Gaza First

Fresh ideas are rare in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A litany of bilateral agreements, shelved proposals and missed opportunities litter the path to attaining a comprehensive, sustainable peace agreement, one that could potentially hold up as well as the Egypt-Israel and Israel-Jordan peace treaties.

Yet, this conflict is too important to ignore. That’s why soon after inauguration, each new US Administration embarks anew on the quest, trying to keep alive a modicum of hope that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is achievable, and to offer something innovative to move the process forward.

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President Donald Trump, like his predecessors, entered the White House pledging to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with what he proclaimed would be “the deal of the century,” and he soon deputized Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner to develop an approach that might break the logjam. Their meetings with leaders in Israel and Ramallah and across the region constituted the first serious effort since former secretary of state John Kerry facilitated direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That round collapsed in 2014, after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided not to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even with Kerry, any more.

Tragically for the Palestinian people he leads, Abbas remains obstinate. He has categorically refused to deal with the US, even to meet with any American official, since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December.
Flummoxed by Abbas, who has effectively frozen the peace process regarding the West Bank, and yet determined to advance the process somehow, the administration focused on Gaza. It hosted a conference at the White House to discuss ways to improve the daily living conditions of the coastal territory’s residents.

“An essential part of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, including those in the West Bank and Gaza, will be resolving the situation in Gaza,” Greenblatt noted at the March conference, but how to effectively deal with Gaza, to help the population without dealing with or assisting Hamas, remains a challenge.

Abbas refused to send a PA representative to the conference, extending his self-imposed boycott of the US, the one country in the world that has given more aid to the Palestinians over decades than any other. He followed up by firmly rejecting the US-led effort, warning the two dozen countries and international organizations that gathered at the White House that providing Gaza essential investments to help avert a humanitarian crisis would undermine Palestinian political aspirations.

Nonetheless, despite the opposition of the Palestinians’ own leadership, the European Union announced earlier this month that it had completed construction of the largest solar energy field in Gaza. That this international development project has been achieved amidst Hamas’s rule and its diversion of resources for terror and war is significant and offers some hope of normalcy to Gaza’s residents. The solar field will power a new desalination plant that is projected to provide water for 2 million people by 2020.

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Focusing on Gaza to jump-start the peace process is not a totally new idea. Let’s recall that in the follow-up to the historic Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn in 1993, Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Gaza-Jericho agreement a year later, focusing first on those areas for investments. But that promising accord collapsed when Arafat launched the so-called Second Intifada soon after the Camp David peace talks in 2000.

Some 13 years ago next month, Israel withdrew from Gaza and transferred the entire coastal territory to the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis hoped the Palestinian leadership would use the opportunity to develop institutions and invest in businesses so that Gazans could focus on building an economy and society, signifying a first stage toward an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Indeed, in the 1947 UN Partition Plan that endorsed a two-state solution to the conflict, Gaza was to be part of the Arab state. The contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a two-state solution today are same. But the chief obstacles to fulfilling that vision are just as clear.

Hamas has initiated or provoked three major conflicts with Israel since it violently seized Gaza from Abbas and the PA in 2007, and this year has come dangerously close to provoking a fourth. The combination of its “March of Return” that brought Gazans to the border fence, to incendiary kites igniting fires in Israel, to firing rockets and missiles at Israeli communities, to a sniper killing an Israeli soldier, and again to Friday protests all belie Hamas proclamation of interest in achieving a cease-fire with Israel.

For now, the US, Israel, the EU and some Arab states appear more willing to help the Palestinians in Gaza than their own leaders. This, of course, is not new. It is the tragic ongoing curse of Palestinian history.

Whether there is anything uniquely innovative in the much-anticipated Trump peace plan on how to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward is still a mystery. President Trump, according to media reports, may unveil the plan in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 25.

With part of the putative Palestinian state ruled by an internationally recognized terrorist organization and the other headed by a man who has removed himself from negotiations necessary for making progress, the challenge of seriously engaging the Palestinian leadership is greater than ever.

In the end, for reasons ultimately beyond his control, Trump may find himself as deeply frustrated as presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton were. For those who truly desire peace, that is a depressing, but not unrealistic, prospect.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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