Brigadier General (Res.) Michael Herzog is a Senior Visiting Fellow at BICOM, and international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Since 1993, Herzog has participated in most of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians, whilst serving in senior positions in the IDF and in Israel’s Ministry of Defence. He spoke with BICOM’s Director of Research Calev Ben-Dor on today’s visit of US President Trump to Israel and the likelihood of Trump launching a new peace process. Below is an edited transcript.
Calev Ben-Dor: President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, recently met with US President Donald Trump in Washington. What were your impressions of the meeting? Do you think it was a success for Abbas?
Michael Herzog: The Palestinians did perceive it as a success, but first let me give some background. Abbas and the Palestinians’ relationship with the Trump administration has been a sort of rollercoaster. When Trump was elected in November, Abbas’s team tried to reach out but they were rejected and were unable to organise a hearing with the Trump team. They felt marginalised and afraid they were not going to be able to do anything with this administration.
Then came the phone call from Trump to Abbas, including an invitation to visit Trump in the White House and the Palestinians felt relieved. Then they started fearing that once Abbas showed up at the White House he’d be faced with some demands that would be very hard for him to meet. For instance, the issue of payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. These prisoners have been convicted of terrorist attacks and they and their families receive regular payments by the PA (transferred through the PLO) to the tune of over US$300m every year. This was made a public issue by the Israeli government and Abbas feared he would face strict demands there.
But when he came to the White House he was received warmly, Trump went out of his way to make Abbas feel comfortable, expressing this in the press conference, and the Palestinians reported that the meeting and the whole visit was a huge success. According to them, Abbas did not emerge from the meeting with Trump feeling that he faces an acute dilemma, or that he has to make a decision on the issue of payments to Palestinian prisoners, or any other issue in the near future. Instead, they felt they got a fair hearing and now look forward to working with this administration in the peace process. Right now, as Trump is preparing to visit the region – which includes a visit to Bethlehem to meet Abbas – what we hear from the Palestinian side are positive and hopeful undertones.
CB-D: Before the Abbas-Netanyahu negotiations with Kerry, Abbas reportedly demanded Israel either release prisoners, freeze settlements or agree to negotiate the border based on the pre 1967 lines, but since the talks broke down he has demanded all three of these conditions in order to restart negotiations. Recent statements however suggest he is now open to meeting Netanyahu without any of these issues being resolved. What do you think is motivating this?
MH: It is true that during the Obama era Palestinian preconditions for negotiations were these three conditions, and other as well, but the atmosphere in the Trump era is different.
Before that, one must note that there is difference between a meeting and a negotiation – a meeting in and of itself doesn’t mean a process of negotiation – and the Palestinians in recent months have expressed willingness to a meeting between the leaders without preconditions. They agreed to hold such a meeting in Russia, where both leaders were invited and essentially said yes but it never happened, and now with Trump. I think the Palestinians are going out of their way to prove to the US and the international community that they are a willing partner in the peace process, and in their mind agreeing to a meeting without conditions can make that point.
If and when a process is launched, and the US administration is preparing for a process, then we will have to see whether the Palestinians put forward some demands. My sense is that because they want to present themselves to the Trump administration as willing partners, they will not go far with their demands. It doesn’t mean that issues such as a settlement freeze and others will not pop up, but ironically unlike in the Obama era, which was an administration closer to their positions than any other, the Palestinians are hopeful that with Trump they can go further with the peace process and that’s why they might insist less on preconditions and more on their demands in the negotiations themselves. We should not expect the Palestinians to be soft in any future negotiations despite appearing soft in the preconditions. All of their core positions will come up if and when negotiations happen.
CB-D: The US administration is set on launching a peace process in the relatively near future and sees this as a high priority yet the administration has seemingly expressed a variety of positions in the last few months. Trump famously promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem but now seems to be reconsidering. In his press conference with Netanyahu he talked about ‘one state, two states, whatever the sides prefer’. There was talk that he had an interest in a regional ‘outside-in’ type approach, although since the meeting with Abbas, he seems to prefer bilateral negotiations. How do you see the development of the administration’s thinking? Do you think the administration has a strategic logic guiding it?
MH: To the surprise of many, launching a peace process is a high priority for this administration notwithstanding other pressing issues in the region and globally. It was not a given that it would be a high priority but here we are. The Trump administration right now is in the phase of listening and learning and I think it has a lot to learn from past experiences and conclusions. I don’t believe Trump’s team have made up their mind on the exact designs of the process and how to launch it, and I don’t expect that these issues will be settled during the visit. I think the visit is more of a symbolic nature, to create a positive atmosphere and to set the stage for a possible process. But at this stage I doubt the President and his team will go into the specific details of a process itself, certainly not in public. We should however, expect some statements of significance, one of which was revealed by the National Security Advisor who said that the President will announce his support for Palestinian self-determination – the first for this administration – and there may also be a statement on Jerusalem for Israel. I do not expect the administration to announce the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem during this visit, but perhaps a more general statement that recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
CB-D: As someone with over two decades of experience in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, what is your evaluation of the current Israeli-Palestinian arena? What would happen if negotiations were to be renewed? What can be done now to prevent mistakes from previous rounds?
MH: Before I answer I would like to present some questions relating to the upcoming peace process which the US administration is planning to launch. My understanding is that the administration hasn’t finalised the exact concept of these negotiations, so I would like to present three core questions the current administration will have to grapple with before launching the process. The first is what is the exact goal? Is it to go all the way towards a full, detailed comprehensive agreement as did former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and failed, in 2013-4? Or is it a more incremental, gradual approach, striving first to define parameters for dealing with the core issues? We’re not facing an unlimited time frame here. I think the administration needs to set realistic goals. If the Americans decide, however, to go for a full, comprehensive deal, then based on past experience and my reading of the current situation, I think they will fail.
Second, what will be the design of this process? Will it be an essentially bilateral negotiation with strong US mediation, or more of a regional process with an active Arab role? It is not clear at all. The declarations you hear from the US deal more with a bilateral process, despite Trump originally suggesting a regional approach. And there is more than one regional model that could be applied. First, the traditional one, that is a bilateral process with strong Arab economic and political support from the outside. Some people have been talking about an ‘outside-in’ model where you first design the regional architecture and only later fit the Palestinians into it. The more realistic and desirable model in my view is somewhere in-between; namely using the fact that the mainstream Arab states have much better relations with Israel and with the Trump administration (compared to Obama). You can therefore get the Arab states to play a more active role in the process, which can provide space and legitimacy for Israelis and the Palestinians. For example, it can provide Israel with space through steps towards normalisation, and it can provide legitimacy to tough decision that Abbas will have to make in the process.
The third question is what will be the exact role of the US and how much political capital will they invest? The US has been saying they will not impose anything on the parties; it is for them to decide. At the same time, because the US has prioritised the process they will want it to succeed and for that they will have to be assertive. The question is how far will they push, what will be the consequences for non-compliance, and what is the exact role that the US wants to play? Trump has used at one and the same time the terms mediating, facilitating and arbitrating but they are different from one another, and the US will have to make up its mind how it wants to play this process.
Looking back, three years since the last round of talks collapsed – things have changed. On the one hand, the leaderships of the parties themselves are weaker politically and more constrained by domestic pressures. On the other hand we have a region closer to Israel and with the potential to play a much greater role in the peace process. And we have a US administration, which unlike its predecessor, is regarded as assertive by its traditional allies in the Middle East, creating more opportunities. Much depends on the exact design and launch of the process – the wrong way and it will derail shortly after.
CB-D: Trump is due to arrive in Israel next week for a 26 hour visit, with a likely stop in Bethlehem as well. There are rumours that he may announce the renewal of negotiations, or may even try and arrange a summit with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas. What do you think we should expect from the visit?
MH: We should expect a lot of symbolism, the creation of a good atmosphere with both parties, and setting the stage for the upcoming process. There will be some statements of significance like recognising the right of [Palestinian] self-determination and perhaps about Jerusalem (without moving the embassy there), but nothing else beyond that in my view. I don’t expect the specifics of a process will be revealed, but I also don’t rule out Trump inviting both leaders to meet under his auspices for a trilateral meeting. He may announce that he’s going to launch the process in the foreseeable future but it’s more about setting the stage than about starting the process itself.
CB-D: Thanks you very much for your interesting analysis of what has been and what will potentially be in the future.