Trump‘s scorched-earth tactics and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

The application of diplomatic pressure to achieve an end is as old as politics itself, a tactic employed not only by superpowers but also by countries of lesser stature that nevertheless have integral cards to play.

The strategy has been adopted as a central tenet of the Trump administration‘s foreign policy, manifest in threats to "totally destroy" North Korea, which are widely credited with successfully moving Pyongyang back to the negotiating table irrespective of whether Kim Jong-Un ultimately chooses to denuclearize; and the re-implementation of sanctions on Iran following Washington‘s withdrawal in May from the 2015 atomic accord.

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In both cases, President Trump’s actions have historical precedent and do not deviate greatly from previous initiatives geared towards curbing Pyongyang’s atomic program which date back to the Clinton White House. With respect to Tehran, the American leader essentially has done nothing more than reset the clock to before the Obama presidency. In fact, many analysts agree that President Trump, in these cases, has abided by the norm of applying levels of pressure proportional to the importance of the objective, the idea being to eventually find common ground, by reaching some form of middle ground, without burning the entire process to the ground.

As regards the Palestinians, however, the situation is completely different.

Never since the signing of the Oslo Accords twenty-five years ago has a US president been as heavy-handed in his approach to the Palestinian Authority, which includes the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel‘s capital; the, a move viewed as a prelude to ending any prospect of a Palestinian "right of return" to Israel; and, most recently, the shuttering of the Palestinian mission in Washington.

Indeed, there has been a dramatic shift in focus onto the Palestinians’ perceived obstructionism—including Ramallah‘s out-of-hand rejection of the White House‘s yet-unveiled peace proposal—and, historically, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to engage in any meaningful negotiations, as evidenced by his failure to respond to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert‘s offer in 2008 to create a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the eastern part of Jerusalem as its capital.

Even though President Trump has all the while expressed a willingness to reverse course should Abbas agree to play ball, it is becoming apparent that the administration is willing to take things to a point of no return. As such, many observers are highlighting the danger of using scorched-earth tactics in an inherently unstable and volatile process; that is, unless Washington and Jerusalem, with the backing of Arab nations, are prepared to unilaterally introduce completely new variables into the equation—at the risk of sidelining Abbas completely—and accept the resulting consequences.

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"The peace process has been mired in seemingly immutable orthodoxies for decades, and while ‘breaking things‘ is generally viewed as counter-productive, it may be needed at this stage," Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and a Senior Fellow at Harvard‘s Belfer Center, conveyed to The Media Line.

"The problem is that [President Trump‘s moves] have been one-sided without placing any demands on Israel and this simply will not work. Another issue is that coercive measures need to be accompanied by placing tangible elements on the table, which requires real follow-through."

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli deputy prime minister and ambassador to Washington, believes that while it is "too early to determine the effectiveness of the new American policy, one thing is for certain: For a quarter century American presidents have tried everything besides this and it was a total failure. Palestinian intransigence was overlooked and this led to the PA becoming more entrenched in its positions.

"That there is a new approach," he elaborated to The Media Line, "is a breath of fresh air and hopefully the Palestinians will realize that if they continue with their incitement and support for terrorism there will be costs and maybe this way they will come to their senses. [The US peace plan] is still a work in progress but President Trump can use [this week‘s opening session of the United Nations General Assembly] to reiterate that he has a proposal which will require both sides to compromise. He can present the full story—not just punish the Palestinians but also offer them a real path to reconciliation."

In this event, the PA may still be unreceptive, with Abbas suggesting on Friday during a visit to France that he will only to re-enter peace talks within an internationalized framework, perhaps under the mediation of the Quartet, consisting of the European Union, the UN, Russia as well as the US

"Abbas has confirmed that he will negotiate secretly or publicly and that it is the Israelis that are unwilling to do so," Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, related to The Media Line. "The PA has stressed that talks should be premised on the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and water. The problem is that President Trump tried to remove [from the table] the first two of these major points and this is not acceptable to the Palestinian leadership.

"The American administration does not recognize the longstanding parameters of the peace process and therefore Abbas does not want to engage in the so-called ‘deal of the century.‘ The Palestinian position is clear—to resume where things left off and based on what was previously determined. It is a very complicated and sensitive process and cannot be viewed as a business transaction."

Things may, in fact, come to a head at the UNGA in New York, where President Trump, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are all slated to deliver addresses that could irreversibly upend the conventional wisdom. And while it may be high time to allow what is increasingly viewed as a broken ship to sink, the waters of the Middle East remain choppy and life rafts will undoubtedly be needed to ensure that the parties do not drown in a sea of their own undoing.

This first requires a new, comprehensive course to be charted that takes into consideration every possible wave, as changing tack invariably carries risk.

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