President Trump announced his Middle East plan two weeks ago, and critics were quick to dismiss it as dead on arrival. Palestinian leaders refused to even consider it, preferring to whip their people into yet another self-destructive day of rage.
On Tuesday Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and disgraced former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are expected to address the United Nations and reject the American plan, perhaps even offering plans of their own. But time and circumstances in the region have moved on, even if these two men have not.
Before joining the Trump Administration, I finished up the oral history project I had been working on for years with Henry Kissinger. During our interviews, Kissinger said the reason the Nixon Administration didn’t engage in the Middle East during their first term was that neither the Arabs nor Israelis were ready to negotiate. The Arabs had been soundly defeated in the 1967 war and lost important territory to Israel, even though the Arabs had begun hostilities. No Arab leader would contemplate negotiating after being so thoroughly humiliated.
The Israelis weren’t ready for peace either because they saw no reason to give up territory they had just won.
Furthermore, there were no great powers pushing them to the negotiating table. The Arab states were aligned with the Soviet Union, as Israel was with the United States. The preconditions necessary for diplomacy weren’t there.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli war changed everything. The Arab nations got back their self-respect when they took back some of the lands they had lost in 1967. Although once again victorious, the Israelis got a bloody nose and realized they were not invincible. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat turned to the U.S. to help negotiate a ceasefire with Israel.
Kissinger set off on weeks of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, which ultimately resulted in separate bilateral disengagement agreements between Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel. The U.S. supported the Arab nations with considerable aid and became the dominant power in the region, replacing the Soviet Union. Five years later President Jimmy Carter brokered a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt with the Camp David Accords.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian problem festered. In the years that followed the Sunni Gulf Arab nations, as well as the mullahs in Iran, encouraged Palestinian resentment and supported anti-Israeli radical terrorist movements. The closest the Palestinians and Israelis came to any kind of peace was when President Bill Clinton tried to bring the two sides together in the closing months of his administration. In the end, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to sign the agreement.
One of Arafat’s young aides during this period was Bashar Masri. Today Masri is one of the most successful businessmen in the West Bank, and creator of the visionary Palestinian city Rawabi. But in the late 1980s, Masri helped lead the first Palestinian intifada against Israel. He was an idealistic young aide to Arafat when he signed the Oslo accords in 1993, which laid the groundwork for a two-state solution.
Years ago, I asked Masri why Arafat refused to sign an agreement which gave him almost all of what he wanted and would have fulfilled his dream of a Palestinian nation. Masri shrugged and said that Arafat had spent his whole life fighting Israel and just couldn’t bring himself to accept peace, even though he knew it was likely to be the best deal they could have gotten.
To get a diplomatic breakthrough you need two things -- a fundamental change in the situation and leaders willing to take the risk and leap into the unknown.
The first condition is now being met, with the geopolitical realignment in the region. The Trump Administration, under Jared Kushner’s leadership, has forged a closer relationship between the United States and Sunni Gulf Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia. At the same time, they have fostered a closer connection between those countries and Israel. Today all three -- the Israelis, Sunni Arabs and the U.S. -- are united in their belief that Iran presents the greatest threat to peace and prosperity in the region.
Secondly, the Trump Administration has crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. By pulling out of the disastrous Iran nuclear deal, imposing crippling sanctions on Iran and shutting off their oil exports, President Trump has brought the Iranian economy to its knees. Iran has been forced to cut back on its support for its terrorist proxies throughout the region, especially the Palestinian groups in Gaza and the West Bank.
Finally, by killing terrorist mastermind General Soleimani, the Trump Administration has thrown Iran’s proxy armies into chaos.
These factors combine to create a new reality for the Palestinians. Their terrorist groups face dwindling funds and support from their main sponsor, Iran. Their leaders are old, tired and short on new ideas. Their options are rapidly narrowing, their outside support evaporating and their leverage waning. Time is not on their side and the longer they wait to make peace with Israel the less likely they are to meet their objectives.
The thing I find intriguing about the American plan is that it puts the pressures on the Israelis and Palestinians from the outside in. Kushner, a businessman himself, understands that the key to making any progress in the Middle East isn’t by starting with the politicians who have a vested interest in keeping the enmity going. It’s by getting investors, entrepreneurs and businessmen, who see the practical advantages of working across sectarian lines, to lead the way.
Kushner’s approach resonates with something I learned a decade ago when I was in Israel. I was taping two segments for my FoxNews.com show, “DEFCON3.” The first was a panel discussion with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, the second with Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. While I was in the studio interviewing the politicians -- who each recited their standard litany of grievances against the other -- guests for the second panel were sitting in the green room. My husband was there, too, and said they were having a far more interesting conversation than mine.
The Israeli and Palestinian businessmen, who all knew of each other, had never actually met. After introducing themselves, they started talking about business possibilities. They discussed that if their two countries were allowed to trade, the Palestinian companies could be the portal for Israeli goods to be exported throughout the Arab world. The Palestinian agri-businessman asked the Israelis about selling heirloom tomatoes and other produce in the West Bank to high-end Tel Aviv and European restaurants. The Israeli businessman discussed supplying materials to the Palestinian real estate developer. While the politicians were dug into their same old ruts the entrepreneurial businessmen were trying to figure out how to make money with each other.
What the Palestinians need now is a new generation of leaders, not from the political world who thrive on enmity, but from their business community who know that only with peace can they and their people prosper. The Trump plan gives them a starting point; it’s up to them to take it from there.