The release of the US Middle East plan last week was a nakedly political event. As his impeachment trial in the US Senate continued, Donald Trump attempted to bolster his support among pro-Israel evangelical Christians at home, while throwing an electoral lifeline to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Indeed, the Israeli prime minister was formally charged with multiple counts of corruption on the very day he was happily lauding the historic nature of Trump’s proposals.
In the week since the publication of the 181-page plan, however, the political benefits for Netanyahu have become a lot less clear.
“Deal of the century”?
The prime minister’s sense of delight as he stood beside Trump was understandable. While formally accepting a two-state solution – a concept the administration has repeatedly distanced itself from – the US proposals displayed little by way of even-handedness. Unusually for a peace plan, one of the two parties to the dispute had been almost completely absent from both the design phase and the unveiling ceremony.
Under Trump’s plans, the Palestinians are offered the prospect of a state after four years. That state is, though, far from that for which they have long held out: comprising just 75 percent of the West Bank (with barely contiguous territory joined by highways), plus Gaza (which will be linked by a tunnel) and some additional territory from the Negev. In place of their dream of a capital in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians would receive only the suburban area of Abu Dis beyond the security barrier.
Israel, however, is earmarked the strategically and militarily important Jordan Valley – territory in the far east of the West Bank which borders Jordan – and sovereignty over Jerusalem. Moreover, not only do the main settlement blocs, which lay close to, but to the east of, the 1967 lines and within the security barrier, become part of Israel, so, too, do all other settlements dotted throughout the West Bank (seventy-seven percent of the Israeli settlers live in the blocs). These include 15 isolated settlements, deep inside a potential Palestinian state, which are designated as “Israeli enclave communities”.
The Palestinian state, which would be demilitarised, under overall Israeli security control, and lacking control of its airspace, would also only come into existence if it passed certain criteria, including a free press, free elections, religious freedom and an independent judiciary, and if the Palestinians agreed to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
The demand of a complete “right to return” – a claim that Palestinians and their descendants who were displaced from Israel in the 1948-9 War of Independence should be allowed to settle in the Jewish state itself, as opposed to a future Palestinian state – is also refused.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and author of the plan, has defended its contents by suggesting that it would grant Palestinians twice as much land as they currently have available to them. Under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has security and civilian control over Area A, which makes up some 18 percent of the West Bank, and civilian control over Area B, which makes up roughly 22 percent of the West Bank. Israel controls the remaining 60 percent known as Area C. (a 2017 Palestinian census found that the number of Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank, which is under exclusive Israeli control, was 393,163 out of a total West Bank Palestinian population of 2,881,687).
Kushner has also argued that the network of “bridges and tunnels” envisaged by the plan means that Palestinians would be able to travel from north to south of their state without going through any Israeli checkpoints. He has also hinted that the US might be prepared to countenance changes to the plan. “If there are things they [the Palestinians] want to change, if they don’t like where we drew the lines, they should come and tell us,” he suggested in a weekend interview.
The Americans have also tried to sweeten Trump’s much-vaunted “deal of the century” by promising the Palestinians duty-free port facilities at Haifa and Ashdod on Israel’s Mediterranean coast and nearly $30bn in economic assistance which, the plan says, would double the Palestinian GDP over the next decade and halve the poverty rate.
The US proposal also demands that Israel halts settlement-building in the land allocated for a Palestinian state during the planned four-year negotiating period. Kushner has appeared to condition US acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over current settlements “in exchange for them [Israelis] stopping growing [the settlements]”.
But the scale of the reduced aspirations Trump is demanding the Palestinians accept is hard to conceal: barely 10 years ago, in 2008, former prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed a Palestinian state on almost the entire territory of the West Bank with compensating land swaps for the 6.3 percent he wished to annex. Abbas has admitted that he rejected the proposal.
Netanyahu overplays his hand
In the immediate aftermath of the White House unveiling, Netanyahu announced that Israel would move immediately to annex the Jordan Valley and its West Bank settlements. Within 24 hours, the hopes that the prime minister had raised on the Israeli right were dashed as Kushner moved to block Netanyahu, bluntly stating that the administration opposed any immediate annexation or moves before the 2 March elections. Netanyahu was forced this week to row back and say there would be no steps until a new government is in place after the elections.
But delay looks likely to cost Netanyahu dear. As Haaretz columnist Yossi Verter argued last weekend, the prime minister must now explain himself to his disappointed electoral base – the settlers, the Likud right and his allies in the Yamina bloc: “The false hope he has given them was replaced with painful disillusionment. The mania turned to depression. The goal became an own goal.” Defence minister and Yamina head, Naftali Bennett, voiced the fear of many: “What is put off until to after the election won’t happen, we all understand that.”
For the Israeli right, there is another angle, too. Under Trump’s plan, in order to annex the West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, they have to accept the prospect – however distant – of something they have long resisted: a Palestinian state.
For Netanyahu, the weeks remaining until polling day could be perilous, political commentator Anshel Pfeffer has suggested. “If annexation is put on indefinite hold, Israelis will have more time to pay attention to the allegations against their prime minister,” he wrote. “Hard-right voters will be disappointed in his kowtowing to the Americans on this, while more moderate right-wingers, who could be persuaded to vote for someone like [opposition leader Benny] Gantz, will begin to ask whether a leader mired in a corruption case can even be trusted to handle the diplomatic opportunity that Trump has granted Israel.”
As a means to regain the votes of the 300,000 Likud and right-wing voters who backed Netanyahu in April 2019, but abandoned the prime minister five months later, the Trump peace plan appears to be falling short. Even in the immediate aftermath of the president’s announcement, opinion polls suggested that the centrist Blue and White opposition party headed by Benny Gantz remains narrowly ahead and Netanyahu no clearer to assembling the Knesset majority that has eluded him for the past year.
Gantz himself is determined to dampen any political benefit that Netanyahu might accrue. He has opposed immediate annexation and, while welcoming Trump’s proposals, suggested that he wouldn’t act in the unilateral manner Netanyahu is proposing. “I will advance the plan immediately after elections,” he stated last week, “in full coordination with the governments of the US, Jordan, Egypt, others in the region and the Palestinians.”
Gantz’s potential coalition partners on the left have also signalled a more cautious approach. Former leadership contender and senior Labor MK Itzik Shmuli labelled the prime minister’s plans “the fraud of the century.” “The immediate annexation of wide territories and isolated settlements, that do not contribute to security, negates the important recognition of the two-state solution, rejects any chance to achieve separation and will bring about the fatal demand for a single state, which contradicts our national and security interests,” he argued.
No, No, No: the view from Ramallah and beyond
Given the content of the plan, the Palestinians’ rejection of it was both swift and predictable. Mahmoud Abbas called Trump’s proposals the “slap of the century” and pledged to consign them to “the dustbins of history”. “We say a thousand times: No, no and no to the ‘deal of the century,’” the president said when the proposals were published.
Abbas has since threatened to cut all ties, including, crucially, security cooperation, with Israel. This coordination ranges from information-sharing about terrorist cells in the West Bank to coordination between police forces.
However, the president has repeatedly made such threats without carrying them through and subsequently appeared to moderate his stance. Security cooperation thus currently remains in place.
The Palestinians’ rejection of the US proposals has been echoed by the unanimous rejection of the Arab League and the subsequent opposition of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Fear of Iranian expansionism has driven a reshaping of attitudes towards the Jewish state among some Arab states who do not yet recognise Israel. This, however, may be put at risk if Netanyahu continues to pursue efforts to unilateral annexation efforts. As two veteran US peace process negotiators, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, warned last week: “Many of the region’s leaders now believe that, if the United States retreats from the Mideast, Israel is not only a necessary bulwark against the threats Arab states face but also a potentially useful ally. Unfortunately, the willingness of … Netanyahu to push annexation for his near-term political benefit could damage the emerging alignment between Israel and the Arab states. Arab leaders certainly won’t want to look as though they are even indirectly helping Israel take what they consider to be Palestinian territory.”
A chance for two states?
Does the Trump plan, however one-sided and politically motivated, offer anything by way of comfort for supporters of a two-state solution? Noa Landau of Haaretz believes that, beyond Netanyahu’s rush to annexation, a shift has occurred which may later have profound effects. “Looked at from another, longer-term angle … something else interesting happened on Tuesday: Large portions of the Israeli right effectively renounced the dream of retaining the entire Land of Israel. In principle, they accepted the idea of dividing it in exchange for 30 percent of the West Bank. This in-principle recognition that it’s actually possible to accept a diplomatic deal that divides the land if it’s just good enough is important for the more distant future. Because now, it’s clear everyone understands that the argument isn’t about whether a Palestinian state should arise alongside Israel, but only at what price.”