WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump’s administration is engaged in an internal debate over the timing and method of launching its Middle East peace plan, concerned their proposals may be “dead on arrival” if they proceed with haste.
Israeli government officials originally anticipated the US plan would land this summer, but White House officials have not yet settled on that time frame and may delay its rollout into the fall or even beyond, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Senior Trump administration officials said the peace team is working in unison, despite Israeli officials reporting to the Post signs of strategic disagreement within the US camp.
Trump officials would not provide even a rough timeline for the plan’s release, but said that it will, in large part, be calibrated to maximize positive feedback.
“Getting the right reaction is critical. The substance of this is obviously extremely important, but releasing it at a time when the substance can be accepted by the maximum number of players or participants is just as important,” a senior official told the Post on Wednesday.
The plan itself is essentially complete.
“You can’t put something out where everybody says, ‘Ah, this is dead on arrival,’” the official continued. “You can’t do that. And the same exact document that may be dead on arrival on a Monday might not be dead on arrival on a Thursday. That sounds kind of counterintuitive, but that’s the way this works.”
Trump’s peace team – comprised of Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; Jason Greenblatt, his chief envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel – will engage regional leaders next week on potential timing for the release of the plan, which is said to be more detailed than an aspirational framework or parameters and less demanding of the parties than an agreement or a treaty. The basic goal of the document is to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table around concrete, practical ideas, according to officials familiar with its contents.
But the team will not meet with Palestinian Authority officials on their latest trip to the region, and US officials acknowledge this is part of the problem. Palestinian leadership cut off contact with the White House and dismissed any future role for Trump in the peace process after the president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and moved the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv last month.
While Trump aides believe the contents of the plan will entice the Palestinians back to the table, they would prefer that PA leaders express a willingness to engage the effort before the roll out. US officials told Israeli media this week they might wait to release the plan until the PA resumes contact with them.
Israeli sources told the Post that the peace team appears at times to be in disagreement over the timing of the launch, claiming that Friedman once successfully lobbied Trump for a delay and continues to advocate for a protracted rollout. Friedman is in Washington this week consulting with the team before Kushner and Greenblatt start their trip to Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
One senior US official acknowledged that there have been delays, but credited them to strategic patience. “To the extent that we delay it, or delay an announcement, it’s not for political reasons and it’s not because we have less enthusiasm. It’s because it’s not the right time in terms of launching it,” the official said.
BUT WHILE the US team gauges political dynamics in the Israeli and Palestinian worlds in order to strike at the right moment with its plan, the Israelis are also looking at the US political timetable, wondering what impact upcoming elections might have on the White House effort.
One senior Israeli official suggested that Kushner’s desire to expedite the launch might be driven by his plans to join his father-in-law’s 2020 reelection campaign – a move that would leave him with little time left to devote attention to the peace process. Another indicated that Friedman is aware of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s interest in delaying the plan until after the next round of Israeli elections, which may be over a year away.
Those Israeli and American political timetables offer costs and benefits to the peace team that contradict one another: Presenting the plan sooner rather than later would give Kushner more time to succeed, but might also complicate the Israeli political dynamic ahead of a crucial round of elections, in which Netanyahu’s Right may use the vote as a referendum on control over the West Bank.
“I think we’ve recognized over the course of our discussion that the time wasn’t right, because it was unlikely to receive the kind of reception that it needs to get momentum,” the senior US administration official said. “But whenever we talk about the timing, it is always with regards to it being successful – not with regards to some isolated political objective.”
For his part, Friedman denied that he wants to delay the launch for up to a year and dismissed accusations of friction within the team from outside players.
“We are close friends, the three of us, that have known each other for two decades,” Friedman told the Post. “We’ve also known the president for almost two decades. We’re completely loyal to him and the agenda of reaching a peace agreement – maybe that’s unique in Washington.”
Indeed, the peace team is one of the most unique triads in US politics. All three men have deep ties to each other through Trump and the Trump Organization – the collective name for a group business entities owned by the president – and none harbor future political ambitions.
“Every day, we have these discussions,” the ambassador continued, “and ultimately, at the end of every day, we arrive at exactly the same page. We talk about it – ‘What about this? What about that?’ – and then we say, ‘OK, what do you think?’ and we come to a consensus. So the idea that there’s daylight among the three of us is 100% not true. It’s just not true at all. And it has never been true.”
The team is not settled on a strategy for the roll out, either. It has not decided how much of the plan will be released to the public, how and to what extent it should brief key players, or in what order.
“Briefing them with high-level points is one way to go, but is that very different from what they’ve seen before, without them really understanding the depth of the plan? We struggle with it, because we keep going back to: ‘How do we give this thing the most possible chance of success?’” the official said.
The president is offered frequent updates by the peace team, although he is not said to have a preference regarding the timeline for its release. Officials say Trump is as committed as ever to brokering a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and point to his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this week as a prime example of his negotiating skills.