The Trump administration has decided it needs a win and thinks it can achieve one most easily via the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. According to President Donald Trump, he has already simplified the conflict by taking “Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table,” referring to the official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and subsequent relocation of its embassy from Tel Aviv in 2018. Of course, the conflict that has confounded consecutive U.S. presidents and countless other world leaders must be simply waiting for a new American plan.
What at various times has been referred to by Trump and his team as the “deal of the century” or the “ultimate deal” is now being “shared with regional partners” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos—(or more accurately, leaked to the press over the last few days). The unveiling of the plan will reportedly follow the scheduled Israeli elections in early April of this year and precede the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign season, giving the process around a year to succeed. There are two issues with the proposed plan: elements on both sides of the longstanding conflict have already rejected parts of it and the originator of the plan is not viewed as an honest broker—making an easy win difficult for Trump.
Despite the U.S. role in the rolling back of ISIS, there is a vacuum of American leadership in the region due to a series of ill-conceived regional policies and a general inward orientation caused by fierce partisanship and domestic political divisions in the United States. Today, people everywhere talk about the end of a unipolar world, and point to Russia, and even China, as the global hegemons responsible for changing the fabric of the region. What’s more, regional leaders no longer seemed poised to wait with baited breath for the United States to deliver solutions. It is in this spirit—no longer willing to wait, but still enjoying the post-territorial ISIS stability largely created by the United States—that Sisi and Abdullah met.
The purpose of this meeting between the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders was “to continue intensified coordination between the two countries to face the unprecedented challenges that threaten the security and stability of the Arab nation.” The two topics that dominated their attention were terrorism and the “Palestinian-Israeli cause.” In terms of the former, general regional counter-terrorism measures were discussed alongside Libya, Yemen, and “the importance of reaching a political solution [to the Syrian crisis] that preserves the territorial integrity of Syria and the unity of its people.” However, it was the latter topic that took precedence. The two leaders “called for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations based on the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative” (put forth and promoted by the Saudis). The creation of “an independent [Palestinian] state on the June 4, 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital” has been a frequent theme stressed by the pair in almost every interaction, from regular phone calls to prominent meetings held on the sidelines of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. It also has been echoed in bilateral meetings between each of these leaders with heads of state from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, and Russia.
This is by no means an indication that Egypt and Jordan will lead the charge for peace. Rather, Sisi and Abdullah “affirmed the importance of intensifying international efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to reach a just and lasting peace.” While the nature of this international coalition is amorphous, it necessarily precludes actors like Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, and various non-state regional players. Conversely, it would likely depend on American support, even if it has taken a back seat in the negotiation process for the reasons discussed above.
The fact that the subject of resuming the peace process is beginning to feature so prominently in bilateral discussions between regional leaders is an indication that, to some extent, those countries do feel more secure than just a few years earlier. In 2014-5, when the Islamic State existed as a physical entity and its forces were gobbling up territory, citizens, and oil revenues, Middle Eastern leaders were not spending their time calling for two peoples in another state to stop fighting and negotiate peace. Rather, they were understandably preoccupied with a series of more pressing issues including: the potential for violence and bloodshed to permeate their borders; the radicalization of their citizenry; the infrastructural strain coming from an influx of refugees; and the endurance of their regimes and their own personal safety. The reemergence of the peace process on the agenda of Middle Eastern leaders not only means that those immediate concerns for their own security and stability have abated to some extent, but it also means that they can resume using this issue as a way to deflect attention away from various domestic issues that are unpopular with their own populations. Less cynically, it likely also stems from an almost universal recognition that the situation on the ground demographically, politically, and otherwise may very soon render the Arab Peace Initiative or any other plan unviable.
While the headlines are likely to continue to fill up with talk of resolving the crisis between Palestinians and Israelis, no real movement is apparent yet on the part of Middle Eastern leaders or global leaders alike. In the meantime, Palestinians are still divided among Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis continue to build settlements, and the two continue to clash in Jerusalem—and all that even precedes sticky negotiating table issues like capitals, refugees, and security. Creating movement on this issue is going to take a colossal effort, and perhaps as Sisi and Abdullah say, a concerted international effort. Even if President Trump doesn’t get distracted by domestic issues to actually unveil his plan in April, it is unlikely to get him the win he is looking for because the era of an American concocted plan based on American timelines and American political will is over.