- Donald Trump has signalled publicly and privately that he is serious about pursuing a Middle East peace deal involving Israel and Palestine.
- Multiple issues stand in place of a peace deal and may have gotten more intense in recent weeks.
- The two Palestinian leadership factions are in reconciliation talks, which may push away the Israelis.
- Israel is ramping up settlement building, which could isolate the Palestinians.
President Donald Trump has said publicly that he wants to work towards “the toughest deal of all” — resolving the Israel-Palestine issue in the Middle East — but problems on both sides of the divide could prevent a peace deal before negotiations get underway.
“I think we have a pretty good shot — maybe the best shot ever — and that’s what we’re looking to do,” Trump said at the UN General Assembly in September. “I certainly will devote everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made.”
Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left meetings with the US at the General Assembly convinced that Trump is serious about a Middle East peace plan, Haaretz reported at the time.
In the past few weeks, though, ongoing issues on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have ramped up and could prevent negotiations from even starting.
On the Palestinian side, Fatah and Hamas, the two predominant leadership factions. are currently embroiled in reconciliation talks. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the US, complicating efforts by the Palestinians to bring the groups together.
Meanwhile, Israel has ramped up settlement building in the West Bank, a contested territory under Israeli control where most Palestinians live. The final status of the West Bank, as well as Gaza and East Jerusalem, would likely be determined in peace talks.
The issues have left any possible deal between the Israelis and Palestinians “out of Trump’s hands,” UCLA professor James Gelvin, an expert on Middle East history, told Business Insider.
“Trump is looking at it in terms of a deal and a personal challenge, and the other players are rolling their eyes and saying ‘here we go again,'” Gelvin said.
Perhaps the biggest block to any upcoming peace push by the US is the recently renewed reconciliation efforts by the two main Palestinian powers, Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The two sides are holding talks in Egypt this week.
The current talks follow a 2014 agreement to form a unified government, which has been separated since a violent split in 2007. The limited reconciliation in 2014 was Israel’s stated reason for ending the last major US push for a peace deal, led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry.
Hamas is considered by Israel and the US, as well as other countries, to be a terrorist organisation. Netanyahu has made it clear he has strict demands before Israel engages with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, including recognising Israel, breaking its ties with Iran, and dismantling its military wing.
“We expect everyone who talks about a peace process to recognise the State of Israel and, of course, the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said last week. “We cannot accept fake reconciliation on the Palestinian side that comes at the expense of our existence.”
The upside for Abbas is clear: If reconciliation talks move forward to an agreement between the Hamas and Fatah, Abbas — who heads the Palestinian Authority — would have the authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.
Given Netanyahu’s current stance, though, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation could doom negotiations, Daniel Kurtzer, a former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, told Business Insider.
“Netanyahu can do what he wants to do, and thus far he appears irreconcilably opposed to PLO-Hamas reconciliation,” Kurtzer said in an email. “If the Palestinians do reconcile on a reasonable basis and if Netanyahu’s attitude doesn’t change, it will be impossible to reach negotiations now.”
Mohammad Dahlan, a controversial Palestinian leader who is currently one of the main players in the Fatah-Hamas talks, seemed to understand this reality in a recent interview with Reuters.
“The internal Palestinian situation is more sacred, is more important, and is more useful now than the so-called negotiation,” Dahlan said.
A ‘splintered’ Palestine
Similar talks have started before, though, and have not been successful. The current discussions happening this week in Egypt are reportedly ignoring the issue of Hamas’ military wing, even as both Netanyahu and Abbas have demanded demilitarization.
If — and likely when — the latest reconciliation efforts fail, the Palestinian position will go back to how’s been for the last decade.
“At this point they’re doing a Hail Mary pass,” Gelvin said. “There is a lot of history between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that won’t be easily reconciled.”
Without the backing of both factions, Abbas does not have the ability to say he speaks for all Palestinians, a reason Netanyahu has offered in the past to avoid negotiations.
“Mr. Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator when Fatah-Hamas talks ended the 2014 US negotiations, said at the time.
“Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose. This is utterly absurd,” Saeb said in 2014.
This line of thinking is reportedly still on the Israeli prime minister’s mind when it comes to his approach to peace talks.
“Every time anyone speaks to Netanyahu, he would say ‘how can you reach a solution when the Palestinians are splintered?'” a Gulf source recently told Reuters.
On the Israeli side, renewed settlement building plans could block any US-led peace talks.
An Israeli panel is expected to soon approve thousands of housing units’ construction in West Bank settlements. Netanyahu also recently pledged to build thousands of new homes in one of the West Bank’s biggest Jewish settlements and annex it to Israel.
Nabil Shaath, a senior Abbas adviser, recently called Netanyahu’s comments “totally unacceptable.”
“This is an attempt by Netanyahu to destroy the two-state solution and a clear refusal of any attempt to revive the peace process, especially by the United States,” Shaath told The Associated Press.
Dahlan seemed to echo these sentiments while speaking with Reuters. Describing the “complete Judaization of the West Bank,” he said, “There is no political horizon.”
“The chances of the so-called deal of the century is zero because Netanyahu does not want peace, and he imposed a reality of 700,000 settlers in the West Bank and in Jerusalem that made it impossible for the two-state solution to be implemented,” Dahlan said.
Kurtzer, the former US Ambassador, noted that it would be politically near-impossible for Palestinian leadership to even enter negotiations as Israel amplifies their settlement building.
“Renewed Israeli settlement activity will make it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for Abbas to muster the political support necessary to enter negotiations. The question is how the US administration will respond to renewed settlement activity,” Kurtzer said.
While the Trump administration has pushed Israel to limit — but not end — settlement building, it will likely be a key part of Israeli policy for the foreseeable future, according to Gelvin. The Israeli government, he explained, is “totally in the thrall of the settler movement.”
Moreso, he said, their supporters “would drop Netanyahu in a minute if they thought he was balking on the settlement issue.”
‘Lightning has not yet struck’
Speaking at a meeting in New York City earlier this month, Jason Greenblatt, the White House’s special representative for international negotiations, outlined the Trump administration’s approach to Middle East peace, as quoted by The Jerusalem Post.
“Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about their future,” Greenblatt said.
“Instead of laying blame for the conflict at the feet of one party or the other, we are focused on implementing existing agreements and unlocking new areas of cooperation which benefit both Palestinians and Israelis.”
As of now though, the decisions that Israel and Palestine are making seem to be continuing and even deepening points of contention that have plagued peace talks for over a decade.
“Ultimately, the big breakthroughs come when lightning strikes, some fundamental change in conditions,” Gelvin said. “Right now lightning has not yet struck.”
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