Is peace possible?

Photographer: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images

How Trump Can Get Israelis and Palestinians to Deal

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Wednesday’s White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised speculation that U.S. President Donald Trump will try to tackle Middle East peace, perhaps relying on the efforts of his counselor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Putting aside the national security turbulence in the administration right now, can it really be done?

It’s a given that the odds are long against a comprehensive deal involving the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But if everything went just right, and the Trump administration was prepared to make both sides offers they couldn’t refuse, it’s just barely possible that it could generate -- or really, impose -- a regional agreement that would be an improvement over the status quo and might last for some time. To do so, however, the Trump administration would have to offer inducements much greater than have been offered in the past and make credible threats that have been considered unthinkable by previous American leaders.

QuickTake U.S.-Israel Relations

Peace hasn’t been close since the end of Bill Clinton’s administration because the Israeli government has believed it can live with the status quo and the Palestinian leadership has judged that it can’t survive major concessions to Israel. To have any chance of moving in a positive direction, both of those durable positions would have to change.

Moving the Israelis is probably the heavier part of this double load. Trump can offer to blow up the Iran nuclear deal signed under Barack Obama, which Netanyahu would like, and which would also please Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. But that positive incentive for Israel, while significant, is unlikely enough to push Netanyahu to make land-for-peace concessions, which are rejected by a good part of his governing coalition.

To get Netanyahu to deal, Trump would have to threaten Israel with negative consequences for refusing to negotiate in good faith. In essence, he would have to say privately but credibly that he personally requires Netanyahu to offer more or less what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered at talks in 2000 and 2001, and what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would have offered had he lived: a two-state solution with some kind of shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount. If Netanyahu refuses, Trump would have to credibly promise that he will walk back U.S. support of Israel internationally -- notwithstanding the fact that this would bring down the wrath of American Jewish Republicans on Trump.

If Trump won’t make such a threat, or if Netanyahu doesn’t believe he would deliver on it, then there is no reason for Netanyahu even to consider a deal. He could go to the table to please Trump and wait for the Palestinians to give him an excuse to walk away, which no doubt they would eventually do. But that scenario leaves zero chance of a successful deal, because the dangers to Netanyahu of losing his coalition outweigh the benefits of restored U.S.-Iran hostility.

As for the Palestinian side, Trump would at a minimum have to promise a huge infusion of money and infrastructure not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. And he would have to tell Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that in exchange for the retraction of the U.S.-Iran deal, they must pressure the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to accept something like the Camp David deal that Arafat turned down in 2000.

An extra threat that Trump could deploy -- and Obama could not -- would be to tell the Palestinian leadership that if it refuses the deal as Arafat did, he will allow Israel to annex the West Bank. Previous administrations considered that possibility to be madness, because of the anger and opposition it would engender regionally. But Trump may genuinely not care -- and the influence of right-wing American Jews on his administration is great enough that the threat would be credible.

QuickTake The Two-State Solution

Trump may be tempted to do a deal without Gaza. But while the Israelis might accept such an offer, the Arab states that are a crucial part of Trump’s route to peace will not. Neither can the Palestinian leadership credibly offer its people a state without Gaza.

In practice, this means that Hamas, which controls Gaza, must be part of the final status arrangements, even if the Islamist group isn’t officially at the negotiating table. For Hamas, the prospect of legitimation might be enough to bring about a change in attitude. If Hamas can tell its constituents that it has delivered a functioning Palestinian state, that might be worth the risk of being attacked domestically by Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda for betraying the cause of one Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Notice that this whole picture depends on the final deal roughly resembling the two-state arrangements proposed in the past. Trump’s team may think it can impose some much less attractive deal on the Palestinians by using the Arab states as leverage and trying to deny funding to the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t agree.

The fallacy in this approach is that even if the Palestinian Authority purported to make a deal under these conditions, its government would likely fall to Hamas, or worse. The deal would then collapse.

Plenty of right-wing Israelis would be fine with that, because their preferred endgame is to annex the West Bank and deal with local, city-based Palestinian governments rather than the nationally aspiring statelet that currently exists.

But that outcome isn’t a peace deal that would bring Trump the Nobel Prize. It’s an excuse for the reversal of the two-state solution driven by the 1993 Oslo talks. It would leave Israel as an international pariah, much more so than it already is. And the bloodshed that would surely take place along the way would be laid squarely at Trump’s feet.

The bottom line is that a deal remains possible -- just barely. But Trump must remember the lesson that his predecessors often forgot: When it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians, it’s not enough that both sides would be better off with a deal. Both sides also have to be left much worse off if the deal doesn’t happen. After all, says the punchline to a famous joke, “This is the Middle East.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net