Not so long ago, President Donald Trump had backers of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process worried and Israeli settlers and annexationists elated. Many were convinced that a change in U.S. policy toward Israel was imminent, not least because the President’s three main advisers on Israel were modern Orthodox Jews with ties to West Bank settlements. Mr. Trump’s chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, is a former West Bank yeshiva student. The new U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, until recently headed a settler fund-raising group. And the family of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, has donated to the institutions of a settlement northeast of Ramallah.
For months after Trump’s election, Palestinians couldn’t manage to arrange so much as a phone call with his senior advisers. And, at a White House press conference in February with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump himself expressed ambivalence about Palestinian statehood. Few doubted Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, when he declared that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Today, however, Palestinians leaders are roundly praising Trump—not just Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, but also Khaled Meshal, the former leader of Hamas. In Trump, they see the rare possibility of an American President who appears capable of challenging the decades-long bipartisan consensus to underwrite Israel’s occupation while making empty promises to end it. The fact that Mr. Trump is a Republican and surrounds himself with lifelong Zionists makes him seem even better positioned to twist Israel’s arm. Palestinians took note when, during the Republican primaries, Trump vowed to be a neutral mediator, refused to blame only one side for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and declined to back down when attacked, even though he had many electoral and financial incentives to do otherwise.
Ministers in the Israeli government have said that Netanyahu is nervous about Trump’s visit this week, fearful that the President is setting up an “ambush” of some kind. The opposition leader Isaac Herzog, by contrast, has praised Trump’s “impeccable” handling of the diplomatic process. Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, who served as the chief negotiator with the Palestinians under two Prime Ministers, said recently that with Trump, who “thinks big” and “addresses the hard core,” she “certainly think[s] something dramatic could happen.” Affirming that she is more sanguine now than at the outset of the talks led by John Kerry, she added, “This time, it looks different.”
What is the basis of this optimism? For many Israeli officials, it seems to be Trump’s apparent endorsement of a so-called outside-in peace process. That is, negotiations that supplant bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks with a “regional initiative,” in which the Arab states support or participate in the discussions from an early stage. But there is nothing novel in this approach. President Obama attempted to gain the support of Arab states for his peacemaking efforts during both his first and second terms. The George W. Bush Administration secured the attendance of not just Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians at the 2007 Annapolis peace conference but also senior representatives from Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab nations. George H. W. Bush co-chaired the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which was attended by Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and was followed by more talks between Israel and the Arab states during the following weeks.
Each of these regional initiatives failed. Obama could not manage even to get one started, in part because the Arab states feared the reactions of their own constituents. And there is the larger question of whose interests such a regional approach would serve. It would be to Israel’s advantage, of course, if it could normalize relations with the Arab states without making concessions to the Palestinians. But Arab leaders do not appear eager to walk into that trap. Though some of them might be willing to humor Trump—by appearing onstage at the launch of new talks, for instance, or by offering Israel limited gestures such as an easing of trade restrictions or the right to fly over their territory, as the Wall Street Journal reported, last week—anything approaching true normalization will almost certainly require concessions that the current Israeli government will find very difficult to make.
Israeli officials are nonetheless hopeful that a regional initiative could yield benefits at a relatively low cost. They believe that, in such talks, the Arab states could pressure the Palestinians to make concessions that they wouldn’t otherwise make. Yet, if past is precedent, Arab leaders won’t transgress Palestinian red lines: they would have much to lose in public support and quite little to gain. They are already getting what they need from Israel through covert security and intelligence coöperation and purchases of Israeli technologies, services, and expertise.
Perhaps the most frequently cited argument for a regional process is that the Palestinians have little of value to offer, and by bringing in the Arab states the Trump Administration can “expand the pie” and elicit greater concessions from Israel. As Trump put it during his press conference with Netanyahu, “I think our new concept . . . is something that allows [the Israelis] to show more flexibility than they have in the past because you have a lot bigger canvas to play with.” But the Arab states have already promised Israel full peace and normalization as soon as it reaches a settlement with the Palestinians. So the only thing new in this approach is not the size of the canvas but the sequence, giving Israel steps toward normalization before, rather than after, it agrees to withdraw from the West Bank. More important, such an arrangement would only lessen Israel’s incentives to make a deal with the Palestinians, as the government would have already won nearly everything that it wanted, through normalization.
The outside-in approach is merely the latest in a series of failed tactics aimed at creating new incentives to make peace, rather than pursuing strategies—withholding financial assistance, to begin with—that steer the parties away from the status quo. Trump frightens Israeli leaders precisely because he is one of the only American politicians they could imagine even considering the latter approach.
The man behind “The Art of the Deal” has called Israeli-Palestinian peace “the ultimate deal.” If he is serious about pursuing it, he will need to do more than sweeten the pot; he will need to revisit the advice dispensed in a section of the book’s second chapter: “Use Your Leverage.” So far, the Trump Administration has vowed to do the opposite.