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Trump's anticipated Mideast peace plan may be short on peace

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Washington (AFP)

A peace plan with no chance of achieving peace: that's the paradox of Washington's proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian accord expected to be released by Tuesday.

A major obstacle to any such plan is that President Donald Trump has aligned himself so strongly with Israel, while repeatedly undercutting the Palestinian side who feel the US has lost its status as an honest broker.

The plan, described by Trump as "the ultimate deal," seeks to bridge major gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, a goal that has eluded previous administrations reaching back for decades.

Trump's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner began working on the proposal in 2017 in a largely secretive process.

Its rollout has been repeatedly postponed, caught in the political headwinds around Israel's recurring elections and its prolonged struggle to form a government.

- Why now? -

So why should the plan be released now, just over a month before the next scheduled Israeli ballot?

Because it's "not about making peace," said Dennis Ross, a US point man on the peace process under several previous administrations.

Added Aaron David Miller, who held similar positions in past administrations: "This is the first peace initiative that I'm aware of where the objective has nothing to do with Israelis or Palestinians, nothing to do with the advancement of the peace process, nothing to do with launching negotiations."

The staging of the presentation is itself surprising.

Rather than bringing together the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seek their backing of his plan, Trump summoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Oval Office, along with his Israeli rival in the March 2 elections, Benny Gantz.

The Palestinian Authority cut off ties with US officials in late 2017, after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

That US move, which reversed decades of policy, sent shockwaves through the region and was followed by other moves seen as favoring the Hebrew state.

Since then, Palestinians have said, Washington lost any claim to being an honest broker.

- A helping hand -

But other factors may explain the timing of the announcement.

First of all, said Miller, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kushner's team wants to "finally, basically demonstrate that they have a plan" -- and to do so ahead of the US presidential election in November, which could result in the plan being permanently shelved.

In the short term, said Ross, "anything that can divert attention away from what's going on" is welcome. The US Senate is hearing Trump's impeachment trial, and Netanyahu faces corruption charges and an effort to remove him from office.

Trump may also be acting with evangelical Christian voters in mind -- they tend to strongly support the Israeli cause -- while also giving a helpful boost to Trump's friend "Bibi" as the Israeli leader struggles for political survival.

Netanyahu "probably thinks this will put him in a much stronger position to stay as prime minister of a national unity government," said Ross, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Over the long term, Kushner and US ambassador to Jerusalem David Friedman, both seen as strongly pro-Israeli, want to leave a lasting impact on American policy.

They have already begun doing so: Washington has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967; it stopped referring to the West Bank as "occupied" territory; and it no longer considers Israeli settlements there as inconsistent with international law.

- Two states? -

Each of those moves was seen as a blow to the international consensus forged through decades of diplomacy, but which the Trump administration dismissed as ineffective.

While few of the plan's details are known, numerous observers, including Ross and Miller, expect that approach to be reaffirmed.

The plan could thus give an endorsement to Israel's annexation of part of the West Bank, making the Jordan Valley the eastern border of the Hebrew state.

While certain neighborhoods of East Jerusalem might be placed under Palestinian control, the status of that part of the holy city as capital of a future Palestinian state remains highly uncertain.

Will the American proposal even include a Palestinian state, long a central focus of attempts to achieve peace?

Both Trump and Kushner have refused to use the term, in a break with the traditional position of the international community that has long favored a "two-state solution."

If the plan does include a Palestinian state, it will be a "demilitarized" state, "a state at least in name," falling far below the demands of Palestinians, who want to recover all the territories annexed by Israel in 1967, Ross said.

Supporters of the White House initiative have long counted on the relationships forged by Kushner with several Gulf monarchs, as well as on the informal contacts between some Arab countries and Israel.

Their hope is that Saudi Arabia can pressure the Palestinian Authority to accept the peace plan, boosted by its economic component released in June, which anticipates $50 billion in international investments pouring into the area over 10 years.

But Miller is skeptical of that scenario.

"At the end of the day," he said, "the Arab countries are probably going to say 'maybe,' because they don't want to alienate Trump."

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