Of all of President Donald Trump’s priorities in the Middle East—defeating ISIS, countering Iran, and rebuilding damaged alliances among them—none is as surprising as his zeal for pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The prevailing sentiment in Republican foreign-policy circles had been that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry pushed too hard for such a deal when the time was not ripe and other regional priorities should have taken precedence. The two-state solution—which became firmly entrenched in the foreign-policy lexicon under President George W. Bush yet under Obama it became associated in Republican minds with wringing unilateral concessions from Israel—fell so out of favor with the GOP that reference to it was removed from the party platform in 2016.
Yet President Trump has taken up the issue with gusto. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House in February, and Mr. Trump took the opportunity to speak publicly on the issue of settlements. He has twice dispatched a White House envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the Middle East for consultations on the peace process. He welcomed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for an early visit—offered without any preconditions—to the White House, a major boost for a leader who had faced setbacks on both the domestic and international stage. And his first foreign trip will not be to Canada or Mexico as has long been presidential tradition, but to the Middle East, where he will visit with Netanyahu and Abbas again in Jerusalem.
Why the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Perhaps it should not be so surprising: the issue has been a presidential preoccupation for decades. As Dennis Ross has noted, even Ronald Reagan—associated in the public mind with the fight against communism and the fall of the USSR—lent his name only to one diplomatic initiative, the “Reagan Plan” for Arab-Israeli peace. Perhaps even more importantly, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be, in Mr. Trump’s words, “the ultimate deal,” a strong temptation for a president who regards himself as a consummate dealmaker.
Yet if in defiance of the odds President Trump is determined to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those dealmaking instincts may prove useful. Indeed, he could do worse than to begin by analyzing the situation as he might a prospective business negotiation.
Parties and Interests
An Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not an end in itself, except perhaps for those negotiators who will forever trade on having cinched one. Instead, the parties engage in negotiations to advance one or more interests. In business, these interests tend to be straightforward: profit, access to a market or technology, or perhaps a desire to disadvantage a competitor. In politics, they need be no more complicated.
For Israel, the overriding interest implicated in any peace negotiation is security. A recent poll by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs found that 76 percent of Israelis felt Israel should retain full security control of the West Bank in any future peace agreement, and that 57 percent would not support a deal without such a condition. Israel has other territorial, economic and diplomatic interests, to be sure, but will only consider a prospective deal if it clearly advances the nation’s security.
Palestinians’ interests are more controversial, and more difficult to pin down. In the near term, Palestinians are preoccupied with the concerns of everyday life—a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Polling Studies and Research shows that as many Palestinians believe the “spread of unemployment and poverty” should be the Palestinian Authority’s top priority as those who answered “continuation of occupation and settlements.” Almost as many suggested “the spread of corruption in public institutions” should be the Palestinian Authority’s first concern. Yet while many would consider a peace agreement to be instrumental to addressing these concerns, polls also suggest that most Palestinians oppose the sort of compromises represented in past peace proposals and instead continue to harbor maximalist aspirations, as Daniel Polisar of Shalem College has noted.
That reality is harsh enough, and there is clearly no squaring Israel’s interest in security with maximalist Palestinian territorial ambitions. Yet negotiations turn not only on each side’s true position, but on what each side believes to be the other’s position, whatever the reality. On this score, the situation appears even bleaker. Both Israelis and Palestinians tell pollsters they are skeptical of the other side’s ultimate intentions, with about 80 percent of Israelis indicating that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would not bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, according to the JCPA poll.
In addition, the interests of decisionmakers may not match those of their citizenry—a misalignment known in business as a principal-agent problem. For the Palestinians, this problem appears acute—Palestinian Authority officials seem more likely to suffer a loss of status and reputation by making concessions to Israel than by refusing to do so. Yet even Israel, a vibrant electoral democracy, is not immune: its coalition politics mean that small parties can have outsized influence, and thus their narrow interests can trump those of the broader populace. Coalitions can be reshuffled, of course, but there is a cost in doing so; a right-wing prime minister would surely be reluctant unless a worthwhile peace deal seems truly within reach.
The Israelis and Palestinians, of course, are not the only parties to the conflict. Arab states have historically played a role in it. Ironically, however, to the extent they have an interest at stake, it is in expanding relations with Israel, with whom they share common regional enemies, rather than in the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet they already enjoy Israel’s tacit cooperation, the formalization of which would likely yield only incremental gains and entail domestic blowback, dampening their incentive to act.
The United States is also in the thick of the conflict. This has been the case for so long that policymakers might forget to question why it is so. Yet it is vital that they do so lest they end up supporting an agreement that does not clearly benefit the United States. The U.S. interests most implicated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are twofold: first, in regional stability, since Gaza and the West Bank remain potential flashpoints; second, in the security of Israel, Jordan and Egypt, all allies vital to higher U.S. priorities in the region, such as the struggle against ISIS or Iran. If the Trump foreign-policy team has a rallying cry, it is “America First,” and with that in mind they should not contemplate any deal or step unless it clearly advances those U.S. interests.
In evaluating any potential deal, each party makes a simple comparison—is it better or worse for my interests than the best available alternative to a negotiated agreement?
In Israel, there has long been robust discussion of alternatives to a negotiated peace deal with Palestinians. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert campaigned in 2006 on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, similar to Israel’s previous withdrawal from Gaza. Other Israelis have argued for a supposed “one-state” solution, and yet others for annexation of the West Bank. But for Israel the clearest alternative to a negotiated agreement is simply the status quo. Despite the turmoil in the Middle East, Israel is doing well. Terrorism is largely under control, the economy has grown at a healthy clip, and Israel’s foreign relations are steadily improving, both with Arab states and the world beyond. It is counterintuitive, perhaps, but Israel’s prosperity means that it has less to gain from a peace deal.
For the Palestinians, several alternatives to a negotiated agreement present themselves. For Palestinian Authority president Abbas, the preferred alternative is internationalization—that is, to recruit the “international community” to impose peace terms on Israel in lieu of negotiating them. Until the election of Donald Trump, Abbas had reason to believe this approach was paying off. The European Union and the American Left were increasingly in favor of sanctions against Israel, and the Obama administration at long last allowed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity to be adopted. Abbas, of course, is not the only Palestinian voice, nor is his preferred alternative the only one available. His bitter rivals in Hamas, for example, prefer a different alternative: violence, which it recently reaffirmed in an updated draft of its charter.
The leadership of each side is continually comparing these alternatives not to any particular deal, since neither side has proposed one, but to what each believes is the real aim of the other side. Whether conflict leads Israelis to prefer negotiations to the status quo, for example, depends in part on whether they feel the Palestinians’ aim is to compromise with them or eliminate them. Not only Hamas but many ordinary Palestinians, through polling, have made clear that their aim is the latter. And the UN, Europe and others have only reinforced the problem by steadfastly refusing to back Israel during wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and with Hamas in Gaza on numerous occasions, leading many Israelis to conclude that peace efforts have compromised rather than enhanced their security.