The Trump Administration this week gave another firm indication that it would not be “business as usual” when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
One of the major obstacles that’s kept the peace process from bearing any real fruit in over 25 years is the Palestinians’ insistence on a “right of return” for millions of Arabs calling themselves “Palestinian refugees.”
In a telephone interview with reporters on Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, effectively announced that if they are serious about peace, the Palestinians will need to drop or significantly alter that demand.
“Look, you have a situation when this whole thing started where you had 800,000 Jewish refugees that came out of all the different Middle Eastern countries and you had 800,000, roughly, Palestinian refugees,” Kushner explained. “And what’s happened to the Israeli, to the Jewish, refugees, is they have been absorbed by different places, whereas the Arab world has not absorbed a lot of the Palestinian refugees over time.
“This situation exists because it exists,” he continued. “And when we put out a political solution, we’re going to try to put forward the best proposed solutions that we think are pragmatic, achievable and viable in this day and age.”
Kushner made the remark knowing full well that a solution that is “achievable and viable in this day and age” means abandoning the Palestinian “right of return” in its current form.
With anyone else in the White House, that would be a death knell for any hopes of an agreement in the coming years.
But Trump’s not just any president.
There might be a lot of things for a lot of people to dislike about Trump. But, he is a pretty good strategist. And, unlike most of his presidential predecessors, he’s not afraid to rock the boat in implementing the strategies he feels have the best chances of success. That’s been true in his business career, and it remains true in his current position.
Where past presidents and other international peace brokers repeatedly “kicked the can down the road” on the issue of Palestinian refugees, knowing that both sides had red lines they would never cross, Trump has correctly concluded that such an approach only serves to maintain the status quo, not move the process forward in any meaningful way.
Perhaps maintaining the status quo is the best we can hope for. But Trump seems to think we can do better, and it took someone of his brash nature to get us to a point where that might actually be true.
No amount of Western cajoling is going to get the Palestinian leadership to drop their demand that Israel open its gates to millions of so-called “Palestinian refugees.” They’ve staked their legacy on making that happen. While in Israel, even mainstream left-wing parties are against such a concession, fully aware, as is the Palestinian leadership, of the demographic crisis it would create for the Jewish state.
But there is one factor that could break, or at least soften, the deadlock.
Late last month, the Trump Administration quite deliberately moved forward with an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Bahrain, even though the Palestinian leadership refused to attend and insisted the gathering would have no bearing on the conflict. That’s because, the absence of the Palestinians notwithstanding, it provided an opportunity for Israel and many of the Arab states to further cozy up to one another.
Much of the Arab world, and in particular the most wealthy of the Arab states, has grown weary of the Palestinian nationalist cause, even if they still pay lip service to it. This is especially true in light of more pressing regional matters.
Trump would appear to be wise to the fact that getting the Palestinians to back down on hardline demands that make peace impossible is going to require the rest of the Arab world putting Ramallah in its place.
Sure, the Palestinians will protest, loudly, maybe even violently. But, in the direction in which Trump is bulldozing things, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, maybe even Egypt and Jordan could all soon view Israel as as much a friend and partner as they do the Palestinian leadership, if not more so.
Don’t be surprised if in the near future (provided Trump wins a second term in 2020) the Palestinians find themselves isolated (as they like to claim Israel is), even within the Arab Middle East.