Editor’s Note: Jason D. Greenblatt is a former assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations in the Trump administration. Follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattJD. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Before joining Donald Trump’s administration as special envoy for the Middle East in January 2017, I had spent the bulk of my career negotiating real estate deals as a lawyer and executive. Eyebrows were raised in some circles as to whether a person with my background was right for a role previously occupied by seasoned diplomats.
For President Trump, the answer was in the word “negotiating.” I had spent years negotiating deals with hard-nosed real estate developers, banks and government officials. From the President’s perspective, irrespective of Washington, DC convention, that experience was a critical qualification for the job.
As my colleagues and I assumed our roles, we delved into the history of the Oslo peace process and the unsuccessful efforts of multiple US administrations to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a deal. The burning question was why there was no peace, despite the years of process, and how the new US administration might achieve a different result.
The complexities were many, but one issue stood out: While successive Israeli governments (left and right) had acknowledged the Palestinians’ ultimate goal — some form of a Palestinian state or self-determination — the Palestinian leadership continues to refuse to acknowledge Israel’s ultimate goal
In 2014 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that millions of descendants of the original Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war had a personal “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel — that is, not just to Judea and Samaria (what is commonly referred to as the “West Bank”), and Gaza, but to all of Israel, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, and all other cities.
While the Palestinian so-called “refugee issue” was always on the list of final status issues, there was little to no regard for the roughly equal number of Jews forced to flee from Arab lands as a result of the Arab-Israeli war. The Jewish refugee issue was swept into the dustbin of history, undoubtedly because ultimately those Jews who fled Arab lands as a result of the war were not left to rot in refugee camps as political pawns the way Palestinians were.
The Palestinians’ demands were not simply an overly aggressive negotiating strategy. I knew all about tough negotiations, but several US administrations and Israeli prime ministers had presented the Palestinian leadership with opportunities to end the conflict. Each time, the Palestinian leadership walked away, at times not even advancing a counteroffer.
Their demands weren’t a negotiating strategy, they weren’t willing to compromise on the issues that were key to a deal.
The incoming Trump administration was under no illusion that the Palestinian leadership was about to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or otherwise prepare their people for peace. So long as Palestinian leaders were feeding their people a steady diet of incitement against Israel, plying them with the myth that they would achieve their claimed right of return and glorifying murderers of Israeli civilians as “martyrs,” there could never be a true end of conflict with Israelis.
We also realized any new plan had to take into account the bitter split between the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Hamas, the Iran-funded terrorist group that rules approximately 2 million Gazans.
It also became painfully obvious that a key element of the Oslo Accords — that Israel would exchange conquered land for peace with the Palestinians — was a failure and, under no circumstances, would Israelis risk creating a second Gaza in Judea and Samaria.
Our approach, therefore, was to formulate a plan to deal with the situation as it was, in a realistic and implementable manner, and not through a prism that filtered out the harsh realities of the past 25 years of unsuccessful peacemaking.
We believe that the elements of the plan, now widely known, weighing in at 181 pages are extremely detailed.
Most broadly, they include security for Israel, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, Israeli civil administration and security control over the cities and neighborhoods in Judea and Samaria (what others call “settlements”); freedom of access to all religious sites; the possibility of statehood for Palestinians on a substantial portion of Judea and Samaria, with a capital within the expanded boundaries of eastern Jerusalem; a four-year moratorium on Israeli construction of settlement towns in those areas of Judea and Samaria earmarked for a potential Palestinian state; and a $50 billion international funding program for the Palestinian economy. The ultimate goal, of course, is an end to all claims and an end of conflict.
The Palestinian leadership, of course, rejected this plan before they even saw it.
Critics pounced on the fact that the new Trump plan was worked out without Palestinian leadership having a voice in the process. However, since the drafting of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians not only sat at the table but have actively participated in negotiations. Yet, even when offered statehood in 2000, 2008 and 2014, they walked away, and, in 2000, did so in a wave of violence called the Second intifada.
The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah had a seat at the table throughout 2017, until they decided to cut the Trump administration off after President Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. After observing Ramallah’s behavior over time, the Trump administration determined that we were not going to pander to the illusion that the Palestinian leadership was now prepared to negotiate in good faith. And we were not going to immunize them from the consequences of their actions.
I understand the resulting plan is something of a shock to the traditional, diplomatic system. But we thought the system needed a shock. For example, the international community did the peace process no favor by failing to tell Palestinians that the claimed right of return was a deal breaker for Israel and would be a roadblock to peace. Instead, the international diplomatic community essentially “punted” on this critical issue by consigning it to some “final status” negotiations that, in reality, could never be reached so long as Palestinians demanded the impossible.
The so-called “Palestinian refugee” issue, however, should never have been considered a “final status” point; it should have not been allowed to fester and grow over the decades. The Trump plan stops the nonsense and says no to using generations of Palestinians as pawns to keep the 1948 war alive. So-called “refugees” will return to a Palestinian state if one is ever created, not Israel. To think otherwise is folly. To demand otherwise is to demand that generations of Palestinians live without a proper future, one they sorely deserve.
The question now is whether there are forces within Palestinian society and their supporters in the international community that can overcome the rejectionism of the past to see that President Trump’s vision provides a path to a realistic Palestinian state based on critical security protocols and a firm economic footing.
This Palestinian state could be every bit as successful as Israel is today if the Palestinian leadership is willing to recognize that refugees will become citizens of the nascent Palestinian state and agree to live in peace and normality with Israel as the Jewish state as it was created.
No, it’s not perfect from the Palestinian or Israeli standpoint, but it represents the deal that can be done now and likely for the foreseeable future. If the Palestinians are willing to look forward, rather than backward, their state, and an incredibly promising future, is well within reach. If they are unwilling to do so, then they will continue to fight for meaningless paper victories in international forums, and more generations of stateless Palestinians will continue to suffer from bad leadership decisions.