Peace is highly unlikely between Israel and the Palestinians at this time because there are no strong leaders able or willing to break the logjam blocking peace talks, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Haass, a former director of policy planning at the US State Department, told a breakfast roundtable at the National Press Club May 8 that he would advise the new U.S. administration to “not invest too much” in seeking a peace accord, as President Donald Trump has proposed.
The Middle East has changed, said Haass. The Israel-Palestinian issue has become a “local dispute,” taking a back seat to the front-burner issues of the region: Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Iran.
“The key to solving the Middle East is strong leaders,” Haass said. Palestinian leaders such as President Mahmud Abbas are too weak to buck hardline feelings left by occupation and nurtured by Palestinian hate propaganda demanding the disarmament and dismemberment of Israel, he said.
Israeli leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu show little hurry to take any steps that could signal weakness and invite an escalation of the simmering so-called Third Intifada. In about two years, some 50 Israelis and 250 Palestinians have been killed in attacks initiated by Palestinians on Israelis.
“I worry about an attack on the holy sites in Jerusalem,” said Haass. Such an attack could precipitate a mass regional war by Muslim nations seeking revenge on Israel, even if it was not responsible for the attack.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in an interview with Kol HaBirah that Abbas seemed to be “pumped up” after his meeting with Trump on May 3. Abbas subsequenty offered to hold the first meeting with Netanyahu in seven years.
“But to what end?” asked Makovsky, since the outstanding obstacles remain entrenched.
Haass cautioned the Trump administration to develop “relationships” with foreign officials rather than rely on “deals” that are a one-time-only event.
“We need more relationship diplomacy,” he said.
Abbas has been seeking to revive peace talks with the Israeli government, but Israel claims that Abbas is too weak a leader to force the various militant factions in the West Bank to make concessions demanded by Netanyahu. These concessions include an end to payments to families of slain or captured terrorists who have killed, as well as ending the promulgation of hate and incitement against Jews and Israelis in Palestinian media and school books. Officially recognizing that Israel is a Jewish homeland and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are the other two criteia.
On his side, Abbas has some hard-to-swallow demands from Israel that have blocked a resumption of peace talks. One is to end to Arab settlement expansion. Another is the demand to revisit the Arab Peace Plan in which Saudi Arabia proposed that if Israel retreats to its 1967 borders the Arab and Muslim states would offer Israel complete diplomatic recognition — and presumably peace.
National Public Radio correspondent Daniel Estrin said that “on Israeli Memorial Day, Netanyahu had very, very tough criticism. He demanded Abbas stop monthly payments to Palestinian prisoners who carried out deadly attacks on Israelis.”
Such payments, said Netanyahu, “nurse incitement against our people with their mother’s milk.”
NPR reported that “trust between Israelis and Palestinians right now really is rock bottom. There is such little belief on both sides that there’s a way forward.”
“What we can’t afford is another big initiative that fails because that’ll just feed the cynicism and disbelief … And it reduces even more any hope that anything can ever be done,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. negotiator on the Middle East and currently the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow and counselor at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Trump is expected to make his first foreign trip as president later this month and will visit Israel around May 23. He could include a visit to Bethlehem or Ramallah.
He will also visit the Vatican and Saudi Arabia.
President Trump has appointed as special peace negotiators for the Middle East two observant Jews: his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.
Greenblatt, a graduate of Yeshiva University, worked for Trump for 20 years as a real estate lawyer, the Jerusalem Post reported.
By Ben Barber
Ben Barber has spent 40 years covering the world as a reporter for the London Observer, USA TODAY, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, and other publications. His photojournalism book “Groundtruth: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World” is available on Amazon.