President Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel and Palestine—during which he hopes to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—will go nowhere unless he fully understands the complexity of the conflict and why previous attempts by successive American administrations to negotiate a peace deal have failed. Recently, he stated that “I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians. There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.” Trump’s over-simplification of the conflict suggests he has no clue about what it would take to make peace and why the mere resumption of peace talks is dead on arrival.
There are three major impediments to Israeli-Palestinian peace process that must largely be mitigated before the resumption of any negotiations: a) there is profound distrust of the other; b) both sides have a deep sense of mutual insecurity; and c) illusions are held by powerful extremist constituencies on both sides that seek to deny the other a state of their own and who believe they can have all. This is where the process of reconciliation must begin, and Trump can make a significant contribution to peace if he can persuade both sides to begin such a process to alleviate the three impediments.
Distrust: The pervasive and mutual distrust cannot be assuaged through negotiation, nor dispelled by simply agreeing to begin to trust one another—it is a process that must be nurtured. Distrust remains one of the most daunting problems that continues to haunt both sides and has become engrained in the minds of nearly every Israeli and Palestinian, as neither has made any effort to mitigate it. On the contrary, they have and continue to engage in hostile public narratives and take demonstrable actions on the ground in ways that only deepen distrust.
Continuing distrust has created a dogmatic attitude of stubbornness and reinforced assumptions about each other’s true intentions. The absence of trust has also led to social paralysis and the loss of hope while evoking fear, a deep sense of uncertainty, and the inability to foster social bonds. Thus, this absence has sunk too deep to be simply rectified at the negotiating table. Both sides have become suspicious of every action, however well-intended, taken by the other as mutual skepticism deepened the sense of futility in making any concession.
For these reasons, Trump should not simply urge both sides to renew the negotiations. Instead, he should beseech them to engage one another by taking mutual conciliatory measures to cultivate trust. Only then will they view one another as partners worthy of being trusted, which is fundamental to the resumption of peace negotiations with the confidence that they would succeed.
To that end, Trump should among other things pressure Netanyahu to halt the expansion and legalization of illegal settlements, release some Palestinian prisoners, provide building permits with minimal restrictions, make it easier for Palestinians to conduct business deals in Israel, allow a greater number of Palestinians to work in Israel, and declare that Israel is prepared to discuss all conflicting issues between the two sides.
Likewise, Trump should pressure the Palestinian Authority to end all incitement, refrain from public acrimony against Israel, condemn all acts of violence, speak openly about the need to make some painful concessions, seek genuine reconciliation with Hamas, and – with the US’ help – induce it to join the Arab fold by embracing the Arab Peace Initiative. Finally, Trump should appeal to the leaders on both sides to engage one another on a regular basis to foster personal chemistry and personal trust.
In addition, both sides should undertake several people-to-people measures, including: facilitating tourism in both directions, emboldening women activism, supporting student interactions, providing Palestinian youth opportunities to study at Israeli universities, embarking on joint sport activities, and exchanging art exhibitions—all of which are central to inculcating trusting, neighborly relations.
National security: There is a current state of fear and anxiety for the future experienced by both sides, which is constantly fed by a deep sense of national insecurity. This concern is largely informed by past experiences.
Notwithstanding its formidable military prowess, Israel has and continues to feel vulnerable due to random shellings, acts of terrorism, and other types of extreme violence such as stabbings and car rammings. This sense of insecurity became the state’s mantra, often prompting Israel to take disproportionate measures against the Palestinians.
For the Palestinians, Israel’s formidable military power and the knowledge that they cannot overwhelm it instills a deep sense of insecurity, which is often reinforced by fear of night raids, home demolitions, loss of territory, and administrative detention, among others. The fact that Israel can take these measures at will has further intensified the deep sense of vulnerability among the Palestinians.
To allay this sense of mutual sense of insecurity, Trump should insist that both sides take concrete measures to stop violence, condemn it when it occurs, and work together to demonstrate their commitment and sensitivity toward each other’s national security concerns. Moreover, both should fully coordinate and collaborate on all internal security matters, share intelligence, and work closely to preempt any planned acts of violence by extremists on either side.
Illusions: Both sides have a very powerful and widely influential constituency that still believes they can have it all. In Israel, parties such as Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi), which is led by Naftali Bennett and is part of the coalition government, publicly call for the annexation of much of the West Bank because they believe the Jews have an inherent right to the whole “land of Israel.”
On the Palestinians’ side, Hamas (notwithstanding their occasional declaration that they will accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders) insists that all of mandated Palestine, including Israel, is Palestinian territory, and at best they would tolerate the Jews to live under Palestinian rule.
Both sides have been living with these illusions and are imbued with a zero-sum approach. Unfortunately, their leadership have done little but propagate these beliefs. Israel’s illusions have served to create the logic for the continuing occupation, and Palestinian extremists cling to their illusions just as blindly as the Israelis, which leads to resistance to and fear of change. This has contributed to making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both chronic and intractable.
To disabuse both sides of these illusions that either can have it all, Trump must make it abundantly clear to both sides that the US can help facilitate an agreement at a later date only when both sides accept these three unmitigated facts: a) neither can have it all; b) coexistence is not one of many options, but the only option; and c) the conflict will end only on the basis of a two-state solution.
Trump must understand that the success of future peace talks rest entirely on addressing the above three obstacles through a process of reconciliation, and that the best thing that the US can do at this juncture is initiate a reconciliatory process and play the role of a mediator while monitoring both sides to ensure that they live up to these requirements.
I personally do not believe that Netanyahu will allow the creation of a Palestinian state under his watch, nor would Abbas be able to make the necessary concessions and survive politically, nor would Trump’s ‘magical negotiating skills’ produce any significant breakthrough.
That said, this process of reconciliation remains crucial under any circumstance to pave the way for a future new Israeli government and Palestinian Authority to pursue peace on a solid foundation.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.