,” he said.

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