Q&A: Why Bolton’s Pick Adds to Obstacles for US Mideast Plan

Trump's Mideast team has not set a date for the release of their plan, despite previous suggestions that it's close to being done

Alex Brandon/AP, File

The list of obstacles to a long-awaited U.S. plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has grown longer in recent days.

Contentious relations between the Trump administration and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are bound to deteriorate further with incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has said Palestinians would be better off being absorbed by Egypt and Jordan than having their own state. Meanwhile, U.S.-backed efforts to negotiate a deal sidelining Hamas in the Gaza Strip appear to have collapsed, raising new questions about the territory said to be at the center of any U.S. plan.

Coupled with Abbas' refusal to engage with the Trump administration, these developments exacerbate fundamental challenges to any proposals coming from Washington. Here's a look at the issues.

Palestinian officials say they haven't received anything from the White House, but have been alarmed by U.S. policy shifts. In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, infuriating the Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital. Abbas suspended contacts with the Trump administration and said it could no longer serve as Mideast broker.

In January, a Palestinian envoy was shown the outlines of a plan — though it was not tagged as coming from Washington — in a meeting in Saudi Arabia, according to three Palestinian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

The outlines fell far short of Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt in 1967.

The officials say the plan calls for a Palestinian entity in Gaza, the autonomous Palestinian areas of the West Bank and some of the remaining 60 percent that is under sole Israeli control.

Palestinians would get access to Jerusalem's Old City, but would have to establish their capital on the outskirts of the city. Future borders, security arrangements and the fate of dozens of Israeli settlements would be negotiated later.

U.S. officials have said such descriptions are inaccurate, but refused to discuss the plan's contents.

Trump's Mideast team has not set a date, despite previous suggestions that it's close to being done. Team member Jason Greenblatt tweeted last week that "we will advance it when circumstances are right." Greenblatt and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner discussed the plan last week in Washington with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as a key conduit to the Palestinians.

Abbas believes it is best not to engage, according to Palestinian officials. He fears that if he is drawn into negotiations, this would at best lead to minor improvements in what he considers a fundamentally unacceptable proposal. He hopes to win a unanimous endorsement for traditional Palestinian demands at the annual Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia in mid-April. The meeting would signal how far, if at all, the Saudi crown prince would deviate from such positions in a nod to the White House.

The addition of the hawkish former U.N. ambassador to Trump's inner circle is bound to intensify Palestinian distrust. After leaving government service, Bolton promoted views perceived as pro-Israel as a TV commentator. He said Palestinians would be better off without a state, suggesting Gaza return to Egyptian rule again and Jordan resume a role in the West Bank.

Trump has not committed to a two-state solution. Palestinians are already suspicious of other members of Trump's Mideast team, due to their ties to the West Bank settler movement.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, said that Palestinian-American relations are now "the worst they have been." She described Bolton as a "war-monger" and said his appointment closed the circle of control in the White House "where you have the extreme right-wing, the extreme Zionists, the fundamentalist Christians."

In recent months, the Trump administration has expressed concern about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has backed efforts of regional ally Egypt to broker a deal between Abbas and his Islamic militant Hamas rivals.

Gaza's 2 million Palestinians have endured an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade since 2007, when Hamas seized the territory from forces loyal to Abbas. The blockade has crippled daily life in Gaza.

The Abbas government views the latest U.S. efforts with suspicion and boycotted a White House conference on aid to Gaza. It fears the U.S. is only interested in Gaza because it views the territory as the main component of a Palestinian mini-state.

"The core of the U.S. project, which is an Israeli project, is establishing a state in Gaza and dividing power in the West Bank between us and Israel," said Ahmed Majdalani, an Abbas aide.

Earlier this month, a bomb hit the convoy of Abbas' prime minister and intelligence chief in Gaza. They weren't hurt, but the attack triggered mutual accusations signaling the likely end to this round of reconciliation talks, one of several failed efforts since 2007. Earlier this week, Hamas staged a military drill and plans to lead protest marches to the border with Israel on Friday, signaling a willingness to stoke tensions.

While pledging to cooperate with Western aid projects for Gaza, Abbas and his aides also view the renewed friction with Hamas as "insurance" against the unwanted U.S. plan.

U.S. officials say they want to help Gaza without shoring up Hamas rule — a goal that has eluded the international community since 2007.

U.S. officials say they won't impose a solution, but haven't explained how they will bring Abbas back to the table. The U.S. ambassador to Israel was quoted by Israeli media Thursday as suggesting Abbas could become irrelevant unless he returns to negotiations. It was not clear if David Friedman's purported comments — if confirmed — represent his personal view or signal a shift in U.S. policy.

Critics say it's unlikely any plan can be advanced without a credible Palestinian partner or broad support by Arab leaders. Even if Sunni Arab leaders are eager to work with the United States and Israel as part of their strategy to contain Iran, it could be difficult to sell their populations on a plan that doesn't have Palestinians in control of major Muslim sites in Jerusalem.

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