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Trump's 'ultimate deal' for Mideast peace meets resistance, throwing rollout into question

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5, 2018, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS

By TRACY WILKINSON | Los Angeles Times | Published: September 5, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Two months ago, the long-awaited release of the Trump administration's ambitious plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, what the president has called the "ultimate deal," seemed imminent.

President Donald Trump's two top envoys to the peace process – Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, a former senior Trump Organization lawyer – had prepared and begun to circulate a 40-page draft.

But the proposal hit a wall when Gulf Arab states, who have courted and been courted by Trump, flatly rejected terms they saw as radical, pro-Israel and out of line with traditional U.S. policy and international law, according to officials familiar with the peace-seeking process.

Jordan and Egypt, who had similarly promising beginnings with Trump, also scotched the terms.

Failing to gain the support they expected, Kushner and Greenblatt – who both have backed right-wing Israeli causes such as the expansion of Jewish settlements in land claimed by the Palestinians – have moved to punish the Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership has refused to talk to the U.S. team since Trump decided in December to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, upending decades of U.S. policy because the holy city is also claimed by the Palestinians.

Since then, the Trump administration has imposed new hardships on the Palestinians in an effort – so far unsuccessful – to bring them back to the negotiating table.

In the most recent example, the State Department announced Friday that the United States will no longer contribute to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees, calling the agency an "irredeemably flawed operation." It criticized other countries for not doing more to help the Palestinians.

Until the Palestinians stop "bashing" the United States and agree to return to negotiations, they can expect to lose U.S. aid, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said last week at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration slashed its contribution to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which provides schools, medical care and other assistance to 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Jordan.

The decision announced Friday will cut off about $315 million – or about one-third of the U.N. agency's total annual budget. Critics say that will exacerbate humanitarian problems and foment instability that could threaten Israel.

The Trump administration complains that the agency is vastly overcounting eligible refugees. Haley said the U.N. has erred by counting not just the 700,000 Arabs driven from their homes by Israel's 1948 independence war, but also millions of their descendants.

She spurred headlines in the Middle East when she added that the "right of return," the idea that these Palestinians could eventually return to land that is now part of Israel, must be re-examined.

Though the refugee issue is a fundamental cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most experts agree a "right of return" has become more abstract than a real possibility. Still, successive U.S. administrations declined to jettison it altogether. Instead, they have argued for compensation and some land swaps with Israel.

Those controversial ideas form the basis for the 40-page document drafted by Kushner and Greenblatt, said current and former U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials and diplomats who have been briefed on the peace plan or are familiar with it, and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its contents.

"The U.S. drive to change the long-established principles of a deal have been more than music" to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Nimrod Novick, former adviser to the late Israeli prime minister and peacemaker Shimon Peres.

"I suspect that he has been the driving force behind it: Take Jerusalem off the table, then take refugees off too," said Novick, a fellow at the New York-based Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for Israeli and Palestinian states coexisting side by side. "All before we change attitudes on security and eventually on borders as well."

Kushner, 37, has said he was uninterested in the history or background of the generations-old and seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But diplomats, experts and even the Israeli military caution that siding so heavily with Israel, and taking from Palestinians any hope for eventual independence, could lead to more violence in the region.

Dave Harden, a former assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who led operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the Obama administration, agrees that UNRWA currently "subsidizes dysfunction" and must be reformed. But he said the Trump administration's approach is likely to backfire.

"You can't go from 100 percent to zero (funding) overnight," Harden said. "It will create a vacuum. And who will step in to fill it? The Palestinian Authority? Israel? No one will pay. And that creates a big opening for Hamas," the militant Islamist organization that controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S.

David D. Pearce, who served as U.S. consul general in Jerusalem in the George W. Bush administration, echoed that warning.

"It will not create diplomatic leverage to take away funding for schools and health services," he said on Twitter. "It will create hatred."

The Palestinian leadership blasted Haley's comments and the cutoff in UNRWA funds as an affront to international law that demonstrated "hostility" to Palestinians and their rights.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which rules over the West Bank, said that Trump's envoys were proposing that Palestinians form a "confederation" with Jordan, already home to millions of Palestinian refugees.

Abbas and his supporters saw the U.S. proposal as a thinly veiled attempt to subvert the goal of Palestinian statehood.

Kushner and Greenblatt, unable to gain traction on their broader plan, have also sought to turn attention to the impoverished Gaza, a seafront enclave hemmed in by Israel and Egypt, by proposing investment and an influx of aid, primarily from Arab countries.

That seemed to contradict the U.S. goal of seeing the Palestinian Authority displace Hamas in Gaza.

Another force behind the controversial moves is David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Trump's former bankruptcy lawyer. He also supports right-wing Israeli causes.

In addition to pushing successfully for the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Friedman has persuaded the administration to drop the universally used terminology of "occupied territories" when referring to the West Bank and Gaza.

The administration "sees this as an opportunity to realign American policy in a way not seen in 25 years," said veteran Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller, "and to make it more difficult for successive administrations to reset."

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