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‘Israeli government is not about to eschew engagement with the Trump administration’

Project Syndicate: You’ve predicted that Israel’s next government will engage with the United States regarding President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” – a plan, devised by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, that focuses on strengthening the Palestinian economy. What might such engagement entail, and how would it affect the situation on the ground, particularly given that the Palestinians have rejected the Kushner plan, which they are expected to “ignore altogether”?

Shlomo Ben-Ami: Given the failure of all previous phases of the Israel-Palestine peace process, even when plans came very close to meeting the Palestinians’ core requirements, nobody truly believes that Trump’s Israel-tilted deal is viable. But the Israeli government is not about to eschew engagement with the Trump administration, especially now that the latter has broken with decades of precedent – and an overwhelming international consensus – to declare that Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territories is not necessarily illegal.

The two-state solution along pre-1967 borders that the Palestinians seek is not on the agenda of either of Israel’s major parties. While neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has managed to form a government, and Netanyahu has just been indicted on corruption charges, there is no reason to believe that Israel’s next administration will not rush to capitalize on the Trump administration’s stance. This is all the more true since, given Trump’s capriciousness, there is no guarantee this window will stay open.

PS: “Trump may proclaim himself a master of the ‘art of the deal,’” you wrote last month, “but, compared to the Iranians, he is an apprentice negotiator.” Let’s imagine that the task of securing a new nuclear deal with Iran were delegated to a master negotiator. What should their priorities be, and what concessions would be unavoidable?

SBA: It is not clear that the Iranians would be willing to negotiate with Trump at all. Trump grossly miscalculated Iran’s staying power, particularly since he has removed the use of force from the equation. So, while he thinks he is backing the Iranians into a corner, he may find that they are waiting him out, in the hope that the next Democratic administration – ideally, after the 2020 US presidential election – will endorse the old agreement.

If Trump pushes for negotiations before the 2020 election, he will betray a political desperation that Iran will exploit by pushing for an agreement that includes only cosmetic changes to the old deal.

In my view, the only sensible approach would be to pursue a grand bargain covering a variety of regional issues. If Iran wants to be welcomed back into the regional and international fold, it would have to halt its nuclear and ballistic-missile program and adhere to broader rules constraining its foreign policy.

This could include an agreement to end the war in Yemen, conditioned on respect for the Iran-backed Houthis’ political legitimacy, or an end to Iran’s operations in Iraq and Lebanon. Israel might also be convinced to accept a restricted Iranian presence in Syria.

But striking such a bargain – with the buy-in of Russia and regional actors, and European support – would require deft international diplomacy. A master negotiator might succeed, but Trump certainly would not.

PS: The US and the European Union have ramped up sanctions on Venezuela, a move you called for in March, in order to drive President Nicolás Maduro from power. In the meantime, however, the measures may be worsening an already appalling situation for ordinary Venezuelans. How could foreign powers maximize pressure on Maduro, while minimizing the short-term human costs?

SBA: As Iran and North Korea have proved, not even the most stringent international sanctions can drive out a regime that retains control over the tools of state repression, is backed by the military, and receives financial and political support from Russia, China, or both. Moreover, tough measures – such as, in Venezuela’s case, a ban on oil imports – do not hurt only the regime; they also devastate ordinary Venezuelans. As refugee flows increase, neighboring countries suffer, too.

To be sure, external pressure remains important, especially from the “group of Lima,” which comprises Latin American democracies. But the Venezuelan people cannot stop fighting. Only combined internal and external pressure can spur the military to rethink its loyalty to Maduro’s regime or lead to new elections. Fortunately, the toppling of Maduro’s leftist ally in Bolivia, Evo Morales, seems to have reenergized the flagging Venezuelan opposition movement.

PS: After praising the deal Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas – a process in which you served as an adviser – you cautioned that “the post-conflict phase will be no less demanding than the peace process itself.” In the wake of the announcement that a few ex-FARC commanders have rearmed, what steps should be taken to fortify peace in Colombia?

SBA: The implementation of the 2016 peace agreement suffers from two major problems. One is the fact that it is being carried out by a revisionist government, led by President Iván Duque, that includes the deal’s fiercest opponents. Not surprisingly, progress on many of the accord’s provisions has stalled. The reintegration process for the demobilized guerrillas is woefully underfunded, as are agreed rural-development projects. With their security severely compromised, many of the former guerrillas regret having demobilized at all.

The second problem relates to Colombia’s institutional weaknesses. The lack of adequate state administration and public services in much of the country creates fertile ground for insurgencies and criminal groups. The massive infrastructure investments Colombia needs will have to be pursued over an prolonged period, with successive administrations each building on the work of their predecessors.

PS: Trump is more popular in Israel than he is in the US, and possibly anywhere else. But, given his impulsiveness and willingness to turn on allies, as he recently did to the Kurds in Syria, not to mention the possibility that he will not be in power much longer, are Israelis and their leaders mistaken in putting so much stock in this president?

SBA: Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in Syria dealt a powerful blow to the Netanyahu government’s trust in Trump – and the Israeli public’s trust in Netanyahu. With Trump on its side, Israel felt more comfortable than ever in the illiberal-democracy club. While the Trump administration’s reversal on Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories may have offered some comfort, there are now no illusions: no matter who you are, Trump’s US is not a reliable partner.

Many Israelis now view Netanyahu’s alienation of so much of the US political establishment as a mistake. After decades of virtually unstinting bipartisan support for Israel, leading Democratic presidential candidates are openly criticizing the country’s policies and promising to leverage US aid to force it to engage constructively with Palestine.

Meanwhile, the US-Israel defense treaty of which Netanyahu boasted during the recent election campaign has disappeared from the political discourse. (A future government with a strong Blue and White component would probably reject such a deal, anyway.)

PS: What would it take to achieve a rapprochement between the Middle East’s two great rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and what would that mean for the region?

SBA: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman showed a willingness to pursue a rapprochement with Iran in the wake of Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds. Iran, for its part, is eager to shed its pariah status and have its involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen legitimized in the eyes of its Arab neighbors.

But the challenge ahead remains formidable. Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies would not even consider an agreement that does nothing to constrain Iran’s interference in Arab countries’ affairs. Nor would Iran willingly roll back its presence (direct or through proxies) in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Likewise, Iran wouldn’t concede to continued Saudi meddling in Shia-majority Bahrain, let alone in Yemen.

A rapprochement would require the development of a political formula that brings peace to Yemen (treating Houthis as legitimate political actors); distinguishes among Iranian “influence,” “interference,” and “dominance” in Arab states; and acknowledges Iran as a legitimate regional stakeholder.

Following such a reconciliation, the Sunni-Shia divide that has long shaped regional politics may be diminished, with Iranians again allowed to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s current entente with Israel may be rolled back.

PS: Who alive today is not a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but deserves to be?

SBA: I cannot think of an individual, but I can think of a country: Norway.

Norway has consistently proved that a small, unassuming power can sometimes be more effective than a superpower at inspiring the trust needed to broker peace agreements. And, indeed, Norway’s diplomatic apparatus extends across past and current conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Timor Leste, and Venezuela.

Moreover, Norway has made important contributions to the fight against climate change, offering, for example, massive financial incentives to Brazil and Indonesia to combat deforestation.

Of course, it would be tough for a Norwegian committee to justify giving the prize to Norway. But, in an era in which peace-building has largely lost its appeal, Norway provides a model that the rest of the world should do much more to emulate.

PS: What is the first rule of peace-building?

SBA: Most insurgencies are, in the eyes of their participants, fights for justice by disenfranchised communities. So the key to ending them is to convince all parties – warring communities, victims of conflict, and disarmed insurgency groups – that their legitimate grievances can be resolved peacefully, through state institutions.

Must fundamentally, this means that security must be guaranteed to all, based on the rule of law, and ballots must replace bullets, which means that former insurgents must be given the right to democratic political participation. Only once these foundations are laid can governments begin focusing on longer-term investments in infrastructure, employment, and public services such as health care and education.

Published Date: Thursday, November 28th, 2019 | 08:45 PM

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