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Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: The Middle East peace process is dead not stalled

It is time to plan for a new process once Trump leaves office

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas: US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital made it impossible for the Palestinian Authority under Abbas to sit down at the negotiating table. Photograph: Alaa Badarneh/EPA

Is it a sign of incorrigible optimism or mass delusion that so many of us still refer to the Middle East peace process in the present tense? Many years have passed since the enterprise showed any signs of life, yet we comfort ourselves with euphemisms – stalled, halting, frozen, deadlocked – rather than confront what is staring us in the face: there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Donald Trump didn’t kill it with the his reckless decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for the simple reason that you cannot kill what is already dead.

Seldom in the 25 years since the signing of the Oslo accords have the prospects for a negotiated settlement looked as bleak as they do today. Israelis and Palestinians have, it is true, lived through periods when the threat of violence was greater. Compared to the bloody days of the intifadas, towns and cities in the occupied territories are relatively quiet.

In Tel Aviv, a short drive from the “Green Line” that divides Israel from the West Bank, Israelis have fashioned a bubble that allows them to go about their lives without the occupation even impinging on their thoughts. Everyone knows this is a fragile, even illusory calm – the grievances that simmer across the territories could spill over at any moment, while the humanitarian crisis in Gaza grows more intolerable by the day – but it’s a calm nonetheless. The problem is that the political project is similarly becalmed.

Comparable gesture

The events of recent weeks confirmed that the United States has dropped any pretence at playing the honest broker. Trump’s decision on Jerusalem had one immediate and concrete effect: it made it impossible for the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas to sit down at the negotiating table. To do so would imply that Abbas accepted that Jerusalem was off the table from the outset. Abbas, a man who has invested heavily in the idea of a US-sponsored settlement, needs the Americans to give him a comparable gesture.

Palestinian demonstrators shout slogans as they hold posters with crossed out images of US president Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence during a protest against Mr Pence’s visit to Israel, in the West Bank city of Nablus, in late January. Photograph: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters

Not only has that not been forthcoming; the White House is instead punishing the Palestinians for kicking up a fuss. Within weeks of the Jerusalem announcement, the US had begun putting the squeeze on the Palestinians: first by saying it would withhold some funding for UNWRA, the UN agency that provides aid to Palestinians across the region, then by threatening to stop giving aid to the Palestinian Authority. A draft US peace plan, overseen by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is expected to be published in the coming months, but if reports are accurate and it cleaves closely to Israeli positions on all major points of dispute, then it will be dead on arrival.

Trump has compounded pre-existing trends that already made peace harder to achieve

By leaving the pitch and signalling that he will apply no pressure at all on Israel, Trump has compounded pre-existing trends that already made peace harder to achieve: the presence of right-wing extremists in the Israeli government, internal Palestinian divisions, the continuing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and their appropriation of Palestinian resources, Hamas’s refusal to renounce violence and the wider focus on Syria and the Iran-Saudi standoff. The upshot is that the prospect of a two-state solution – now openly dismissed by senior Israeli leaders – seems increasingly remote. Little wonder that many weary Palestinians have concluded that they should instead pursue a single, binational democratic state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean.

Opted for stalemate

The vacuum left by the US requires others to step up, not least the EU. What can it do? Nathan Thrall, author of the recently-published The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, argues that Israel has consciously opted for stalemate rather than the costly concessions any peace agreement would require it to make.

Even agreeing a statement expressing concern over Trump’s Jerusalem move was frustrated by internal dissent among EU member states

Thrall suggests that the world could change Israeli policy overnight by, for example, imposing sanctions on Israeli firms that profit from operations in the occupied territories. As he acknowledges, that’s unlikely to happen. For the EU, even symbolic steps have proven difficult. While five EU states – Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Portugal and Slovenia – are thought to be ready to recognise the state of Palestine, they are not inclined to move without a co-ordinated EU initiative. Given EU divisions on the issue, that looks unattainable. Even agreeing a statement expressing concern over Trump’s Jerusalem move was frustrated by internal dissent among member states.

What the EU can do is to “defend the normative and physical space for a two-state solution”, as Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations puts it. That means using money, trade and whatever leverage it has to make sure that by the time a new peace process begins – most likely in the post-Trump era – the conditions on the ground still allow for two states broadly along 1967 lines. It’s a bleak scenario. In the present circumstances, it also looks like the best one available.