Meanwhile, Netanyahu is bending over backwards to shower praise on Trump, who, in turn, seems to have really won over most Jewish Israelis by heaping his own accolades on their country. And the biggest lovefest of all is taking place between Trump and Gulf Arab leaders, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Trump wants to bring them and other Arab countries into the mix by adding a regional component to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He is hoping that these countries can add an additional incentive to Israel through greater regional legitimacy and recognition, and forging a common front against Iran’s aggressive regional agenda (particularly with an eye to the expiration of the nuclear agreement). Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem willing, as demonstrated by a draft “discussion document” outlining proposed stronger ties to Israel in exchange for Israeli curbs on settlement activities and easing restrictions on Palestinians.
These personal relationships, and the accumulation of political credibility, can play a crucial role, but, history suggests, only in a limited way and at key moments in a process. Political considerations and national security imperatives are more likely to shape the choices leaders on all sides make. And that’s where grounds for doubt become daunting indeed.
Trump confronts in Netanyahu an Israeli leader whose instincts are risk-averse, who is extremely skeptical that an agreement with the Palestinians, however limited, is either achievable or desirable, and who is apparently convinced that regional instability makes significant compromises with the Palestinians out of the question. Moreover, in order to even make minimal concessions, he would almost certainly have to reshuffle his cabinet, most likely jettisoning the ultra-right-wing Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett and replacing him with Labor Party leaders. That would open a very vulnerable flank on Netanyahu’s political extreme right, particularly given that the whole point of such a move would be to make some gestures toward the Palestinians in order to reach out to the Arabs, as Trump is urging.
The Arab leaders face an analogous conundrum. They, too, would like to forge a closer working relationship with Israel, mainly to form a united front against Iran, and, indeed, have already taken some significant, but very low-key, steps in that direction. But going further, especially more openly, would be exceptionally difficult for them unless there is a functional peace process that seems to be keeping the prospects of a two-state solution alive, if not leading directly to an end to the occupation. Without progress on the Palestinians, they can’t go much further toward Israel than they already have, which isn’t really all that far.
The Palestinians are in the weakest and most exposed position of all. They have almost no way of leveraging the Israelis, and, while they can always say no to any proposition, their national, economic, and political circumstances are so dire that there would be a serious temptation to consider almost any offer, as long as it’s not packaged as an “end of conflict and end of claims” final status agreement. Yet even while Abbas and company would probably want to take advantage of any opportunity to improve Palestinian lives, even modestly advance their national goals, and enhance their own political position, they would face massive opposition. Hamas surely would reject almost anything the PLO agrees to, but so might dissident factions within Fatah, who are currently jockeying for position to succeed the 82-year-old, ailing Abbas. So, even if it logically makes no sense for Palestinians to reject confidence-building measures, they still might feel constrained to do so politically.