The release of President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan has been further delayed, US officials have confirmed.
Mr Trump set a four-month deadline in September for his long-awaited plan to be made public but his timeframe has now shifted as Israel heads to early elections in April, the US government is under its longest partial shutdown in history, and the break in communications continues between Washington and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
"It will likely be released within the next few months, perhaps after the Israeli election, but no final decision has been made yet," a senior US official said in a closed briefing attended by The National.
Media leaks on what the plan will or will not address are dismissed by the Trump administration as inaccurate. “Very few people on the planet” know its details, tweeted special envoy for the Middle East peace process Jason Greenblatt.
But even those who know would insist that the text is not finalised and is “undergoing final edits” as of this week, an official added.
The senior US official said the proposal would be “detailed and thorough”.
“We have taken every issue and explained our vision and path to a solution. There is an economic component to the plan. We hope to involve Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, and other regional partners,” he said.
“We envision massive capital (via investments) into Gaza and the West Bank if our plan takes root and Gaza stabilises,” another senior official said. “But our plan is not simply economic peace,” he cautioned, explaining that it will also address terrorism and the traditional final status issues such as Jerusalem and the borders.
The text will also reflect new challenges in the Middle East such as the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Syrian war, the Gaza situation, and Hezbollah's 140,000-rocket arsenal as new threats have emerged since Washington’s last serious effort at peacemaking in 2000. “The margin of error has shrunk because of these issues,” the official said.
Asked about the plan's chance of succeeding, given President Mahmoud Abbas's rejection of the US as a mediator, the officials did not seem too perturbed. “The PA has not seen consequences for its disruptive behaviour over the last few decades. Everyone coddled them. We shouldn’t be expected to do so, especially since that approach failed to achieve peace,” one official said when asked about the US closing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation office in Washington and moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We hope that they come to the negotiating table. The Palestinians have a lot to gain from this plan. This US president is unique and he may be able to go where others haven’t."
Asked about Syria and any US plans to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, an official said the decision was up to Mr Trump. He said, however, that “Israel has had concerns over US withdrawal plans from Syria, but our conversations and lengthy meetings have helped in easing concerns as well as providing answers”.
Former US negotiator and peace envoy Dennis Ross told The National that the viability of the US as a mediator will be judged by whether "the plan is credible, both in terms of preparation for its roll-out and its content".
“The substance is the key, but even the right substance will still require careful preparation: privately sharing the plan in writing with key Arab leaders in advance; letting them have some imprint on it; and negotiating word for word what they will say when it is unveiled,” Mr Ross advised.
At a minimum, “the plan will have to provide for a [Palestinian] state that looks credible in terms of contiguity and that state must have a significant part of Arab East Jerusalem as its capital” for the document to be taken seriously, he said.
But Daniel Shapiro of the Institute for National Security Studies, who was an ambassador to Israel under Barack Obama, said the prospects are dim for the plan and US peacemaking efforts. "There is zero chance of negotiations now due to leadership dynamics on both [Israeli and Palestinian] sides," he told The National.
“That's unlikely to change after the Israeli elections, and the Palestinians will be no more likely than they are now to accept the Trump administration as mediator,” Mr Shapiro said. One purpose for releasing the plan he said, “should be for keeping the two-state solution alive and viable for when different leaders emerge”.
He said any US proposal has to be a “detailed, realistic plan that describes two states”. At the same time, the plan could be rejected by both sides, and could put Mr Trump at odds with his support base. “Since it is so hard to square this circle, I think it is unlikely that they [US team] will ever present any plan.”
A negative reaction from the Palestinian Authority is almost guaranteed, said Ghaith Al Omari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, Mr Al Omari said: “It is safe to assume that the Palestinians will say no.”
Mr Abbas has said the Trump administration must reverse the embassy move to Jerusalem before any negotiations.
The big question, Mr Al Omari said, is whether Arab states will react positively to the plan even if the Palestinians reject it.
“This depends on two factors: first, what the plan says on the various issues, particularly Jerusalem, and second, whether the US has an overall regional policy that addresses the interests of Arab states, particularly when it comes to confronting Iranian aggression.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is hosting a summit to counter Iran and pursue Middle East peace in Poland next month. Israel and key Arab states will be invited to the meeting.
Mr Al Omari said the US plan’s chances of acceptance within the Palestinian body politic were diminished by Mr Abbas’s weakness.
“President Abbas and other Palestinian leaders do not have the political credibility today to agree to any compromises and will likely reject any peace proposal, even if it is a reasonable one,” he said.