The next meeting between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu is expected to take place on September 17, at Trump’s golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, according to Israeli media reports. It will be their third meeting this year, including the Israeli prime minister’s visit to the White House in February and Trump’s visit to Israel in May.
Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. will include a stop in New York City to address the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. President Trump and Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will attend the General Assembly meeting as well. This has led to media speculation about the possibility of a three-way summit meeting between the leaders on the sidelines of the General Assembly, at which Trump would present his ideas about a path forward towards a resumption of peace talks.
Before arriving in the U.S., Netanyahu will make state visits to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. He will return to Israel from the U.S. prior to the start of Rosh Hashanah.
Relations between Netanyahu and Trump have remained cordial, even though right-wing Israeli politicians have expressed disappointment with Trump’s refusal to give Israel a free hand with regard to West Bank construction. Israeli leaders are also pessimistic about Trump’s hopes to restart the peace process with the Palestinians, a task Trump has entrusted to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt.
Kushner is one of Trump’s most influential advisors. Greenblatt was a longtime executive in the Trump Organization, and is a shomer Shabbos Jew. The two were accompanied on a visit to the region last week by Dina Powell, Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy.
The Trump representatives met with the leaders of U.S. regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar and Jordan, before ending their whirlwind two-day visit by meeting with Netanyahu in Yerushalayim and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
PALESTINIANS LOSING PATIENCE WITH TRUMP
White House officials called the trip “productive,” and provided an especially upbeat assessment of the meetings with the leaders of the Arab states, but Palestinian leaders made no effort to hide their disappointment at the refusal of the White House to make a firm commitment to a two-state solution or announce specific plans for going forward with negotiations.
During Kushner’s meeting with Abbas last week, the PA leader pushed him for more specifics about Trump’s peace plan.
During Kushner’s meeting with Netanyahu, the president’s son-in-law reiterated Trump’s desire to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu responded by declaring that such a deal is “within our reach,” while promising to work “to advance peace, stability and security in our region,” but no specifics were announced.
Kushner said after his meeting with Netanyahu, “The president is very committed to achieving a solution here that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in this area. We really appreciate the commitment of the prime minister and his team to engaging very thoughtfully and respectfully in the way that the president has asked him to do so.”
Netanyahu’s office issued a pro-forma statement describing the talks with Kushner as “helpful and meaningful,” and expressing Netanyahu’s “appreciation to President Trump and the Trump administration for its strong support of Israel.”
U.S. EMBASSY MOVE STILL UP IN THE AIR
There was some confusion among Israeli sources about whether the issue of moving the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim came up in the discussion with Kushner. On Sunday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely expressed her disappointment that the issue had not been raised. However, the Prime Minister’s Office later issued a statement saying that the issue had been discussed, but Hotovely was not aware of it because she was not present when it came up.
A U.S. official confirmed that the embassy move “was brought up by both sides as part of a productive, broad conversation about a number of issues,” but neither side was willing to disclose any further details regarding that issue.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump frequently promised to go forward with the move. Many of Trump’s pro-Israel supporters were deeply disappointed when he reneged on that promise in June by signing a six-month wavier for the law passed by Congress 20 years ago requiring the move. The U.S. official emphasized to reporters that Trump still intends to carry out that promise before the end of his administration. “Needless to say, the administration’s policy is when, not if, that move will take place,” the official said, but many of Israel’s supporters are now skeptical.
PROTESTORS GREETED KUSHNER IN RAMALLAH
The talks between Kushner and Abbas were much more contentious than his conversation with Netanyahu. The PA leader’s introductory remarks before reporters prior to their meeting reflected both good will and the strains in the U.S.-PA relationship.
“We highly appreciate President Trump’s efforts to strike a historical peace deal, a statement he repeated more than one time during our meetings in Washington, Riyadh and Bethlehem,” Abbas said.
“We know that this [U.S.] delegation is working for peace, and we are working with it to achieve what President Trump has called a peace deal. We know that things are difficult and complicated, but there is nothing impossible with good efforts,” Abbas said.
But other PA officials, in statements before and after the meeting between Abbas and Kushner, made it clear that they feel Trump is siding with the Israelis. They are also impatient to see a “road map” from Trump for restarting the peace talks.
To make the PA’s displeasure with U.S. policy clear, Kushner was greeted in Ramallah on Thursday, prior to meeting Abbas, with a well-orchestrated protest demonstration including signs with insulting images depicting Kushner as well as his wife, Ivanka, and President Trump.
Al-Quds, an Arab-language newspaper controlled by the PA, cited an account of the Kushner-Abbas conversation provided by Israeli reporter Gal Berger. Abbas rejected Kushner’s demand for an end to PA “martyr payments” of more than $300 million a year to convicted terrorists and their family members, even though the Taylor Force Act which will soon be passed by Congress will make continued U.S. aid to the PA contingent on stopping them. “Abbas informed Kushner that he would never stop paying these [terrorist] salaries until his dying day, even if this cost him the presidency,” Berger said, and after his meeting with Kushner, Abbas put a similar statement on the PA’s Facebook page.
Berger said that Abbas was also angry at Kushner’s disregard for the settlement issue, and he repeated the PA familiar demand that the pre-1967 West Bank lines, including East Yerushalayim, be the starting point for negotiating the borders of the new Palestinian state.
U.S. REJECTS PA DEMAND FOR TWO-STATE SOLUTION COMMITMENT
Senior Abbas aide Ahmed Majdalani told Western reporters that the Palestinians were demanding “a clear and frank answer on the position of the administration on the two-state solution and settlements.
“Without a clear American commitment to the two-state solution and stopping settlements and ending the occupation, we don’t expect much from this administration,” he said.
Previously, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert ruled out such a commitment now because it would “bias” the outcome of a peace agreement to be negotiated between Israel and the PA.
“We want to work toward a peace that both sides can agree to and that both sides find sustainable. We believe that both parties should be able to find a workable solution that works for both of them.”
For that reason, she explained, “We are not going to state what the outcome has to be. It has to be workable to both sides.”
Palestinian complaints continued the day after Abbas’ meeting with Kushner. PLO negotiator Ashraf Khatib told the Washington Post, “We have clearly emphasized to the Americans the importance of having a public statement that has a commitment to the two-state solution. There hasn’t been any.
“We have told the Americans that we are committed to the American effort. We’ve also told the Americans that we want clarity on their approach. Without a vision, it will be negotiations for negotiation’ sake.”
PA REPEATS OLD THREATS
Abbas aide Majdalani warned, “If the U.S. team doesn’t bring answers to our questions this time, we are going to look into our options because the status quo is not working for our interests.”
The options include seeking recognition of a Palestinian state from various international bodies, bringing charges of war crimes by Israeli government officials and military leaders to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and dissolving the Palestinian Authority itself, throwing the Arab-populated sections of the West Bank into chaos.
None of these threats are new. Abbas has tried to win separate international recognition for a Palestinian state before, but the Western diplomatic community refused to go along because it would have meant the end of all hope for reaching a negotiated peace agreement.
According to Palestinian sources, Kushner responded by offering Abbas a trade. If the Palestinians agreed to make no more provocative diplomatic moves against Israel for the next four months, Trump would present a comprehensive plan to restart the peace process, including a fixed timetable for discussing and resolving each of the core issues between the two sides.
AN ABBAS AGREEMENT “IN PRINCIPLE” MEANS NOTHING
The Palestinians said Abbas agreed “in principle” to Kushner’s request, but asked for a personal guarantee from Trump and demanded his explicit support for a two-state solution. Kushner reportedly responded by telling Abbas that he would get those assurances from Trump when they meet at the General Assembly in New York City.
But after more than 20 years of Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel in good faith, Abbas’ latest reported agreement “in principle” to return to the negotiating table does not inspire much hope for success in the judgement of veteran diplomatic observers. The most recent U.S. negotiating initiative under Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in 2014 when it became clear that Abbas was never serious about making any meaningful concessions to Israel. When Kerry tried to save the talks with an offer to free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, Abbas deliberately sabotaged his efforts.
According to a report in the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Abbas asked Kushner to have Trump pressure Netanyahu to declare a new construction freeze on the West Bank. Kushner responded that doing such would not be practical because a freeze would destroy Netanyahu’s coalition government.
WORKING PAST DIFFICULTIES WITH EGYPT
Kushner, Greenblatt and Powell had other high priority items on their agenda last week. A day before they landed in landed in Cairo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Egypt it would lose or suffer a delay of $295.7 million in U.S. military and economic aid because the current government has failed to meet human rights standards set by Congress. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is being penalized because of his 2013 military overthrow of the previous Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, followed by the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, Kushner decided to go forward with the Cairo visit as a gesture of good will.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry called the U.S. aid cut a “misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations that have bound the two countries for decades [that] reflects a lack of careful understanding of the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt, as well as the size and nature of the security and economic challenges faced by the Egyptian people.”
El-Sissi’s government has been very cooperative with Israel in cracking down on the Hamas rulers in Gaza. Egypt has kept the border crossing at Rafiach largely closed and destroyed the complex of smuggling tunnels that Hamas built under the Gaza-Egyptian border, crippling Hamas’ main source of income. Israel has asked the U.S. to be as lenient as possible with the el-Sissi regime. In response, Secretary Tillerson signed a waiver making it possible for Egypt to receive the aid payments it lost should its human rights record improve.
WHY WAS DINA POWELL PART OF THIS TRIP?
The Egyptian leg of the trip may help to explain the inclusion of Powell in Kushner’s delegation. She was born in Cairo to Christian parents, and came to the U.S. at a young age. Before joining the Trump White House, Powell ran the non-profit subsidiary of the Goldman Sachs investment bank, and prior to that, she served as an Assistant Secretary of State Department during the George W. Bush administration.
Powell has been criticized by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon for being a “globalist” in her foreign policy views. However, Powell enjoys the strong support of several leading Republican conservative voices, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ralph Reed, a longtime leader of the religious right.
Following Kushner’s meeting with el-Sissi, the Egyptian leader issued an upbeat statement declaring “Egypt’s keenness to continue to work on strengthening the multi-faceted relations that bind the two countries in various fields.”
One of the areas of U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian cooperation is an effort to pressure Hamas into returning control of Gaza, which Hamas seized in 2007 in a bloody military coup, to the Palestinian Authority.
The re-unification of Gaza and the West Bank under PA control is seen by some as a first step in a larger Trump administration regional strategy. It hopes to expand the de facto Sunni Arab-Israeli strategic partnership against the nuclear threat from Iran that already exists, and use it to generate broad Arab support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The complex diplomatic strategy has several parts. One part involves further squeezing the leaders of Hamas in Gaza. Their main source of economic support in the region had been from Qatar. But that funding has dried up due to strong diplomatic pressure applied by other pro-U.S. Persian Gulf oil states on Qatar to end its support for all terrorist groups in the region.
GROOMING DAHLAN AS ABBAS’ SUCCESSOR
Another part of the U.S. strategy is the political promotion of Mohammed Dahlan, who had been the most powerful Fatah leader in Gaza before the Hamas takeover. Dahlan has become a new source of relief for the people of Gaza due to his contacts with the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. As Hamas is being starved for financial support, and the PA has increased the pressure by cutting its payments for electricity in Gaza and pensions for former PA workers still living in Gaza, Dahlan has stepped in to dispense about $15 million a month worth of U.A.E. food and social assistance. He has done this with the help of Hamas’ new leader in Gaza, Yahya al-Sinwar, who was one of Dahlan’s childhood friends.
The reason why Fatah and Hamas unity efforts always failed was the depth of the distrust between their leaders. That distrust might be bridged by the old friendship between Sinwar and Dahlan.
Abbas has long seen Dahlan as a potential political rival for control of the PA. After Gaza fell to Hamas, Abbas accused Dahlan of disloyalty and had him exiled from the West Bank to the U.A.E.
Abbas, now 82, has long talked about stepping down from power and retiring. Dahlan is one of the few Palestinian leaders with enough support in the West Bank and Gaza to serve as Abbas’ replacement as the head of a re-unified Palestinian government.
GAZA REACHING A BOILING POINT
Another factor that must be considered at this point is the deteriorating humanitarian conditions facing the 1.8 million residents of Gaza today. Life for them is rapidly becoming intolerable, but the blame for that must not be laid at Israel’s door. Rather, it is the fault of the Hamas rulers, who treat the lives and best interests of Gaza’s civilian as expendable in their hatred-driven determination to destroy Israel.
In the heat of summer, Gaza’s residents have had only four hours of electricity per day, only because Abbas and the leaders of Hamas can’t agree on which one will pay the Israeli power company to bring in the electricity, or enable Egypt to be paid for the fuel it has sent to run Gaza’s only large electricity generator.
The extreme lack of electricity has created a public health hazard because there is not enough power to keep Gaza’s sanitation equipment purifying its waste water, and backup generators needed to run lifesaving equipment in Gaza hospitals are breaking down due to overuse.
But while the rival Palestinian groups are fighting over who should pay the electricity and fuel bills, Dahlan has come up with a permanent answer for the problem, a pledge from the U.A.E. to finance a new $100 million electricity generating plant for Gaza on the Egyptian side of the border.
BOTH SIDES PREPARING FOR THE NEXT GAZA WAR
In the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, Israel approved humanitarian shipments of concrete and steel to rebuild destroyed civilian homes. But most of those homes are still rubble because Hamas diverted those shipments and used them to build new terror tunnels for its next attack against Israel.
Those tunnels are the most serious security threat now facing Israeli civilians living near the Gaza border. The results of the 2014 war showed that the home-made Gaza missile threat has been largely neutralized by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Hamas has been busy preparing itself for the next war with Israel by digging new fortifications and arms storehouses in a huge maze of tunnels under Gaza in addition to the terror tunnels it has been boring underneath the Israeli border.
ISRAEL’S NEW UNDERGROUND WALL
Israel is responding to the expanded terror tunnel threat with one of the largest construction projects in its history. Work has begun on construction of an $830 million, 40-mile long barrier along the Gaza border. Above ground, it will consist of an 18-foot high wall equipped with the latest electronic sensor equipment, provided by Intel and other high-tech Israeli companies.
The bulk of the fence is out of sight. It will reach deep below the surface, up to 100 feet or more in places, to counter the Hamas tunnel threat in much the same way that the Al Aqsa Intifada was thwarted with the help of the West Bank security wall built 15 years ago.
Work on the initial pilot quarter-mile long section of the barrier is visible along Route 34 headed toward Netivot. It is being carried out by Israeli builder Solel Boneh. The Israeli army last week invited bids on four other sections of the barrier worth a total of about $250 million.
Eight Israeli companies competed for the work when the army sent out the first round of requests for bids last year. When those bids came in, the army realized that its initial cost estimates had been far too low. It revised its specifications accordingly and issued fresh invitations for bids on the same work.
Nobody would be surprised if the finished cost of the project comes in much higher than the current $830 million estimate.
The underground construction is being carried out on a huge scale with the help of new technology, such as huge trench cutters called hydromills.
Construction is now proceeding in round-the-clock shifts, and workers have been brought in from Spain and Moldova to bolster the labor force on the project.
The barrier will use so much cement and concrete that Israeli construction firms may have to begin importing raw materials, such as crushed stone. Demand is so high from companies gearing up for the underground barrier work that there are spot shortages being reported for heavy equipment such as concrete mixers.
WILL THE TUNNEL BARRIER WORK?
Yaki Baranes, who does strategic consulting in Israel for the firm of Baker Tilly, is not convinced that the barrier will work. Based upon the U.S. experience with a $1.5 billion wall it built in 1998 on the Mexican border, Baranes believes that stepping up human border patrols would be more effective than any fence at stopping infiltrators.
Yossi Langotsky, a former advisor to the Israeli army on the tunnel threat, would have preferred to see more money go into a string of underground super-sensitive seismic detectors along the Gaza border to pinpoint the tunnel digging activity.
In his opinion, “underground barriers for preventing tunnels aren’t effective except for a short time. . . . Even if breaking through the new barrier into Israel isn’t easy, a smart and determined enemy like Hamas will find a way to do it,” Langotsky believes.
PREDICTIONS OF A GAZA WAR THIS SUMMER WERE WRONG
Because of the increased human misery in Gaza, some Israeli strategists had been predicting another war breaking out in Gaza this summer. They seem to have been wrong, boruch Hashem.
Looking forward, Israel is following a dual track strategy in response to the continuing security threat from Gaza. By adding to the economic and political pressure on Hamas, and working with the U.S. and its Arab allies to promote a PA alternative there, Israel is hoping to help wrest the enclave from terrorist control. But if that doesn’t work, Israel is busy preparing the best defense available to try to neutralize the terror tunnel threat when another war comes.
REGIONAL PEACE FOR ISRAEL MAY NO LONGER BE IMPOSSIBLE
No doubt, the Gaza strategy was one of the items on the agenda of the Kushner delegation’s meetings with Arab leaders last week, but Trump administration strategists and Netanyahu have much greater hopes for Israel’s diplomatic future in the region.
Ever since serious negotiations between the Obama administration began on the Iran nuclear deal, the Sunni Arab states have been developing a de facto military and diplomatic alliance with Israel to counter the common threat from Iran. This means that the once “impossible dream” of reaching a formal regional Israeli-Sunni Arab strategic cooperation agreement is far more realistic today than it seemed as recently as five years ago.
Jordan and Egypt not only have signed peace agreements with Israel, but they now have much more practical experience with strategic and military cooperation with it.
Mohammed bin Zayed, the military leader of the U.A.E., and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed represent a new generation of Arab leaders. They have shown a willingness to break with the rigid thinking of their predecessors, and can envision a negotiated Israel-Palestinian as crucial to their own interests in re-stabilizing the region.
This is not just Israeli or U.S. wishful thinking. U.A.E. ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba recently said, “This young, dynamic [Arab] leadership presents opportunities that may not have existed before.”
AN INVESTMENT IN A LONG-TERM STRATEGY
The Kushner delegation visit may not have achieved much, if any, progress last week, especially in Ramallah. The expected meetings between Abbas, Netanyahu and Trump at the U.N. are highly unlikely to result in any breakthroughs. Gaza is still a dangerously volatile tinderbox. The conditions for a successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process are not yet in place. But Trump administration efforts in the region should not be dismissed as a total waste of time and effort, or a fruitless test of the American president’s ego and deal-making powers.
They are part of a long-range strategy which is not likely to bear fruit until new leaders are in place and some of the facts on the ground have changed. The odds against the strategy’s success are still long, but it is better than just giving up and letting the region around Israel fall even deeper into chaos, terrorism and violence.