Ambassador Nikki Haley, in her final U.N. Security Council briefing on the Middle East, began to lift the veil on the Trump administration’s long-awaited plan for resolving the Arab/Israeli conflict. President Trump and a handpicked team of his closest advisors from his private and business life – Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman – have invested considerable time and effort crafting that plan. Despite obsessive curiosity and endless speculation, they’ve developed it without a single leak. That they allowed Haley to describe those efforts, even in general terms, suggests that a larger scale rollout approaches.
Haley’s revelations, while circumspect, described a concrete plan packed with new ideas and a detailed consideration of recent regional developments. She spoke of a plan that “embraces the reality that things can be done today that were previously unthinkable.” In other words, a plan quintessentially Trump.
President Trump’s embrace of reality marks a clear break from the stale thinking, flawed logic, denial of historic fact, and indifference to human nature that have long characterized Arab/Israeli “peace plans.” And it builds upon ways in which the Trump administration has already injected welcome, previously unthinkable realism into the debate.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a watershed precisely because it reflected reality. For seventy years, the world clung to the fiction that Jerusalem was an international city while Israel’s capital was Tel Aviv. Absolutely no one believed either half of that story, but it took Trump to assert the obvious truth before others could follow his lead.
More realism: In 1949, the UN created a category of “Palestine Refugees” that now exceeds five million people, and an agency, UNWRA, to cater to them. The formal definition of Palestine Refugee differs significantly from what would normally be considered refugees from the region then called Palestine. The Trump administration’s adoption of standard terminology clarified that such refugees actually number in the tens of thousands.
Even more: President Trump’s historic Riyadh speech to Arab heads of state was a realist game-changer. Trump correctly identified Islamism—radical, violent, political Islam—as an Islamic problem. He highlighted the struggle pitting Muslim modernizers seeking to integrate peacefully and prosperously into global society against Islamist supremacists seeking to promote violence, terror, war and conquest. He called upon the modernizers to take the painful but necessary step of “driving out” the supremacist radicals. Since that speech, the U.S. has worked with Arab allies to combat Islamist organizations, including the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Hamas, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, and Hezbollah.
It’s a sign of just how divorced from reality conventional wisdom has become that President Trump’s acknowledgments of reality strike so many as unthinkable concessions to Israel. Truth and facts are nonpartisan; they’re simply truth and facts. For decades, most Arab/Israeli “peace plans” have rested upon unsustainable lies. President Trump’s trusted team can differentiate its plan merely by acknowledging the truth.
In 2004, President George W. Bush floated a bit of Arab/Israeli realism that many of his own advisors opposed. Bush rejected establishing an independent state of Palestine as a matter of entitlement or right. Instead, he laid out behavioral guidelines that would motivate the Palestinian Authority to earn a greater voice over its own future—including eventual independence. That vision, however, suffered from the same weakness as Bush’s other foreign policy initiatives: It lacked a contingency plan. Bush never explained how the region’s players should proceed if the PA continued to behave like a terror movement rather than a state-in-waiting.
If the Trump plan truly embraces realism, it will lay out behavioral changes and a timetable for the Palestinian Authority, but it will not let PA intransigence hold the region hostage. The PA cannot forever derail the strategic, economic, and diplomatic development of the entire region. If the PA demonstrates its unwillingness or inability to serve the interests of the people it claims to lead, a realistic contingency plan will urge Israel and U.S.-allied Arab states to sideline the PA and work together.
Ambassador Haley cautioned: “There are things in the plan that every party will like, and there are things in the plan that every party will not like. That is certainly true for the Israelis and the Palestinians.” The PA will not like hearing the U.S. clarify that a rejectionist PA cannot contribute to either regional stability or a better life for anyone; it will have earned rejection itself.
As for Israel, it didn’t have to wait for the plan’s publication to hear tough messages. The day after Haley spoke, President Trump tweeted his plans to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. Whatever that tweet may mean as a matter of policy, it’s a stark reminder that though outside powers will alter their conceptions of their own interests in the region, Israel will remain part of the Middle East. One way or another, Israel will have to forge relationships with the region’s other states. There is no better basis on which to forge them than realism.
Bruce Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and a contributor to the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic and a senior fellow at the Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy.