JERUSALEM—Sara Netanyahu surely felt some sympathy for her guests. Like the Trumps, Israel’s first family has been plagued by an endless drip of scandals, many of them dredged up by a few dogged investigative reporters. So a few minutes after Air Force One landed, Sara, the wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tried to offer President Donald Trump a few sympathetic words. “The majority of the people of Israel, unlike the media, they love us,” she explained. “We have a lot in common,” Trump replied with a smirk.
Mired in controversy at home, the president has received a royal welcome in the Middle East, first in Saudi Arabia, then in Israel. On Monday he met with the Israeli president, toured Christian and Jewish holy sites in the Old City and had dinner with “my friend” Netanyahu. On Tuesday, he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where he remarked “I intend to do everything I can to help” achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Trump has said he hopes to accomplish “the ultimate deal” in solving what’s turned out to be one of the most intractable conflicts in modern history. “I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually,” he said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu on Monday.
Good luck to him. When it comes to forging peace in the region, Trump currently faces all the roadblocks of his predecessors, and more. The right-wing government in Jerusalem is loathe to make any concessions to the Palestinians, who are themselves split between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza. Trump himself may not have much political capital to spend on the peace process. Most of all, at this point, the conflict is stagnant; officials on both sides have learned to live with the status quo. Despite three Gaza wars, a string of stabbing and shooting attacks, and the daily indignities and violence of the occupation, there is a sense that the conflict is “managed.”
But the real wrench in Trump’s ambitious peace plans isn’t likely to be stagnation—it’s what’s going to change over the next four to eight years. Nothing stays static in the Holy Land for long. Likely by the end of his first term—and almost certainly by the end of his second if he is reelected—Trump will confront an entirely different political map in Israel and the occupied territories that he sees today. The Palestinians will likely plunge into a power vacuum and emerge with a new leader lacking any credibility. The Israeli prime minister could be hobbled by a slow-burning criminal probe. And the long-simmering crisis in Gaza will once again come to a boil, with a new war looming on the horizon.
Even if Trump surprises everyone and makes a serious effort to bring peace, he may quickly find himself overtaken by events. “It’s quiet here, but then you think about what’s coming,” said an Israeli army officer in the West Bank. “And you realize we’re on a cliff.”
A few weeks after Trump’s election, Husam Zumlot chuckled unhappily when I asked him about his upcoming move to Washington. “The worst job in the world,” quipped the incoming Palestinian ambassador to the United States. It was an understandable concern: The president who vowed to be “Israel’s best friend in the White House” didn’t seem inclined to make much time for the Palestinians.
To their surprise, though, Trump has been receptive. The president arrived in Washington without much knowledge of the conflict, and the Israelis were slow to present a diplomatic strategy; Netanyahu arrived for their first meeting armed with only a few platitudes. The Palestinians and their allies, by contrast, worked hard to flatter Trump, to convince him that he could strike “the ultimate deal.”
But that deal will require the assent of Zumlot’s boss, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 82, overweight, and a heavy smoker. He has already undergone two heart surgeries. He has done almost nothing to plan for a successor, though. In a spring meeting with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the region, Abbas bristled when asked about who might come next. “My father lived to be 101,” he said, according to two Western diplomats briefed on the talks. “I’ll be around for a long time.”
If his prediction proves wrong, the Palestinians will find themselves staring into a deep vacuum. The most popular candidate to replace Abbas is Marwan Barghouti, a prominent leader of Fatah. Many view him as the only candidate capable of bridging the internal divisions between Hamas and Fatah. Both sides respect him, and see him as above the partisan fray that has consumed Palestinian politics for the past decade. But Barghouti faces one major obstacle to becoming president: He is in prison, convicted by an Israeli court and serving five life sentences for his role in deadly attacks during the second intifada. No prominent Israeli leader—certainly not the current government, the most hawkish in decades—is prepared to release him.
Beyond Barghouti is a list of plausible but dull candidates. There is Mahmoud Aloul, 67, appointed earlier this year as the first deputy Fatah leader in a decade. Uncharismatic and media-shy, he was chosen for his loyalty to the president; he barely has a public following. On a visit to Ramallah last week, I showed a succession of young Palestinians his photograph. Not one recognized him.
Or there is Jibril Rajoub, 64, the gravelly former head of internal security, a job that earned him the trust of the Israeli generals he worked alongside—they used to call him “Gavi Regev,” a Hebraization of his name. It also earned him the enmity of many Palestinians: His force was responsible for arresting, torturing and killing dissidents. He has spent the past decade as the head of the Palestinian football association, where his main accomplishment is his repeated failure to convince FIFA to sanction Israel for allowing settler clubs to play in its national league. (The association punted again earlier this month, postponing any vote on the subject until 2018.)
Many Palestinians have simply given up on politics. Abbas’ term officially ended in 2009; he refuses to call new elections, and marginalizes and jails his critics. The legislature has not legislated in a decade. The economic situation is grim, with official unemployment at 16 percent in the West Bank, and the diplomatic process is a failure. Two-thirds of the public wants Abbas to resign. A majority also wants him to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, the limited self-government in the occupied territories, effectively “handing the keys” back to Israel. But the leadership is utterly disconnected from the mood on the street. “We’ve started a process of renewing the political scene in Palestine,” Rajoub crowed last month, pointing to what was then an upcoming municipal election, the first ballot in five years. The vote was a flop. Just 53 percent of registered voters bothered to turn out. Fatah ran virtually unopposed, as both Hamas and several leftist factions decided to boycott—and it still failed to win a majority in major cities.
Not for nothing do young Palestinians joke that their next intifada, when it happens, will be against their own leaders instead of Israel.
And yet, despite his unpopularity, Abbas may be the last Palestinian capable of pushing through a two-state solution. He has a solid grip on his own party, and has proved adept at dispatching rivals; his successor, whoever it is, will likely find himself mired in internal battles. But the window is closing fast: Abbas’ seemingly endless tenure (his term officially expired in 2009) has left Palestinian politics adrift. “We’re in violation of our constitution in every aspect of life,” said Khalil Shikaki, the director of Palestine’s top polling shop. “It may eventually blow up in our faces.”
An Israeli diplomat jokingly offered a thought last week on how Netanyahu could impress Trump at their first dinner: “He could give Trump some advice on how to choose a friendly FBI director. He’s gotten very good at this stuff.”
The Israeli police have spent the past six months nipping at Netanyahu’s heels, investigating a spate of bizarre corruption cases that threaten to unseat Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister. He is accused of taking lavish gifts from wealthy benefactors, including the producer of the film “Pretty Woman,” who supplied him with Cuban cigars and his wife Sara with pink champagne. Investigators are also looking into tapes of Netanyahu colluding with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest paid daily newspaper, to ensure favorable coverage.
Perhaps the most explosive case deals with Israel’s $1.3 billion purchase of three new German-made submarines. The prime minister’s personal lawyer, David Shimron, served on the board of ThyssenKrupp, the German conglomerate that manufactures the subs, which the government agreed to buy even though Israeli army officials—including the ex-defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon—said they opposed the contract. The implication is that Shimron, and perhaps Netanyahu, received some kind of quid-pro-quo. (Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all three cases, as does Shimron.)
For now, at least, the cases are moving slowly, and many Israelis believe that’s on purpose—that Netanyahu’s allies are trying him keep him out of a courtroom. The attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, worked previously as Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, and the two men are thought to be personal friends. Police chief Roni Alsheich, another Netanyahu appointee, has made several decisions that were seen as an effort to protect the first family.
But if the police do recommend criminal charges, a lengthy trial would hobble Netanyahu’s premiership—and, by extension, any U.S.-led negotiations. The same thing happened to his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who made a serious effort to pursue peace with the Palestinians. The talks stalled when it became clear that Olmert would not survive a series of corruption probes (he eventually resigned, and is now in prison).
On this side of the border, too, there is no clear successor if Netanyahu is forced to resign. Polls suggest that the Zionist Union, the main center-left party, will crater in the next election, winning as few as 10 seats, less than half of its current total. A trio of moderate retired generals has hinted at running for office, but none of them have found a political home yet. The leading contender, according to the polls, is Yair Lapid, a centrist politician who largely avoids taking clear stances on controversial issues. He would struggle to cobble together a coalition, and even if he did it would be an unruly one, spanning from the center-left to the nationalist right.
One might think that a center-left government would be more successful at making peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is a conservative, and much of his coalition is even further to the right: Just four of his 20 ministers openly support a two-state solution. But historically, it has been the hawks who made difficult decisions in Israel: Menachem Begin relinquished the Sinai to Egypt; Ariel Sharon evacuated the settlements in Gaza. The left already supports making concessions; a hawkish prime minister has the credibility to bring some of the right on board, too.
A centrist successor might lack both a mandate and a vision to pursue a solution. Many of Netanyahu’s possible replacements envision a peace process that would outlast their own terms in office. Isaac Herzog, the Labor party opposition leader, believes that Israel should wait at least a decade before launching any meaningful effort with the Palestinians. Lapid thinks it will take 20 years. One of Lapid’s top aides, when I asked about his views on the peace process, kept trying to steer the conversation to subjects like road safety and traffic police. “I realize these aren’t the things you want to hear about,” he said. “But they’re very important to us.”
Driving through Shuja’iya, in Gaza, one could almost forget that Israel and Hamas fought a devastating war three years ago. The neighborhood was one of the hardest hit, with entire blocks reduced to rubble. Some families spent years living in tents or makeshift tin shacks. But on a visit this spring, the piles of mangled concrete and rebar were almost entirely gone, replaced with rows of freshly painted homes.
The progress may be short-lived: Israel and Hamas are quietly marching back to war.
In the past few years, Abbas has approved a series of “unity pacts” meant to end the schism between Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas. A reconciliation would have put the PA in charge of Gaza, ending the cycle of wars.
In recent weeks, though, Abbas seems to have given up on trying to reassert control. Last month he reduced the salaries of about 58,000 Gazan public servants on the PA’s payroll. Most have not worked in a decade: Hamas appointed its own bureaucrats after it seized power. But Abbas continued to pay them, a way to maintain a power base in Gaza. Then he ended the PA’s subsidies for the electricity that Israel provides to Gaza, which account for half of the strip’s already inadequate supply, and suspended shipments of medicine and baby formula to Gazan hospitals. All of this has further immiserated a territory where nearly half the population is unemployed, and three-quarters rely on international aid to survive. It will also further tax an already unpopular Hamas, and the group has been clear that it will respond by lashing out at Israel. “[These moves] are going to explode in [Abbas’] face, and in all directions,” said Khalil al-Hayya, a Hamas leader.
The Israelis were surprised by Hamas’ resilience during the last war. The group (and its allies, like the militant Islamic Jihad) fought for more than seven weeks, until literally minutes before the final cease-fire. But the militants were disappointed. Though they fired routinely on Tel Aviv, and even lobbed rockets as far north as Haifa, a city that is closer to Lebanon than to Gaza, the long-range projectiles were basically useless. They were highly inaccurate to begin with, and any residual threat was neutralized by the Iron Dome missile defense system. All of the Israeli civilians killed by rockets and mortars lived within about 20 miles of Gaza.
So in the next war, Hamas and its allies plan to focus on bombarding the “Gaza envelope,” the towns and kibbutzim near the border. They also hope to stage high-profile attacks with a network of attack tunnels. Israel has moved aggressively to neutralize the passages with new, classified technology; nearly a dozen have mysteriously collapsed over the past few years. But Israel may be a victim of its own success. Hamas views the tunnels as a waning asset—one it should use while it still has the opportunity.
Hamas’ goal is to cause enough damage to pull Israel into a ground operation deep in Gaza. “We can’t fight Israeli planes,” explained one member of Islamic Jihad’s military wing. “But if we can lure Israel into a ground campaign, we even the fight.” Netanyahu’s critics lambasted him during the last war for his refusal to send troops all the way to Gaza City (one of those critics, Avigdor Lieberman, is now the defense minister). There would be fierce public pressure to decisively end the conflict with Hamas.
If they do go back to war, it would be a grinding, bloody battle: Israel lost 66 soldiers in 2014, and more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians; more than 100,000 Gazans were left homeless, and the strip’s infrastructure was shattered. Hamas and its allies appear ready to do it all over again, but both sides suspect that it will be for the last time. Any Gaza-based ground war would likely end with Israel once again in control of the territory.
Gaza is a problem that no one, Israeli or Palestinian, wants to tackle. But a fourth war there would certainly put any peace negotiations on shaky ground. For one, it would tie Abbas’ hands. There could be no peace talks while his people were being bombed. It would also send a clear message to Israelis: Their one effort at evacuating territory was a mistake, one that should not be repeated.
In the short term, at least, Trump and his aides do not expect to make major strides toward ending this century-old conflict. The Palestinians have presented a list of modest economic demands, from new industrial zones to 24/7 access at the Allenby Bridge, the sole crossing between the West Bank and Jordan. In return the Gulf states have offered Israel its own incentives, like overflight rights for Israel’s El Al airlines, a step that would shave hours off flights to the Far East.
But any talk of the real issues—borders, refugees, Jerusalem—is still months away, if it ever happens. Few Israelis expect that Trump will succeed. The Palestinians are more optimistic, but their optimism, officials admit in private, is mostly a reflection of their despair.
It will probably be a moot point anyway. A new Gaza war would short-circuit any peace process: Abbas could not possibly negotiate with daily scenes of carnage on Al-Jazeera. Israel’s right-wing government would be even less inclined to give up any territory. And Abbas might not be the negotiator anyway. Trump is building relationships with two leaders who both seem to be teetering—unpopular, plagued by scandal, yet without any clear replacement. The president who hopes to make “the ultimate deal” may instead find himself simply trying to manage a period of turmoil.