Can Donald Trump solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

(CNN)Jerusalem: US President Donald Trump arrives in Israel Monday in search of what he has called “the ultimate deal”.

But like so many US presidents who have believed it their duty to bring peace to the region, Trump will face a series of challenges, which have grown increasingly insurmountable.
Seven years on since Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last held talks, the same issues remain — disagreements over borders, security, Jerusalem, a right of return for refugees and mutual recognition are no closer to being solved.
“Everybody wants peace, they just want it on their terms,” Senator George Mitchell who worked on peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2010, told CNN.
“I don’t think it’s a case of finding people who want to make peace. If you said to everyone: ‘do you want peace?’ then of course they’ll say they want peace. But they define peace differently and want it according to their definition, not the other side’s definition.”


One of the most difficult challenges facing Trump is trust between the two parties involved, according to former US Envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross.
Ross, a William Davidson distinguished fellow and counselor at the Washington Institute, helped establish the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as well as the 1997 Hebron Accord.
A part of both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, Ross says the challenges are as much psychological as they are practical.
“The level of disbelief between the Israelis and Palestinians, not just the leadership, but also the public, has never been wider,” Ross told CNN.
“You have to somehow recreate a sense of possibility which has been completely lost.”
It’s nearly seven years since Netanyahu and Abbas took part in a trilateral meeting with then US President Barack Obama in New York in September 2009. Obama — working with both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his first term and Secretary of State John Kerry in his second — tried to advance the peace process in two rounds of negotiations.
The most recent negotiations fell apart in April 2014 after nine months of talks, with both sides blaming each other. Two months later, the Gaza war started, causing a further deterioration in relations between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

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David Makovsky, a Ziegler distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process, who was involved in those talks, said a failure to agree over the five core issues (borders, security issues, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual recognition) was the reason for the breakdown.
“We couldn’t create that diagram where they all overlapped on these five issues,” Makovsky told CNN
“Ultimately the status quo that they knew was more, and I hesitate to use this word, appealing, than taking a leap into the unknown.”
Makovksy says Trump’s wish for peace is genuine, though he cannot see a grand deal in the offing.
“There are no shortcuts and you have to do the heavy lifting on those five core issues,” Makovsky added. “I don’t see the parties or him about to be on the cusp of doing that heavy lifting.”
For Mitchell, the challenges of brokering a major peace deal are well known. One of the leading figures in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in a new chapter for Northern Ireland, he was brought in facilitate between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2010.
“There’s such a high level of mistrust on both sides between both the public and leaders themselves that it’s very hard to get them to genuinely listen to the point of view or narrative of the other side,” Mitchell told CNN.
“In Northern Ireland it took years. Netanyahu and Abbas have known each other for many years but unfortunately the context they’ve had has tended to validate their mistrust and suspicion and I think that is and will continue to be one of the problems in the Middle East that has to be overcome.”

One State vs Two State solution

US foreign policy has held for decades that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution: an Israeli state living side-by-side in peace and security with a Palestinian state.

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Trump threatened to upend that framework at his first press conference with Netanyahu in mid-February when he said he would be OK with a one-state or two-state solution.
But since then, Trump seems to have has fallen in line with traditional US policy.
“One thing I know is that a one state outcome is not a solution, it’s a prescription for an enduring war,” Ross said.
“Because you have two national identities, they won’t co-exist in one state. You will have one, which will inevitably dominate the other and by the way, look at the Middle East.”
Convinced he can find a solution, Trump has been intent on restarting dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians.
His special envoy for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, has met with Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders, to restart momentum for negotiations.
Trump is determined to keep that momentum going. Before his trip to Israel and the West Bank, Trump is set to meet with Abbas and other Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, setting up a regional Arab consensus on a need for a peace agreement with Israel.


Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be an international city, but that goal was never realized as war broke out between the fledgling state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. From 1948 to 1967, West Jerusalem remained under Israeli control, while East Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians.
Following the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For the first time in modern history, all of Jerusalem came under Israel’s governance. Israel claims the entire city as its united capital, but no country recognizes this decision. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
“Addressing East Jerusalem means addressing occupied territories,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said.
“If you want to change the status of Jerusalem you have to address both sides – East and West Jerusalem. You can’t accept an illegal reality that was imposed by an occupying power.”
Israel’s position has always been — and perhaps will always be — different.
“There’s no distinction between East and West Jerusalem,” said MK Michael Oren. “In July of 1967 after the Six-Day War, Israel liberated the eastern part of Jerusalem, the Israeli government made all of Jerusalem one sovereign Israeli city and our capital.”
“That is actually Israeli policy. It’s not a position. It’s Israeli law.”
The right of return stipulates that Palestinians who fled their land seized by Israel in 1948 and 1967 will be allowed to return home. With millions of refugees living in neighboring countries and around the world, Israel fears any return could tip the demographic balance where Jews become a minority. Palestinians claim it’s their inherent right to return home.
“People’s rights can’t be negated. International law shouldn’t be violated by agreements,” explains Ashrawi. “But at the same time, once you recognize the rights we can discuss different ways of implementation.”
But Oren says there is “no wiggle room” for Israel on the right of return.
“The Palestinian demand for refugee return is an existential threat to this country,” he said.
“It’s not about spirituality, it’s not about national pride. It’s about our national existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Any attempt to erode the Jewish majority of this state is an existential threat.”
No American administration has definitively weighed in on Jerusalem, leaving the final status of the city open to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a two-state solution. The US has never recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the US embassy to Israel sits in Tel Aviv.
Like other presidential candidates before him, Trump made a campaign promise to recognize a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the embassy. But Trump has since demurred on the embassy move, walking back the promise as he attempts to reignite a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
The issue of refugees and Jerusalem remain two of the most contentious with neither side appearing likely to cede ground.

Palestinian skepticism

While expectations ahead of Trump’s visit may be low, there is some cautious optimism.
Only last month, Abbas heaped praise onto Trump during their press conference in Washington. He finished by telling Trump in English, “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.”

Hamas leader: Trump has ‘historic opportunity’

But back in the West Bank and in Gaza, many Palestinian leaders view the new US President skeptically. During the election campaign, they saw then candidate Trump pledge his unwavering support for Israel and after winning, nominate a new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who is considered to be on the far right even by Israeli standards.
“He has been extremely pro-Zionist. David Friedman is known for being an extreme supporter of the most hardline policies of Israel, including settlements which are illegal,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said.
“On the other hand we know he isn’t beholden to the pro-Israel lobby in many ways. He is not really an ideologue, he is not really a party man. That gives him some leeway and freedom.”
But any sort of peace deal will have to start within the Palestinian community itself with the rift between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which is led Abbas, growing deeper in recent months.
The situation in Gaza has become desperate with the United Nations cautioning that it may become unlivable by 2020.
“In the short term, progress in Gaza seems to be the hardest issue,” Natan Sachs, director at the center for Middle East policy at Brookings, told CNN.
“Both the Israelis and Palestinians know that the current situation is not good for anyone. It’s bad for Israelis and awful for those in Gaza. That’s where I’d start if I was Trump.”


The threat of a nuclear Iran remains one of Netanyahu’s major talking points, and it was at the top of the agenda when Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met Secretary of Defense James Mattis in both Washington and Tel Aviv.

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Netanyahu was perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear deal, lobbying against the deal up until the moment it was signed.
He toned down his criticism following the finalization of the deal, but saw the election of Trump as a chance to reignite opposition to the deal.
So far though, Trump has not made any changes to the deal, and key figures in Trump’s administration have indicated that the Iran deal will remain in place, at least for the time being.
But the administration’s concerns about Iran remain. In February, Mattis labeled the country as “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.”
That has encouraged a number of Arab countries to seek co-operation with Israel on Iran, according to former US ambassador Shapiro, former US ambassador under Obama.
He says the new found co-operation could help advance the peace process with the Arab states keen to work with a new US President at a time where the threat of Iran is perhaps a more worrisome prospect.
“There is definitely more of a recognition that Israel is a strategic partner against Iran, ISIS and other strategic threats,” Shapiro, senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told CNN.
“That strategic co-operation at a level of intelligence, security co-ordination is very strong and very real.”
He believes Arab states can help provide cover for Abbas who would face criticism from the Palestinian public, particularly from Hamas.
“He needs a cover where there is a shared responsibility which makes it easier for him to take steps otherwise it might be impossible,” Shapiro added.

Trump’s Leverage

If Trump wants to pressure the Israelis or Palestinians to make concessions, he has different ways of doing so for each party.
Early in his term, Trump is off to a strong start in his relations with the Sunni Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Together with those countries, he could pressure the Palestinians into making concessions on certain issues.
The US also provides $440 million per year in foreign aid to the Palestinians. Offering an increase in that aid, possibly combined with an economic incentives package, could make compromise easier.
Trump has even more options for negotiating with Israel, both financially and politically. If Trump offers to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights or release Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel, from the terms of his probation, it would be a political win for Netanyahu, and it would give the Israeli Prime Minister maneuvering room within Israeli politics.
Trump could also offer to increase US military aid to Israel from its record level of nearly $4 billion a year. As a last option, Trump can move the embassy to Jerusalem, but such a move would require large concessions to the Palestinians to avoid regional turmoil.

Temper expectations

For those who have tried and failed in the past to bring peace to the Middle East, Trump’s visit represents the next chapter.
For Makovsky, who was part of Kerry’s negotiating team in 2013-14, an incremental approach rather than a traditional all or nothing scenario could work for Trump.
“I think the most likely prospect you’ll get with the Trump visit is the prospect of possibly renewing talks between Netanyahu and Abbas which would be significant after seven years,” Makovsky said.

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Ross is also cautious of progress, though he believes there are ways to engage both parties and change their outlook on the possibility of a future deal.
“If you could persuade Israelis not to build outside the bloc, they could still build inside the bloc, then I think that would be something you could realize,” he said
“If you could get the Palestinians to stop providing funds to the families of those who kill Israelis or try to kill Israelis or are in prisons because of that, it would send a message to the Israelis that something is changing.
“You could do things which resonate on each side. When you have disbelief, it’s not like you can suddenly flick a light switch and everything is fine.”

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