North Africa, West Asia

The deal of the century: any chance of an honest broker?

Established in 2002, the Quartet’s mandate was to help mediate a Middle East peace. It has not done very well up until now.

Gabrielle Rifkind
2 March 2020
Quartet Representative to the Middle East, Tony Blair, is welcomed to Israel by President of the State, December 2014.
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Nir Alon/PA. All rights reserved.

Known as “the deal of the century”, it has been written off by Palestinians as “the fraud of the century”. Without Palestinian buy-in and with the US government’s clear partisan alignment and sympathies with the Israel government, it is a plan that belies the possibility of any role for the US government as an honest broker. Prime Minister Netanyahu said to President Trump “you have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” For peacemaking, however, brokers need to be seen as a friend to both sides.

In the early days of the Trump administration there was a glimmer of optimism. When Palestinian President Abbas met Trump in the White House in 2017, he praised Trump and said “now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.” This mood was further strengthened by meetings with Jason Greenblatt, an orthodox Jew, previously a lawyer for Trump, who had been appointed Middle East Special Envoy. He had no previous background in diplomacy but his first trip to the region left a positive impression; a person who had mostly come to listen, and who asked many questions, albeit including ones that showed a lack of basic knowledge. This goodwill was soon dissipated when a model of power and self-interest was applied by the Trump administration, with the announcement to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and to cut-off aid including to hospitals in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem.

Overwhelming bias

The plan that has now been released reflects the breakdown in communication between the US and the Palestinians over the past two years. The US government has shown overwhelming bias towards Israel; offering it control of all security, territorial waters, airspace, and international crossings. It has presented a package, entirely supportive towards the Israeli political right, that was celebrated by Trump’s Evangelical supporters (who hold 20 per cent of the vote in future US elections) while being universally condemned by Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders were absent from the launch and were accused of exiting the negotiations, but there is no deal to be done without them. Israel is the party with all the power and without addressing this asymmetry the weaker party is likely to refuse to engage in any potential attempts at resolution to the conflict. An approach that relies upon models of power and avoids building the necessary relationships can only lead to more deeply entrenched positions.

Without the necessary confidence-building measures and a careful engagement of both sides, some of the difficult compromises required of peacemaking are impossible. The Trumpian model of power is coercive diplomacy with maximum pressure. It is a model that can only be successful if there is an attractive incentive as part of the endgame. His model is weakens the Palestinians, then offers them something they can only reject. The Palestinians will not give up on the idea of a contiguous state that can be economically viable that respects an end of Israel’s occupation, an independent and sovereign State of Palestine on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

To negotiate or not

The so-called peace plan has been divided into two parts: economic and political. The economic section was released June 2019 in Bahrain with no Palestinian or Israeli present. Trump’s offer is predicated on the idea that people and communities can be economically incentivised and will ultimately compromise if they think they have the opportunity of a better life. But this does not address identity, values and what matters to people. The Palestinians are driven by a great sense of injustice and the need to right a historic wrong. Without some recognition of this they will block any future negotiation.

The final plan gives Israel the ability to annex all the settlements and keep full control of Jerusalem with the Palestinians getting a capital in the outer neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; an unacceptable compromise compared to what has been discussed in previous peace plans. Palestinians will be offered limited sovereignty on the majority of the West Bank, carved up by the Israeli settlements and as President Abbas told the United Nations Security Council, this will bring neither peace nor stability and will leave Palestinians with a state resembling "Swiss cheese”.

Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a seasoned negotiator in the Palestine-Israel conflict and possibly the Prime Minister who got the closest to a deal with the Palestinians, declared that peace requires direct negotiations between the two sides and President Abbas is willing to negotiate with Israel as representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas has replied “I'm fully ready to resume negotiations where we left it with Mr. Olmert, under the umbrella of the Quartet.”

More Quartet?

There were moments in the past 20 years, when much of my time in conflict resolution was spent working on the Palestine-Israel conflict, when the US was an honest broker trying to facilitate a peace plan with the Olmert talks (2008) Mitchell talks (2010-2011) and the Kerry Peace Plan (2013-2014). All were serious attempts to be even-handed but tragically neither parties were prepared to make some of the fudgy compromises required of peace-making.

Trump’s plan is intended to shake things up, perhaps a response to previous failed attempts, but not in the way its architects envisaged as a game-changer. Things may be quiet at the moment but these are the conditions that lead to further violence and more extreme positioning. President Abbas has called for the Quartet to take over. But we might well ask: is it alive and well? Established in 2002, consisting of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, its mandate was to help mediate a Middle East peace. It has not done very well up until now. But perhaps it can reactivate its role as a consortium of honest brokers and provide some much-needed political creativity.

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