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Trump tweet on Palestinian aid falls far short

When President Trump tweeted th...

Posted: Jan 4, 2018 8:14 PM
Updated: Jan 4, 2018 8:14 PM

When President Trump tweeted that he plans to cut off the Palestinians' assistance over their refusal to negotiate, he was expressing a longstanding frustration. During my service in the Obama administration, I was part of multiple efforts to get the Palestinians to show up to peace talks.

Some may well wonder: What if the President follows through on his threat? It's a chaotic moment already and I know firsthand that it's hard to get all parties to the negotiating table.

But it's also worth noting that one of the underappreciated aspects of this process is that one of the most influential, if quiet, advocates for keeping the Palestinian aid flowing is none other than the Israeli government.

It's not that the Israelis don't share the concerns of Congress or the Trump administration. They do, and they appreciate the use of assistance as leverage on the Palestinians to change their ways.

But at the end of the day, they have generally calculated that the aid serves Israeli interests as well. It supports the Palestinian security forces that cooperate professionally with Israel's own to prevent terrorist attacks. Without that support, Israel would have to spend more time addressing humanitarian suffering and spend more money to pay the bills to Israeli hospitals and electricity providers doing work for Palestinians that otherwise would go unpaid. Without this aid, stability in Palestinian society would diminish, which would also compromise Israel's security.

Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, administrations of both major political parties in the US have requested hundreds of millions of dollars for Palestinian aid programs. The support takes different forms and today falls largely into three categories: training for the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces; humanitarian assistance and private sector development initiatives; and payments to Israeli hospitals and electricity providers to cover PA debts.

But the Palestinians can be a hard party to help. Even those who sympathize with their legitimate desire for self-determination in a state of their own get frustrated by their actions at home and on the world stage: setting preconditions for negotiations, glorifying and inciting violence, and campaigning against Israel at the United Nations.

And so, members of Congress often use their authority to delay the provision of assistance, seeking leverage to change the Palestinian approach.

A negotiation between the administration and Congress then ensues, each side adds some conditions, maybe the Palestinians make a gesture, and the bulk of the assistance goes through.

Any honest conversation between the Trump administration and the Israeli government is likely to focus on finding a way to allow the dollars to continue to flow. It would not be the first time a Trump tweet did not have much impact on actual policy.

But sophisticated diplomacy is not just about making demands. It's also about creating pathways that allow people to say yes. It's time for Trump and his team to show they can do both.

Trump has more he can do to untangle this Gordian knot. For months, he has been promising to announce an initiative to restart negotiations toward what he calls "the ultimate deal." His envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, have been preparing it. But since he has not presented it yet, his demand for the Palestinians to show up at the negotiating table is a bit out of sequence.

It's time for Trump to show those cards, not tweet empty threats.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are in the midst of an emotional venting process following Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. They argue the decision is prejudicial against Palestinian claims on one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict.

They're overreacting in this regard; Trump made clear that his announcement does not preclude the Palestinians negotiating for their own capital in East Jerusalem. He even implied in a separate tweet yesterday that he had been prepared to extract significant concessions from Israel as compensation for his Jerusalem decision.

As such, the Palestinians will be wise to climb down from the limb they are out on, claiming they have given up on the United States as a mediator in Middle East peace talks. It is inevitable that they will, as there is really no alternative. And time doesn't work in their favor.

Our Palestinian aid programs and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital are important, but they should be considered tools to help advance our larger strategic interest: the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a negotiated two-state solution.

And to give that goal a chance, or even to keep it alive at a time when many doubt it can ever be achieved, Trump needs to 1) make a proposal and 2) make it attractive enough for both Israelis and Palestinians to buy into it, or at least not reject it outright. Trump's predecessors and previous negotiators can tell him: You don't get points for putting forth ideas that both parties refuse.

Threats and leverage have their place in diplomacy. So does showing your partners what they can achieve. It's time for Trump to reveal to Israelis and Palestinians what he thinks he can help deliver for them in his ultimate deal.

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