Initially, of course, it seemed like a colossal success. Though Palestinian representatives rejected the entire plan from the outset and refused to be involved in any aspect of its creation, two of Israel’s longest-standing foes in the region, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Morocco and Sudan, reversed generations of hostility, opened diplomatic relations and eventually allowed commercial air flights. Yet, from the get-go, there were some ominous signs. The plan, in what has become known as Jared Kushner’s Vision for Peace — a tribute to the efforts by the former President’s son-in-law — spelled out in a detailed map for Israel to halt expansion of any new settlement activity on a large swath of the West Bank without American consent, which Kushner affirmed would not be given “for some time.” (However, the plan did allow Israel to annex its existing West Bank settlements — in violation of international law.)Indeed, a series of “talking points,” which Kushner and the State Department cabled to all American embassies, and which Politico obtained and published, claimed that “Israel has agreed to comport its policies to this Vision for at least four years, including freezing all settlement activity in the West Bank in areas that this Vision designates for the future State of Palestine.”Sadly, Netanyahu, who is now facing prospects for a fifth election in two years after failing to form a government, has respected little of this. Settlement creep has continued. A joint statement earlier this month from five European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain) urged a halt to the expansion of 540 new homes in the West Bank, and asked Israel “to cease its policy of settlement expansion across the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Accompanying these provocative actions, frictions with the Palestinians have only intensified, leading now to what threatens to become an all-out war. The direct trigger for the violent exchanges appears to be the actions of Israeli police who fired stun grenades inside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the city’s holiest sites, on Monday. At the same time, Israeli police also were clashing with Palestinians over the eviction of several Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. While the attack on the sacred mosque and the evictions in Jerusalem may have been the more immediate triggers, the all but unchecked expansion of the settlements provided an atmosphere that was a toxic undercurrent. President Joe Biden’s administration has said little about the Vision for Peace, although Kushner himself, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March, described the persistent Arab-Israeli conflict as “nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians that need not hold up Israel’s relations with the broader Arab world.” And, turning to suggestions on how Biden might proceed, elaborated: “The table is set. If it is smart, the Biden administration will seize this historic opportunity to unleash the Middle East’s potential, keep America safe, and help the region turn the page on a generation of conflict and instability.” Unfortunately, it is precisely some of these real estate actions that have poisoned the always fraught atmosphere between Palestinians and Israelis.The only real hope in the near-term is for veteran Middle East specialist Hady Amr, the special envoy dispatched this week to Israel by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to find a way of returning Israel to a position of paying more than lip-service to key elements of the Kushner proposal. In dispatching him,Blinken pointed out that Amr “will urge on my behalf and on behalf of President Biden a de-escalation of violence. We are very focused on this.” Then, however, he added that “the United States remains committed to a two-state solution. This violence takes us further away from that goal.”A two-state solution means that Palestinians will ultimately receive their own homeland in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, removing them from Israeli control. The alternative would mean a single nation of Israel that includes Palestinian Arabs as citizens. Demographic trends, however, suggest that eventually, Palestinians could become a majority, placing the Jewish state in a position not unlike that of South Africa under apartheid — a minority group ruling a hostile and growing majority. And settlement creep threatens to shrink Palestinian territories bit by bit, leading to a toxic and potentially irrevocable status quo.
For the moment, beyond the violence that is paralyzing Israel and Gaza, I am also holding my breath as to what the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan might do. While there are considerable commercial advantages — especially in terms of trade and tourism — to them maintaining their ties, Israel’s actions in the West Bank and now in daily strikes on Gaza (in response to daily Hamas rocket attacks into Israel) may prove too costly.
Hopefully, the situation can be stabilized before any such irrevocable actions take place. I confess, I have a personal stake in this. My dear niece and her husband are planning to emigrate to Israel in the next month, and their baby will be born there. My prayer is that they will not be forced to arrive in a nation in flames.
It is incumbent on the Netanyahu government to demonstrate its willingness to adhere to critical international agreements, particularly on halting the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. Such a show of goodwill can only be constructive, even if it does remove some of the ultra-Orthodox who oppose such moves from Netanyahu’s coalition and complicates his efforts to retain hold on power.
Any number of American Presidents have played key roles in bringing, if not peace, at least a degree of stability to the Holy Land. Now it may be time for Biden to bring his good offices to bear. It is a complicated equation, certainly. Netanyahu and Biden are clearly at odds over some central issues in the region, especially the President’s goal of resuscitating the Iranian nuclear accord, which the Israeli leader finds anathema. But a determined gesture, more than simply a shrug, may be necessary on the part of Netanyahu if Israelis and Palestinians are not to spiral deeply into more destructive violence.
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