Concluding historic deals on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could catapult the United States back to the center of the Middle East great game. Although these deals seem unimaginable at the moment, they are not unthinkable.
Now that the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and Jared Kushner’s so-called Peace for Prosperity plan have fizzled, President Trump could translate his anti-war sentiments into two major diplomatic deals to settle these critical international disputes with boldness, realism and imagination.
Despite the draconian economic sanctions he has imposed on Iran, the country’s leaders have not cried uncle. Nor have the administration’s recent anti-Palestinian policies forced the Palestinian leadership to attend Kushner’s Bahrain Workshop.
An Iran deal
Neither Tehran nor Washington is interested in war, yet both are engaged in dangerous brinkmanship. Although there is always a high probability that such high-wire diplomatic maneuvering could lead to conflict, both countries could pursue negotiations through intermediaries.
The anti-agreement radical centers of power in Iran remain relatively marginalized. The longer the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran Nuclear Deal) remains on life support and the more the Iranian people suffer because of the sanctions, however, the more their influence will rise.
In order to start meaningful, and potentially promising, negotiations with Iran, the Trump administration will have to appoint a special American team of distinguished diplomats and scientists to re-examine the P5+1 agreement with an eye toward improving the deal, not to torpedo it. If the negotiating team pursues the dual strategy of revising the agreement while lifting some of the most harmful sanctions, the EU would be willing to participate – which would improve the chances of success.
Not all Gulf Arabs share the Saudi and Emirati animus toward Iran. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar see their interests better served through engagement with Iran. Bahrain hews to the Saudi-Emirati line, but it is an insignificant player in the region.
The Israel-Palestine conundrum
For over 30 years, Palestinian leaders have pushed for a state of their own, with East Jerusalem as its capital, to live alongside Israel in peace and security. This has also been the position of most, if not all, Arab states and peoples, including Egypt and Jordan, which have had peace treaties with Israel.
Although most Arab states, including the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, recognize the reality of the state of Israel, and deal with it almost routinely on security and intelligence matters, they have not deviated from the two-state and land-for-peace paradigm. Had Jared Kushner internalized this fact before he went to Bahrain, he would have avoided the embarrassing conclusion of the Bahrain meeting.
Fewer and fewer Israelis and Palestinians truly believe that the two-state solution could ever be realized. Yet, Arab states and the Palestinians still believe that this approach should be the starting point in any negotiations. It’s becoming more obvious that a formula must be devised for the two peoples to live together, or side by side, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Arabs no longer believe that such a formula can be achieved through force or military action.
Palestinians in Gaza have called on Israel and the international community to break the economic and political blockade of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians in the West Bank, mostly occupied by Israel and effectively controlled by Jewish settlers, maintain that Israel has two choices: either keep its control of the West Bank, but extend Israeli citizenship to the Palestinian population, or withdraw the occupation and negotiate the creation of some sort of a Palestinian state.
As in the case of Iran, the Trump administration should appoint a new team of distinguished diplomats with experience and expertise in the Levant to begin negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Jared Kushner’s and Jason Greenblatt’s recent trip to the region was by all indications an utter failure. Even Jordan’s King Abdullah, one of America’s staunchest allies in the region, told the Kushner team that peace in the region could come only through negotiations with the Palestinians, again along the two-state paradigm.
At the risk of stating the obvious, reaching an agreement to settle the disputes in Iran and Palestine is difficult, but not undoable. The absence of such an agreement and the apparent disengagement of the United Stated from the region are bound to create a vacuum that will be filled by adversarial actors bent on undermining American security and interests.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.