Has The United States Jeopardized Its Prospects For ‘The Ultimate Deal’ In The Middle East?

Early in his presidency, Donald J. Trump set out to achieve “the ultimate deal”: Israeli-Palestinian peace. The US president deputized his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with the task, claiming the feat could be achieved within the first year of his administration.

A little over a year later that “ultimate deal” is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Trump administration appears to have further jeopardized its own prospects of brokering such a deal by relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and again failing to acknowledge the potential for Jerusalem to also be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

On May 14, at Trump’s behest, the US officially moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Watching scenes from the opening ceremony, however, where US and Israeli officials offered jubilant speeches from a decorated dais, juxtaposed with scenes of tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters demonstrating amidst billowing smoke along the Gaza border—and reports of the highest Gaza death toll since 2014—a negotiated settlement seemed even more elusive than a year ago. The contrast between the scenes in Jerusalem and Gaza was stark, to say the least.

The Trump administration appeared tone deaf to not only the regional and political environment in which it opted to relocate the embassy—including increasing uncertainty and tensions between Israel and Iran in the north, a deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and a Palestinian leadership unwilling to engage with the United States—but also to the protests and bloodshed that unfolded concurrently in Gaza. At least publicly, administration officials no longer even try to deescalate tensions or encourage negotiation, as evidenced by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s remarks to the world body on May 15, and her decision to walk out of the room when the Palestinian envoy began speaking.  

The demonstrations in Gaza were not solely in response to the US Embassy move; protesters had convened routinely at the border for the past six weeks in anticipation of demonstrations commemorating the Nakba originally planned for May 15. [Editor’s note: May 15 marked the 70th anniversary of what the Palestinians call the Nakba—Arabic for catastrophe—when 700,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948.]

Hamas does bear a good deal of the responsibility for the size, tenor, and fervor of the protests on May 14—and subsequent deaths—but Israel and the United States are not absolved entirely. The way in which the decision to move the US Embassy was taken and the date chosen for the move—on the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence, a day before the anniversary of the Nakba—did stoke the flames of ongoing fires. 

From peace plan to proclamation?

In June 2017, following Trump’s inaugural visit to the Middle East as president—a trip that included a stop in Israel—Kushner traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

From a relatively lone listening tour to allegedly drafting the plan for Middle East peace, Kushner’s entire effort has been shrouded in secrecy.

Breaking with past US administration positions, Trump declared in February 2017, during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, that two states need not be the outcome. “I’m looking at two states and one state, I like what the one that both parties like,” he said.

But to date, we don’t know if there is a grand new bargain waiting on the shelf for the right moment to be unveiled, pieces still being fashioned into a plan, or little more than hyperbole and speculation.

After pledging a big reveal in early 2018, Trump instead announced on December 6, 2017, the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He said the statement did not reflect “a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries on the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders,” and declared that preparations to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would begin immediately.

A missed opportunity

Trump was correct in saying on that day that “old challenges demand new approaches.” But by failing to couple recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital with mention of any elements of a potential plan—he pushed the prospect of peace further into the distance.

In the face of opposition from nearly all regional partners and international stakeholders, Trump missed an opportunity to lay the foundations for a US-brokered settlement that recognized Jerusalem not only as Israel’s rightful capital—a move long overdue—but also as a capital for a future Palestinian state.  The United States squandered what leverage it had to bring Israeli and Palestinian leadership any closer to an agreement.

But as we heard again from Trump in his May 8 announcement that the United States would withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran: “When I make promises, I keep them.” And on May 14, Trump made good on his promise to move the official site of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

There is no longer any question whether the Trump administration recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem—even if not the specific boundaries. It has made no indication, however, as to how it will reach a deal that “both parties like,” as Trump himself said was the goal. 

Many have long said we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. While this remains true, we also need to resist actions that enable further chaos and risk shaking whatever tenuous balance of stability still exists. Opportunities to bring the parties together are fleeting and US capacity for leadership on this front continues to be questioned. We may yet see Trump follow through on his offer to table the “ultimate deal,” or we may soon see a spiral into further conflict that we are no longer going to have the leverage or partners to stop. 

Rachel Brandenburg is director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow her on Twitter @RCBrandenburg.

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Image: Palestinian demonstrators are seen as smoke rises from burning tires during a protest marking the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 15, 2018. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)