Trump's plan for Mideast peace

As the president is discovering, the process of negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is as important as the details of a deal.

An Israeli flag flies near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, Jan. 24.

By Tuesday, President Donald Trump hopes to reveal details of a plan – three years in the making – for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Like U.S. presidents before him he has relied largely on official diplomacy. This effort was led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And also like previous presidents, he is discovering that negotiating an end to such a difficult conflict needs private and neutral back-channels – the kind in which each side feels safe enough to acknowledge the interests of the other without fear of public backlash.

For now, the Trump plan, which he calls the “deal of the century,” appears to have only lopsided support. It will be discussed at a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and possibly his main political rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White alliance. Since taking office in 2017, Mr. Trump has given Mr. Netanyahu much of what he wanted: U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as well as an official nod in support of Israel’s settlements on West Bank land. Those actions, along with Mr. Kushner’s high-profile diplomacy, led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss the plan even before knowing what’s in it.

As a result, the U.S. had been forced in recent days to go through private channels to try to persuade the Palestinians to at least discuss the plan. Perhaps such peacemakers, who range from think tanks to Nordic countries, would have been more useful at the start of this process. Of the many Mideast peace talks since 1990, the most successful outcome – the so-called Oslo accords of 1993 – began with “track two” diplomacy, or secret and informal discussions led by outside and impartial parties.

Track two talks help reduce the mutual acrimony and mutual fear that can hinder negotiating in the spotlight of the media. Private facilitators help build trust and can probe for the kind of flexibility that leads to compromise. For Israelis and Palestinians, informal discussions would allow them to acknowledge their shared concerns about security and the different ways to achieve their respective religious and national aspirations.

The Trump way of negotiating might still work. At the least, his plan, once revealed, might offer fresh ideas for a stalemated conflict. But those ideas will need a calm and respectful exchange, the kind that private diplomacy can offer.

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