No free lunch: Israeli-Palestinian talks

What is President Donald Trump planning for Israel? According to a report in The Jerusalem Post and Maariv on Friday, the president’s peace plan will ask Israel to withdraw from four Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, likely so they can become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel learned of the future demand during Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s visit to Washington last week.

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The transfer of control over the neighborhoods – Jebl Mukaber, Isawiya, Shuafat and Abu Dis – was presented to Liberman as just one part of the larger peace plan the administration has been working on over the last year. Israel, the officials indicated, would be expected to accept the plan once it is presented despite the painful concessions.

While some US officials have denied the report, it would seem to fit into fears that some on the Right have raised in recent months. According to these Israelis, the pending move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14 is part of a larger plan by the administration to get Israel to reciprocate with concessions of its own. As the saying goes: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Such a demand will present Israel with two problems.

First is a commitment by this government and previous ones not to divide Jerusalem. Transferring control over east Jerusalem neighborhoods to the Palestinians is a move that would come at a high political price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Second, it is unclear who exactly Israel is expected to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s comments last week that Jews in Europe were massacred for centuries because of their “social role related to usury and banks” does not make him someone with whom Israel can genuinely be expected to sit down and negotiate. Even The New York Times called last week for the aging Palestinian leader to step down following his antisemitic and vile comments.

Trump and his peace team – led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, envoy Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman – are well aware of all this.

Nevertheless, all indications are that they have not given up their ambitious goal of trying to finalize a peace deal between Israel and the PA.

Israel will have to tread carefully. With the situation escalating on Israel’s northern front and the possibility of the nuclear deal with Iran soon collapsing, Netanyahu will need to continue to work closely with this administration.

Politically, Netanyahu runs the risk of being perceived by the Israeli public as fighting with another US president like he did with Barack Obama. If that were to happen, Netanyahu would have a difficult time convincing Israelis that a president who moved the embassy to Jerusalem is hostile to the State of Israel.

We recommend that the administration consider postponing the publication of its plan. There is no point to it now, a time when the Palestinians lack leadership capable of engaging with Israel and negotiating a true, formidable and long-lasting peace.

There is nothing to gain from unveiling a plan that has no chance of being accepted or implemented except additional frustration and disappointment.

The fake apology that Abbas issued on Friday is just another reason why this will fail. “If people were offended by my statement in front of the PNC [Palestinian National Council], especially people of the Jewish faith, I apologize to them,” Abbas said.

If people were offended? Abbas must not understand what he did. He managed to align the United Nations, the European Union and The New York Times into condemning him and even calling for his resignation. That’s not an easy feat on a good day, let alone in today’s Middle East.

It is important for the administration to be smart and not just right when rolling out its much-anticipated peace plan. As history has shown, sometimes great expectations come crashing down with bloody and violent results.