In what has become as inevitable as the changing of the seasons, the Trump Israeli-Palestinian peace plan is once again in the news. President Donald Trump released his long-awaited peace proposal on Tuesday, ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, and following meetings on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz. Trump and Jared Kushner had their reasons for dropping their reticence to releasing a plan during a time of political turmoil in Israel, but they should have heeded the advice of someone closer to home, their past Israeli-Palestinian envoy, Jason Greenblatt.
In an interview earlier this month, Greenblatt talked about the peace plan and whether or not it will be released, and he made one comment that should be guiding not only this White House but any future one. When asked whether he is hopeful about the two sides making peace, Greenblatt said, “I think they have a lot of very tough issues to work out. I don’t know if the two sides will come to agreement on those tough issues. I don’t think anybody can be sure.”
While working out tough issues is an omnipresent component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in this instance it goes well beyond that. Not only are there tough issues to work out, the two sides are farther apart than they have ever been, and there are real consequences to a failed peace plan that go beyond frustration or embarrassment for the administration that introduces it.
While the Trump administration has taken steps that have been applauded by Israel and by many American Jews, including ones that have righted historical wrongs such as recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, those steps have also made some of the thorniest issues even more intractable. For instance, the Jerusalem recognition and embassy move did not, as the president repeatedly claimed, take the issue off the table. It rather took an already polarizing issue and turned the temperature on it up for the foreseeable future. It convinced Israelis that Jerusalem could be their capital only and not a potential future Palestinian capital, as they were implicitly given that message by the United States, and it made Palestinians and other outside actors, such as the Saudis and Jordanians, only more determined to insist that no future deal can be had that does not include Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine.
On the issue of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and how to resolve the Palestinian refugee question, the Trump administration’s elimination of funding to UNRWA was intended to hinder the organization’s ability to operate and force host countries, be it Jordan or the Palestinian Authority, to take charge of Palestinian refugees and change the perpetual refugee narrative. Instead, other states stepped in to fill the funding gap and UNRWA did not disappear, and Israelis dismissed the notion of Palestinian refugeehood even more stridently while Palestinians became even more adamant in their defense of their refugee status. On the issue that in some ways is the most difficult of all given how large it looms in Palestinian perception, Israel is moving to dismiss it entirely as something that needs to be acknowledged while Palestinians are hunkering down to defend it as the key symbol of the Palestinian national narrative.
Releasing a peace plan in this environment will have predictable results. It will have no chance of jumpstarting negotiations, let alone resulting in an actual successful resolution to the conflict. It will lead both sides to harden their positions even more, and make the gap in the zone of possible agreement that currently exists even wider. As with past rounds of failed negotiations, it may lead to a round of violence once all of the back and forth with the American team has run its course. It will inevitably make any future administration’s task even harder, and given the close association between the Trump administration and the Israeli government, create a backlash for Israel with a future Democratic president who may craft a deal with less favorable terms for Israel as a way of repudiating the Trump legacy. Should there be a second Trump term, releasing a deal that goes nowhere will take an issue that is now relatively quiet and turn it into a persistent headache.
Martin Indyk recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should no longer be viewed as a vital American interest. To push out a plan that will be the latest in a long line of failed experiments makes no sense when it involves an issue that, quite simply, is not a priority. As much as President Trump is attracted to big deal making, this is an area where he should be looking to notch some more easily attainable and smaller-scale wins, which would be far more productive than taking a small mess and turning it into a bigger one.
Michael Koplow is policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.