By Ronald Kiener
Amir Tibon, the new Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, visited Hartford last Wednesday, March 1, and delivered a master class on Middle Eastern diplomacy to a packed lecture hall at Trinity College.
In a presentation entitled “Israeli-Palestinian Peace – Between Obama and Trump,” Tibon provided his insight into the diplomatic efforts of former Secretary of State John Kerry, and drew some surprising comparisons between Kerry’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock and President Donald J. Trump.
Tibon described Kerry’s conviction at the outset of his time as head of the State Department that a deal was to be had. He described President Barack Obama as a skeptic, based on the failed effort to find willing partners for negotiations during his first term with Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
But Kerry, who had been a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a solid pro-Israel voting record, believed that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were ready for a deal.
Kerry furthermore believed that time was running out for such a deal. In early 2013, Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and set a deadline he would come to regret.
“I can guarantee you that I am committed to this because I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Kerry said. “I think we have some period of time in the year to year-and-a-half to two years or it’s over.”
And indeed, through strained negotiations carried out over nine months, a number of issues were provisionally resolved. A principle for borders was agreed to – based on the 1967 lines with compensatory land swaps. A plan for allowing Israel to hold most major settlement blocs was agreed to. Even a token commitment from Israel to permit a few thousand Palestinians to return to Israel in the context of humanitarian reunification of families was achieved.
But two issues were elusive: the final status of Jerusalem, and security arrangements for monitoring what would be a demilitarized Palestinian state. Netanyahu insisted on a 25-year presence of Israeli forces in the Jordan River Valley, while Abbas would not consider an Israeli military presence in the Palestinian state beyond the first seven years of a deal.
“The maximum that one side offered could not meet the minimum demands of the other,” Tibon observed.
The Kerry diplomatic push came to an end in April 2014.
Tibon believes that Trump and Kerry share an almost messianic belief that there is a deal to be had. Trump has spoken effusively of the “great deal” he thinks he can bring to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tibon believes that is not Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is currently managing the Israel portfolio.
“Jared has too much on his plate, including reform of health care and tax policy,” he explains.
Instead, Tibon stated that close confidant and former chief legal officer of The Trump Corporation Jason Greenblatt is supervising contacts with Israel, and managing the administration’s approach to the problem.
Tibon admitted that reading the tea leaves of Trump’s intentions for the Arab-Israeli conflict are difficult to discern. But he is convinced that Trump shares in Kerry’s once unbridled optimism.
Tibon dismissed the comparisons made by some pundits that Netanyahu and Trump are leaders cut from the same cloth. In Tibon’s view Netanyahu is an intellectual – “he is constantly reading books,” while Trump is notorious for his limited attention span and his lack of interest in reading long reports, let alone books.
Tibon, who joined the newspaper Haaretz one week before Trump’s inauguration, had previously served as chief diplomatic correspondent for the Wallah news site, Israel’s most widely read online news source. Before that he was a producer for Israel Channel 2’s prestigious weekly news documentary show “Uvdah” (Fact), often called Israel’s “60 Minutes.”
Writing for both the Hebrew and English-language online editions of Haaretz, Tibon has become one of the prominent voices in Israeli news media for deciphering the chaos that has been the first seven weeks of the Trump administration.
He tweets in both English and Hebrew, and can be followed at @amirtibon.
CAP: Amir Tibon