America’s Palestinian ‘blind spot’ is bad news for the ‘Deal of the...

America’s Palestinian ‘blind spot’ is bad news for the ‘Deal of the Century’

By Luke Vargas   
TMN graphic
TMN graphic

Khaled Engindy argues the Trump Administration hasn't taken a balanced approach to its supposed reimagination of the Mideast peace process.

Israelis head to the polls in closely watched elections on Tuesday, and if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected the Trump administration is reportedly prepared to unveil a long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan crafted by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But this is not the two-state solution deal long pushed by U.S. administrations. Instead, the U.S. will likely mobilize foreign economic assistance to the West Bank in Gaza, but not force Israel to make tough concessions on occupied territory or control of Jerusalem.

This week on “Wake” we’ll talk to a former Palestinian peace negotiator about what he calls America’s “blind spot” when it comes to the peace process and what to expect in the weeks ahead.

This week’s guest:

  • Khaled Elgindy, nonresident fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, author, “Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump”


What is America’s Palestinian ‘blind spot’?

Khaled Elgindy: “Any normal mediator understands that the success of negotiation depends as much on the realities outside of the negotiating room as inside. Specifically, in terms of the political and power dynamics, and so that’s why I define the blind spot as this inability of American policymakers to appreciate the importance or the tendency to downplay two critical factors: in this case, Israeli power — mainly in the power of Israel’s military rule over 5 million Palestinians — and the second factor being Palestinian policies, whether that is Palestinian public opinion, internal political parties and factions that make up the Palestinian national movement, Palestinian political and historical narratives and rights and grievances.

And so, as a mediator the job of the United States should be to understand the political and power dynamics of the two sides in order to identify ways to incentivize both parties to do the kinds of things that are necessary to reach a peace agreement and avoid conflict, and discourage those things that hamper the process.

And given the power dynamics, I think people often forget that this isn’t not just a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; it’s also an occupation in which one party rules over the other, and so that is very much a part of this reality, and so what American policymakers have tended to do is sort of treat the two sides as though they were sort of co-equal partners in a peace negotiation — if we could just get them to sit across the table from one another and each side would have to make these tough concessions — sort of like what the United States did in Northern Ireland or the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

But this is a very different reality, where Israel is not only a sovereign nation, it’s also the most powerful country in the region, it has a nuclear arsenal and it militarily occupies 5 million Palestinians — it rules over them and it’s a group that does not have citizenship rights in Israel. So those are important factors that typically get downplayed.

The other factor that I mention is Palestinian politics. More often than not, Americans have wanted to either ignore Palestinian political realities or to sort of re-engineer them, and that was very much part of the peace process over the past quarter-century.

I argue that the net result is that essentially because of the special relationship between Israel and the United States, U.S. leaders ended up putting virtually no pressure on Israel to make concessions for peace, and ended up putting more pressure on the Palestinians. And so when you put more pressure on the weaker side and less pressure on the stronger side, you can imagine you don’t get a conflict resolution. You actually get kind of stagnation and a reinforcing of the status quo.”

An Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, separating Israeli-controlled territory from the Palestinian West Bank. Flickr photo: hjl
An Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, separating Israeli-controlled territory from the Palestinian West Bank. (Flickr photo: hjl)

You argue America’s contradictory stances toward the peace process — for instance, publicly condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank for decades while tacitly allowing settlement activity — are so glaring that there are only two ways forward for the peace process. What are they?

Khaled Elgindy: “Either you go back to the original rules of the peace process and say ‘no settlements, all sides have to avoid things that damage peace prospects,’ or you simply say, ‘we can’t do that, let’s rewrite the rules of the peace process altogether.’

[Former President Barack] Obama tried to do the first option, which is to reaffirm the rules of the peace process, but he didn’t really put teeth into those policies, and so we get to where we are with Trump, where he said, ‘those old rules no longer apply — we’re going to redefine this peace process on a totally different basis.’

And we’ve seen that with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and green-lighting settlement activity — kind of turning the other way — and also with the latest announcement on the Golan Heights, where the Untied States reversed 50 years of U.S. policy and said we’re going to recognize Israeli sovereignty in what has traditionally been seen as Syrian territory that was occupied by Israel. And that, of course, flies in the face of not only Resolution 242, which is the basis of every peace process since 1967, but even the U.N. Charter, which forbids acquisition of territory by force.

So in a very real way, Trump is attempting at least to rewrite the basic rules of the peace process.”

An Israeli honor guard greets President Donald Trump at Tel Aviv's Gen Gurion Airport. May 22, 2017. Courtesy: White House / Sheelah Craighead
An Israeli honor guard greets President Donald Trump at Tel Aviv’s Gen Gurion Airport on May 22, 2017. (Shealeah Craighead/White House)

President Trump says his policies  like the Jerusalem embassy relocation or recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli  simply reflect the realities on the ground. Is that a bad thing?

Khaled Elgindy: “I think i you’re going to go down that road of sort of accepting realities on the ground, you can’t be selective about that process and say, ‘well, there are 630,000 Israeli settlers who’ve been living there for a long time and it’s too politically and economically costly to try to remove them, so they should just stay where they are.’

There are also other realities — the reality of the Israeli occupation, for example — that need to be addressed. If you’re going to rewrite the rules, you can’t rewrite only the ones that you don’t like while ignoring other realities that don’t somehow fit into your narrative. This is an administration, I think it’s the first administration in 50 years that doesn’t even recognize an Israeli occupation.

We’ve heard Trump’s ambassador to Israeli, Robert Friedman, use terms like the ‘alleged occupation’ or the ‘so-called occupation,’ and he refers to the West Bank and Gaza by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria. These are ideological positions. These are not neutral positions that this administration has taken. They have implications.

And if this is the biblical land of Judea and Samaria, then what do you do with the fact of 5 million Palestinians who live in that land, who are not citizens of Israel but are ruled by Israel? So we can’t be selective about our realities. If you want to say we live a post two-state solution era and Israel is not going to leave the territories, then you have to look at the other implications of that, including the fact that Israel rules over this population that has no say in the government that rules over them.

If you’re going to do away with the rules, then you’re going to have to rewrite all of the rules, which means that if this is going to be a one-state reality and there will not be a sovereign Palestinian state, then you also need to talk about how and when to give citizenship rights to those disenfranchised people that live in that land who are the majority of the people in the West Bank and Gaza.

You can’t have two systems of law to govern people in the same land. That is a system historically known as apartheid, and that is not something that the United States ought to be endorsing implicitly or explicitly.”

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