Trump rewrites rules of game in Mideast talks

Washington: Borders. Occupied Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees.

One by one, the United Status is taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s core issues off the table. President Donald Trump’s administration says it’s trying a new approach after a quarter century of peace talks failed.


But by chipping away at the issues the Palestinians care about as it radically reshapes American policy, the administration may actually be making peace harder to achieve — if not inviting another eruption of violence.

“By coming in and unilaterally rewriting the rules of the game, the Trump administration is removing itself from the role of mediator,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former US State Department diplomat involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration.

“Many of these steps don’t make sense if you try to square them with an effort to reach a solution to the conflict,” said Goldenberg, who now heads the Mideast programme at the Centre for a New American Security, a research centre.

Challenging narrative

Recently, Washington stopped funding the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, saying it perpetuates their refugee status. With the US still not releasing details about its proposed Middle East peace plan, the Palestinians view the Trump administration as flagrantly biased in Israel’s favour and have cut off contact with it.

The US is trying to “dismantle all permanent status issues including occupied Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees and their right of return, the two-state solution, 1967 borders, and the legality of [colonies], thereby destroying chances of peace,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, in a statement.

Trump’s campaign to rethink the articles of faith in previous negotiations started just weeks after he took office. He threw over years of US policy by declining to line up behind the two-state solution that is opposed by many in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Then, in December, he declared occupied Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, saying it simply recognised reality: that’s where Israel’s seat of government stands. That move provoked the rift with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which claims the city’s eastern sector for a future capital.

No incentives

Shaking things up without providing alternatives might instead make the core issues loom larger, critics say.

History suggests the Palestinians won’t respond positively to pressure without incentives, said Dennis Ross, a former US Mideast peace negotiator.

“Holding on to illusions like Palestinians will have a ‘right of return’ neither serves Palestinian interests nor the cause of peace,” said Ross, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But getting the Palestinians to adjust to reality is more likely to result from something also being offered to them.”

Abbas staked his presidency on the premise that US-led diplomacy will achieve what violence has not. Multiple rounds of failed negotiations have cost him popular support. If the Trump peace efforts fizzle, the Palestinians’ frustration could boil over into violence and push them into more radical camps.

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