Could Donald Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize? He would be following in the footsteps of his predecessor but unlike Barack Obama in 2009 his award could be for something significant: helping to bring an end to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts – the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
It might sound implausible but Trump may have a better chance of delivering peace – or at least a non-belligerency agreement – than previous presidents, even if those chances do still remain low. Trump's Middle East peace envoy (and ex-real estate lawyer) Jason Greenblatt, who I met recently, says that the Trump team will soon unveil their plan – the “deal of the century”, as Trump has dubbed it. It could even come a day or two after next Tuesday’s Israeli elections. The election results will be known the same evening and the coalition that is then formed may be greatly influenced by the content of the plan.
Israel's election has been closely fought. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has for weeks been running slightly behind the new centrist “Blue and White” party of former general Benny Gantz in the polls. But under Israel’s complex proportional representation system, Netanyahu – even if his party wins fewer seats – is still more likely to gain a record fifth term in office; he has a better chance of building a coalition with smaller parties.
But whether Netanyahu survives or not, why might Trump succeed where others have fallen short? For years, diplomats have tried – and failed – to bring about peace. Offers of an independent Palestinian state made to the first Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak (under the guidance of Bill Clinton) in 2000 and 2001 fell on deaf ears. So, too, did the proposal by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2007-08 that gave the Palestinian Authority pretty much everything it supposedly wanted. US secretary of state John Kerry also implored Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to accept the secret peace offer put on the table in 2014-15. He refused. So what is different now?
Firstly, the American team. The vast majority of western Middle East specialists think the Trump plan has no chance of success, in part because it is being formulated by non-diplomats. Jared Kushner has a real estate background and Greenblatt and David Friedman were both lawyers for the Trump Organisation. But my experience of observing and meeting western diplomats over many years is that most are misguided as to what might work in the Middle East – the region perhaps doesn’t need statesmen, it needs hard-nosed deal makers.
This view is shared by senior figures I have met from various Arab governments, who privately say they are already far more impressed by Trump and his team (in part because they are unabashedly pro-American and sympathetic to America’s allies) than they were by Obama and his – including his two secretaries of state, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
Secondly, the Arab states have changed. Utterly tired of Palestinian intransigence and the refusal to even negotiate publicly for a decade now – and far more concerned about the increasing Iranian threat across the region – they are favourably disposed to Israel as never before. They also know that their economies can benefit greatly from Israeli expertise.
In recent months, ties between members of the Netanyahu government and leaders from across the Arab world have been made increasingly public. In the space of just ten days last October and November, several right-wing Israeli cabinet ministers were publicly welcomed in separate visits to Gulf states with whom Israel has no official relations. Netanyahu himself was hosted in October by the Sultan of Oman, who later broadcast the visit on state TV for his people to see. More recently, in February, Yemen’s foreign minister was photographed alongside Netanyahu at a summit in Warsaw.
There have, too, been growing ties with Muslim-majority countries in Africa. Netanyahu went to Chad in January, renewing diplomatic ties cut off since 1972. Closed-door meetings between senior Israelis and leaders throughout the Arab world have also been taking place. The Palestinians are, in effect, being bypassed by much of the Muslim world; they may realise they have little choice but to also improve relations with Israel.
The Trump team has been careful not to leak any specifics of the plan for peace, which has been two years in the making, but we have some idea of what it may involve. Jared Kushner told Sky News Arabia that the plan will address all the main issues of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, and “freedom...of opportunity (and) religion”. He said it would economically benefit the wider Arab region, not just the Palestinian economy. “We want to see Palestinians under one leadership that will allow them to live in dignity,” Kushner said. “We are trying to come up with realistic and fair solutions that are relevant to the year 2019.”
Officially, the Palestinian Authority has refused to speak to the Trump administration for over a year now, but from private discussions I have had, I understand that if Abbas continues to refuse to negotiate, several Arab states – as well as the US – may apply the kind of serious pressure on the Palestinians that previous presidents never employed.
In the past, when Palestinian leaders turned down offers of independent statehood without even agreeing to further discussions (offers of a kind that Chechens, Kurds, Baluchis, Tibetans and dozens of other stateless people would have jumped at), far from being pressured or ostracised, the Palestinian leadership was given even more money and more red carpet treatment by western countries. Casting themselves as perpetual victims paid off. No longer. Trump has already shown, through his decision to move the American embassy to west Jerusalem, recognise Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, and cut funding to the Palestinians, that there will be a price to pay for such intransigence.
President Abbas is currently in his 15th year of a four-year term. While the Palestinian Authority has a firm grip on power, Abbas is not immune from public (and international) pressure. There is great discontent with his rule and it may be hard for him to once again turn down an offer of a state – however imperfect the borders may be viewed by many Palestinians. There are, however, rumours that parts of east Jerusalem may be included as a Palestinian capital in the Trump plan.
Palestinians will learn that there will be massive financial investment if they accept. Incentives were offered in the past too, but the Palestinian public was never properly informed. Today, because of very high internet usage, it will be hard for Palestinian leaders to hide from their people what is at stake.
Thirdly, Trump has already said Israel will be expected to make painful concessions. So will Netanyahu accept? Many pundits doubt it. However, if he wins next week’s elections, this will likely be his last term, and I believe he may accept. Although he is an Israeli nationalist, he is also a pragmatist. He knows Israel may never be in a stronger position to reach a deal, with the backing not just of Trump and the Saudis, but the tacit approval of Vladimir Putin, with whom Netanyahu enjoys exceptionally close relations and whom he is meeting again today. Netanyahu has also forged close ties with governments in India, China, Brazil and elsewhere.
Israel has never been stronger. It is now ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world, according to the US News and World Report’s 2019 power ranking – a remarkable achievement for a small country. The economy is thriving. Some 250 multinational companies – including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Intel, AT&T, AOL, HP, IBM, PayPal, Samsung, Dropbox, SanDisk, Sony, and Yahoo – have established major research and development centres in Israel. Israel has even just sent a rocket to the moon, only the fourth country to do so. Netanyahu – who has long said that peace is best established through a position of strength – knows Israel may never have a better opportunity than now.
Furthermore, he is facing corruption allegations, he says (with, it seems, some justification) because the Israeli liberal establishment, exasperated by lack of peace and his length of time in office, have been scraping the barrel to see what they can pin on him. In order for these charges to be dropped or minimised – or prevent new charges being brought, Netanyahu may wish to form a centrist government, with Gantz as his deputy and also with the Israeli Labour Party, to push ahead with the Trump plan at the expense of the Israeli hard right.
And if Netanyahu fails to win the election? Trump's plan can still be implemented by a Gantz government. But history has shown time and again that right-wing leaders have a better chance of carrying more of their population (especially nationalists) with them when concessions are being made: think Nixon and China; Reagan, Thatcher and the Soviets; De Gaulle and Algeria; and in Israel itself, when right-wing leader Menachem Begin, 40 years ago this month, forged peace with Egypt, at the time Israel’s most implacable foe.
For sure, Netanyahu would face concerted domestic opposition from the Israeli right to the concessions Trump is likely to ask Israel to make; and there will have to be very sophisticated security measures put in place for some time until a Palestinian state has proved itself not to be hostile, in order to prevent rocket and other attacks.
There are other obstacles, including Hamas in Gaza. But here again there is behind-the-scenes mediation going on between Hamas and the Israeli government, with Egyptian participation, and the problem is not insurmountable.
Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph