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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Regardless of Kushner’s visit, the status quo will prevail in Israel and Palestine

Israel wants nothing more than endless rounds of peace negotiations, writes Joseph Dana

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, pictured here with his wife Ivanka Trump. Joshua Roberts / Reuters
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, pictured here with his wife Ivanka Trump. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Amid the stream of firings, departures and outlandish statements coming from the White House, Donald Trump is sending a team to broker Middle East peace. At the best of times, American presidents have had little luck achieving a lasting and equitable peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Undeterred, Mr Trump is ready to take a stab at the impossible. The only side that stands to benefit from Washington’s fresh interest is Israel.

Heading up the team is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, Mr Trump’s Middle East envoy. Mr Kushner, who recently said that the administration didn’t need a “history lesson” on the conflict and had read “enough books”, has a seemingly impossible task on his hands. All the more so considering his deep ties to Israel, which call into question his ability to impartially broker any peace deal. But this is not the real story of this visit.

The true narrative is one of leadership vacuums and the strength of the status quo that enables Israel to entrench its occupation on a daily basis. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in a corruption trial that could easily end his political career. He has even lost favour with his primary benefactor, the Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Fighting for his political life, Mr Netanyahu has whipped up anti-left wing sentiment among his nationalist base.

In another sign of his determination to hold on to political power, Mr Netanyahu has stoked the fires of conflict with the Palestinians. It was his decision, after all, to install metal detectors last month at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. Flying in the face of advice from Israel’s security establishment, Mr Netanyahu’s stubborn decision unleashed a wave of violence in Jerusalem.

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The Israeli prime minister has also renewed his support for new settlements in East Jerusalem, called for the death penalty for convicted terrorists and rekindled the idea of swapping Palestinian cities in Israel for settlements in the West Bank. These calls highlight Mr Netanyahu’s outreach to his base and demonstrate how he has lost hold of Israel’s centrist political space the country to the right.

The leadership question appears even darker for Mahmoud Abbas. In response to Israeli moves on the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Palestinians across the West Bank and Jerusalem came together in an extraordinary display of grassroots, unarmed resistance. Such solidification of Palestinian civil society represents a clear and present danger to Mr Abbas’s grip on power. Through security cooperation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority's own attempts to stifle dissent in the media and protests on the streets, many Palestinians view Mr Abbas as a roadblock to broad unarmed action against Israel.

In the 12th year of his four-year term as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mr Abbas has failed to emancipate his people from occupation. Despite glorified attempts to achieve statehood recognition at the United Nations, the occupation of the West Bank has never been more secure.

Security cooperation with Israel, a critical provision of the Oslo Accords, was briefly suspended by Mr Abbas during last month’s uptick in violence over the events at Al Aqsa. For a moment, the Palestinian Authority appeared to understand how the violence on the streets against the Israeli army could translate into a sustained action against the occupation. Yet, within a matter of days, the PA resumed its collaboration with Israel and Mr Abbas returned to his position as the chief Palestinian subcontractor for Israel in the West Bank.

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With no clear successor for Mr Abbas, political groups are coming together in opposition. The exiled Mohammed Dahlan has recently made inroads with Hamas in Gaza in an attempt to create opposition to Mr Abbas’s rule in the West Bank.

Where does this leave peace negotiations? In the past, domestic political turmoil in Palestine and Israel created ripe conditions for an agreement that would serve as a distraction from the challenges on the ground. This is not the case now. Palestinian civil society has run out of patience for Mr Abbas and his hollow promises.

The question in Palestine is whether civil society has the energy and determination to break free from the shackles of the Oslo Accords, which have left them in a worse position with less land than at any other time in the history of the struggle. In Israel, Mr Netanyahu is politically damaged, and most Israelis will look at any possible peace deal with immense suspicion coming from the right-wing leader.

Despite this gloomy picture, Israel will once again come out on top thanks to a status quo that enables Israel to occupy Palestinian land and get away with it. This status quo has been engineered by Israel through years of endless negotiations that provide vital distraction from fortifying the occupation through new settlements, walls and checkpoints. This trip provides Israel with another chance to proclaim its desire for peace while taking steps on the ground to prevent any equitable peace deal.

Israel wants nothing more than endless peace negotiations that enable it to invest in the settlement infrastructure and reap the trickle-down economic benefits of occupation, including control over natural resources and a booming military-industrial complex. From this point of view, Mr Kushner’s trip to the region this week is already a boon for Tel Aviv’s continued efforts to make any peace agreement impossible.

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