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Uncertain prospects for Mideast peace plan

Kushner-Greenblatt parleys will have little leverage as US has lost its impartial mediator tag with Jerusalem move

Gulf News

Washington: President Donald Trump’s two top Middle East advisers have quietly criss-crossed the region all week, stopping in five countries in an effort to drum up support for their still-secret proposal to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Details of the plan that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the special envoy for the Mideast, are shopping around have not been publicly disclosed except for broad outlines. It is likely to focus on what are called interim issues, such as security and the economy, and not on “aspirational” issues like Palestinian statehood.

It’s unclear what progress, if any, Kushner and Greenblatt made in seeking to resolve the broader dispute. The White House issued brief, near-identical statements after their stops in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel. The State Department, normally the clearing-house for diplomatic endeavours, was silent.

Since Trump already has recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, siding with Israel on its status, the Palestinian National Authority is unlikely to accept any plan put forward by the White House. Indeed, the Trump administration team was not scheduled to meet any Palestinians on the trip.

The Palestinian National Authority has refused to meet US envoys since Trump announced his decision on occupied Jerusalem on December 6, and later ordered the US Embassy moved there from Tel Aviv. It’s unclear how a peace plan could succeed without Palestinian buy-in.

Kushner and Greenblatt arrived in occupied Jerusalem on Friday, their last stop on the trip, and met for four hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, attended the meeting.

The group discussed “the continued commitment of the Trump administration and Israel to advance peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians” and the “means by which the humanitarian situation in Gaza can be alleviated,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. The Americans were scheduled to hold other talks on Saturday before returning to Washington.

Trump has broken with previous presidents by offering support for the Israeli colonist movement — the building of Jewish colonies on land claimed by the Palestinians, a process that most of the world considers illegal. Trump also has refused to explicitly endorse the conventional proposal for a two-state solution that recognises an independent Palestinian state next to Israel.

The current proposal would probably expand some of the area controlled by the Palestinian National Authority but without ensuring a contiguous territory, several experts said. It has long been an insurmountable sticking point, in the Palestinian view, that Jewish colonies built by Israel in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem bisect what would become an independent Palestinian state.

Any plan also is likely to provide for indefinite Israeli control of airspace and a section of the Jordan River valley on the eastern border of Israel and the West Bank as a security measure. The Palestinians consider that control a violation of any sovereignty they may gain.

The talks this week also focused on the besieged Gaza Strip, the narrow band of land on the Mediterranean where nearly two million Palestinians live in poverty.

The Trump administration has slashed the US contribution to the United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. The shortfall is forcing the UN Relief and Works Agency to make a global emergency appeal next week.

The long-term status of occupied Jerusalem is not likely to be solved or even tackled in any Kushner-Greenblatt deal. There have been suggestions that it would give several eastern Jerusalem neighbourhoods, including suburbs, to the Palestinians, but not any part of the heart of the holy city.

The White House has sought to tamp down reports that the plan is heavily pro-Israeli or that it will seek to divide Gaza from the West Bank.

The Trump administration is hoping to count on support from friendly Arabian Gulf states to gain influence with the Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries to have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Kushner and Greenblatt reportedly lobbied the Gulf states to invest up to a billion dollars in energy and infrastructure projects for Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas and suffers from a lack of potable water and electricity.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, who met with Kushner and Greenblatt on Tuesday in the capital, Amman, will visit Trump at the White House on Monday to weigh in personally with the president.

In its talks with regional leaders, the Trump administration most of all is attempting to scale back expectations of the “ultimate deal” that Trump last year said he hoped he could do to resolve the long-running crisis. Trump’s critics say that’s long overdue.

“The United States is not a credible mediator in this: They can’t even talk to one of the parties,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, and an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan organisation that works with former Israeli security officials who support a two-state solution.

“I’m not sure Trump can ever do it,” Goldenberg added.

Daniel Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, echoed the dim outlook and noted another problem — the deep-seated mistrust between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“If, somehow, by hook or by crook, Trump managed to drag them back to the negotiating table, it would almost certainly fail spectacularly, likely punctuated by another round of violence,” Shapiro said in an 18-point Twitter thread.

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