There could be a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian peace effort

There could be a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian peace effort
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With Israeli elections over, the Trump administration appears to be drawing closer to releasing its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. Still a closely guarded document drafted by the president’s son-in-law, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump pushing for GOP donor's company to get border wall contract: report Trump family members will join state visit to UK Top Palestinian negotiator: Trump wants our surrender MORE, and restricted to a handful of advisers and allies, it may be issued this summer.

As that prospect nears, some in the foreign policy establishment have pronounced the "deal of the century" dead on arrival, or even argued that it should not be released to the public. These voices tend to hold that regional conditions are too inauspicious; Netanyahu’s government will be too right-wing; the Palestinians have written off the U.S. as a mediator; or that the mere release of the plan risks provoking Israel into annexing the West Bank and handing excessive leverage to Saudi Arabia.

These are not criticisms to be dismissed out of hand. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has a well-earned reputation as the graveyard of easy hopes and well-intentioned diplomacy.

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Yet the Trump administration has broken with foreign policy establishment figures in the past and shown that the ground on which a seemingly firm consensus rests is sometimes more tenuous than it appears. 

After all, expert consensus confidently asserted that transferring the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would set the region ablaze; that U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA would provoke an Iranian race to immediate nuclear armament; and that the pre-2015 sanctions architecture could not be rebuilt. In these realms and others, experts’ theories have been weighed in the balances and been found wanting.

Given this climate of ossification, fresh ideas are worth airing. Indeed, they may yet be vindicated.

Plan assets

While the hurdles the plan faces are well known, a Trump peace plan would also start with several advantages, which have not garnered comparable attention. 

However, the corollary of this pro-Israel tilt is that no elected government in Israel can afford to ignore Trump’s peace plan. Indeed, with an 83 percent approval rating, President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE is overwhelmingly popular in Israel — significantly more so than Netanyahu himself. This popularity was further bolstered by the U.S.’s recent recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, which Israelis overwhelmingly support..

In the Arab world, this has not led to the straightforwardly negative response that expert consensus would and did, predict. On the contrary, as has been widely reported, ties between Israel and the dominant powers of the Arab Sunni world, especially with Saudi Arabia have never been better at the government-to-government level. While shared interests in combating threats from Iran and ISIS have largely fueled this improvement, it is real enough and led to developments that would have been unimaginable decades ago.

To give one example, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly traveled to Oman, in a crucial sign of growing ties between Israel and the Arab world. Even more startling, several outlets have reported that Arab rulers have privately applied heavy pressure on Palestinian President Abbas to accept a peace agreement on terms to which he has not previously agreed.

For Israeli voters, a million of whom are either natives of Morocco or have a Moroccan-born parent or grandparent, King Mohammed VI embodies a tradition with which many still identify: a feeling of attachment that goes hand-in-hand with their pride in Israel. Above all, he is a head of state who has made his personal affinity for Jews into formal domestic policy and won over a large swath of the population to the values he espouses.

The need for a cultural approach

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It would nonetheless be unwise to pin hopes for any Israeli-Palestinian settlement on the highest echelons of government. Peace must be made on the level of civil relations as well. To that end, the Trump administration would be well advised to ignore the counsel to go small, or abandon peacemaking entirely and instead, to go long.

Simply put, security and prosperity demand a peace between people. The U.S. should accordingly push for a broader effort at cultural reform with the potential to generate the popular support necessary to sustain a peace process.

Doing so means urging and equipping Arab allies to roll back generations of rejectionist messaging in Arab establishment-owned media, mosques and schools. It means supporting the rising tide of bold, grassroots Arab voices that have been calling for specific relations between Arabs and Israel.

For years now, as a Pan-African media company owner, I have made a practice of promoting a mindset supportive of understanding with Jews as part and parcel of the content. 

I want to let more Americans know that there are others like me in the region who would like to play a positive role in building a climate conducive to peace. I think we all share the view that any “deal of the century” worth its salt would feature a substantial effort to address the cultural dimension of peacemaking — and we are ready to do our part.

Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is on the board directors of the Atlantic Council and an international counselor of the Center for a Strategic and International Studies in Washington.