WASHINGTON — US officials say the Trump administration is staffing up a Middle East policy team at the White House in anticipation of unveiling its long awaited but largely mysterious Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
The National Security Council last week began approaching other agencies seeking volunteers to join the team, which will work for US President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace pointmen Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, according to the officials.
The team, which is being set up to organize the peace plan’s public presentation and any negotiations that may ensue, will comprise three units: one concentrating on its political and security details, one on its significant economic focus and one on strategic communications, the officials said.
The creation of a White House team is the first evidence in months that a plan is advancing. Although Trump officials have long promised the most comprehensive package ever put forward toward resolving the conflict, the emerging plan has not been described with even a small amount of detail by Kushner, Greenblatt or any other official.
Timing on the release of the plan remains undecided. The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and Congress have been asked to detail personnel to the team for six months to a year, according to the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The agencies declined to comment but an NSC official said that Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations, “are expanding their team and the resources available as they finalize the details and rollout strategy of the peace initiative.”
White House officials say the plan will focus on pragmatic details, rather than top-line concepts, that will be able to easier win public support.
Yet the Palestinian leadership has been openly hostile to any proposal from the Trump administration, citing what it says is a pro-Israel bias, notably after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv in May. Since the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas broke off contact after the Jerusalem announcement, the US negotiating team has been talking to independent Palestinian experts.
The White House expects that the Palestinian Authority will engage on the plan and has been resisting congressional demands to fully close the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington because Greenblatt and Kushner want to keep that channel open. But officials have offered little evidence to back that up.
Palestinian alienation has continued to grow as millions of dollars in US assistance remains on hold and appears likely to be cut entirely. With just two months left in the current budget year, less than half of the planned $251 million in US aid planned for the Palestinians in 2018 — $92.8 million — has been reported spent, according to the government’s online tracker, www.foreignassistance.gov.
On Thursday, a State Department employee told the Times of Israel that some $42 million had been transferred in May to fund security cooperation between Israel and the PA.
The remaining amount is still on hold as is an additional $65 million in frozen US assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.
In addition, Israel’s response to the plan is far from certain. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is one of Trump’s top foreign allies, it remains unclear if he will back massive investment in Gaza, which is run by Hamas, which Israel and the US label a terror group. Netanyahu could also balk at concessions in the West Bank the plan may envision.
Plan not yet finalized
For the plan to succeed or even survive the starting gate, it will need at least initial buy-in from both Israel and the Palestinians as well as from the Gulf Arab states, which officials say will be asked to substantially bankroll its economic portion. Arab officials have thus far adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Officials say there will never be a perfect time for the roll-out, but that they are laying the groundwork now for when an opportune time becomes apparent. The plan is not done, but is being finalized, including an economic development proposal for the Palestinian people that foresees major infrastructure and industrial work, particularly in Gaza.
The officials believe that the hope of a better economic future for the Palestinians coupled with progress on that front, the Palestinians may be willing to delay or modify what have been intractable and to-date unresolvable demands from Israel.
Those include the right for Palestinian refugees to return to lands they abandoned or were forced from, the recognition of east Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine.
And, they plan to appeal to all sides of the conflict not to let the disagreements of the past hold back their children’s futures, according to the officials.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.