President Donald Trump said during the campaign that he would attempt “the toughest deal in the world” — peace between Israelis and Palestinians. According to Politico, it is a task the new Trump administration is taking quite seriously.
But is it actually possible?
The Obama administration thought so, but for Israeli resistance. On his way out, then-Secretary of State John Kerry blasted Israel and defended President Barack Obama’s decision to allow a UN Security Council resolution against settlements.
Obama and Kerry believed they were saving Israel from itself. They took at face value the faulty demographic statistics of the Palestinian Authority, and warned that Israel would soon be a Jewish minority governing an Arab majority, if the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean were included in a hypothetical single state.
But the statistics have long been skewed, and Jewish birthrates are soaring. Without Hamas-run Gaza, and with the West Bank, Jews are a two-thirds majority.
Moreover, by putting pressure on Israel — and only Israel — the Obama administration made peace less likely, because it gave the Palestinians an excuse to avoid making concessions and to ramp up their demands.
The fact that the Palestinians turned to the United Nations to pursue official statehood — a flagrant violation of what remains of the 1993 Oslo peace accords — was a direct result of Obama’s strategy. Obama also ignored other Palestinian violations, such as constant incitement against Israel.
What Obama and Kerry did not understand is that the conflict has changed fundamentally since then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned his back on negotiations in 2000.
The first intifada, from 1987 to 1991, convinced Israelis peace was necessary; the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005, convinced Israelis that peace was impossible. No matter how many concessions Israel made — pulling all soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, for example — Palestinian terrorists only stepped up their attacks.
Israel took three steps that fundamentally altered the strategic landscape in ways the Obama administration ignored.
One was the Gaza disengagement. While it was later regretted by many Israelis, who suffered two wars as a result, it was rewarded by the George W. Bush administration with official recognition that some West Bank settlement blocs would remain part of Israel in any peace deal. (Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, treated that crucial concession as if it did not exist.)
The second step was Israel’s construction of the security barrier — the so-called “wall” — along, and in some places within, the West Bank. That barrier, which Israeli leaders had long resisted and the world swiftly condemned, ended Palestinian suicide bombings almost completely.
And the third step was Israel’s Iron Dome system, a massive technological leap that enables the Israeli military to destroy short-range rockets before they reach their intended (civilian) targets, reducing the threat of terror.
Effectively, Palestinians no longer pose a direct military threat to Israel. That ought to encourage the Palestinian leadership to negotiate.
However, the Palestinians have the unshakeable, and self-destructive, habit of gravitating towards great powers that promise to annihilate the Jews. In the Second World War, they aligned with Nazi Germany; in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union; in the Gulf War, with Saddam Hussein; in the War on Terror, with Al Qaeda; and now, with the rising Iranian regime.
Iran has re-armed its proxy army, Hezbollah, on Israel’s northern border. It has also supported terrorist groups in Gaza. Now, as it creeps toward becoming a nuclear power — thanks in part to Obama’s nuclear deal — Iran projects an increasing threat to Israel, as well as to the Sunni Arab states of the region. As long as Palestinians have some reason to believe Israel will cease to exist if they just wait long enough, they will refuse to negotiate or make serious concessions that would lead toward peace.
That points to the fundamental problem in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Palestinians refuse to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. The reason, fundamentally, is theological: Islam rejects the idea that lands once under Muslim control could be anything else. Their steadfast refusal to accept that Jewish connections to the land are both older and deeper has caused them to underestimate the tenacity of Israelis, who did not retreat as the colonial powers had done. Still, the cult of denial persists.
That is why many Israelis, and pro-Israel Americans, have given up on the idea of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, at least for the near future. And there already is a kind of peace — that is, the absence of war — maintained by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with some cooperation from the Palestinian Authority.
But formal peace — full recognition, agreement on the borders, an end to the Palestinian refugee issue and a resolution on Jerusalem — is no longer the urgent priority it once was.
That is especially the case given the tumult in the Arab world. The Arab Spring of 2011 brought down many of the region’s autocratic regimes. It also ignited the ongoing civil war in Syria, and saw the rise of the so-called “Islamic State” and other terror groups.
It is now clearer than ever that the main challenge to the success of the Arab world is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the internal dysfunctions of Arab societies. And the rising threat of Iran has obscured Israel as a security issue.
That is not to say Israeli-Palestinian peace is impossible. In the early 2000s, this author wrestled with the challenges of the peace process, studying the oft-cited examples of negotiations that ended the South African “struggle” and the “troubles” of Northern Ireland. There were two common elements: first, a demonstrated commitment to ending the armed portion of the conflict; second, the creation of semi-permanent negotiation institutions that included some kind of popular representation.
Today the first precondition is absent: the Palestinians have not given up violence, and will not do so while Iran remains a threat to Israel, and a source of arms and money for Palestinian terrorists. The second element cannot exist without the first.
That would seem to suggest peace talks are futile. Accordingly, some Israelis fear that any move by the Trump administration toward renewed peace talks with the Palestinians will repeat the mistakes that have bedeviled past U.S. efforts at mediation.
Yet there is one strategic shift that could make Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations more fruitful, without risking U.S. and Israeli interests or security. Ironically, the rise of Iran has made that shift possible: an emerging coalition between Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes to oppose Teheran’s aggressive ambitions.
The Sunni Arab states could, effectively, stand in for the recalcitrant Palestinians in negotiating the terms of a final peace deal with Israel, and force Palestinians to accept the result.
And that final result would not look like the offer that President Bill Clinton made at Camp David in 2000, and which Arafat rejected. It would, rather, be one of two options.
One, the “Lesotho option,” would resemble that highland kingdom: a sovereign but landlocked country, surrounded on all sides by Israel, which will keep all of Jerusalem and the Jordan River valley. The other, the “San Marino option,” would see Israel annex all of the West Bank, except perhaps a city-state in Ramallah. (Gaza would remain a rogue territory, and a final peace agreement would not depend on its assent or inclusion.)
In that context — if President Trump can pull together a new regional alliance that includes Israel and the Sunni Arab states — the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could have better prospects.
Hopefully, Trump’s surprise victory has put enough of a shock into the Palestinian leadership for them to realize that it is they, and not the Israelis, who are under pressure.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.