On Tuesday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beaming beside him, President Donald Trump finally unveiled his “Deal of the Century” for Israel and the Palestinians.
This was more than an attempt to draw attention away from Trump’s impeachment and Netanyahu’s indictment, which was announced earlier the same day. While the announcement of the deal was intended to serve that purpose, its impact is going to be much greater.
This plan is constructed to ensure Palestinian rejection, and therefore many of its stipulations will never be implemented. But the plan’s real goals are to establish a new diplomatic frame of reference to replace the obsolete Oslo Accords; to establish Israeli annexation of settlements as an Israeli prerogative; and to maintain the U.S.’s role as sole arbiter of the conflict, even if it diminishes its own role in the region. It is very likely to succeed at these goals, and the happy acceptance of the “Deal of the Century” not only by Netanyahu but also by his primary political opponent, former Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Benny Gantz, is going to make it very difficult politically for any future U.S. president to completely reverse what Trump has accomplished.
Dropping the pretense of balance
Trump’s plan features many points that are not entirely unfamiliar but reflect heightened indifference to Palestinian concerns. For example, the plan addresses the idea of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem by providing that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel, while the capital of Palestine “should be in the section of East Jerusalem located in all areas east and north of the existing security barrier, including Kafr Aqab, the eastern part of Shuafat and Abu Dis, and could be named Al Quds or another name as determined by the State of Palestine.”
The idea of a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis and other small towns on the outskirts of Jerusalem has been in the air for decades. Palestinians roundly rejected this notion, and they reiterated that rejection when this aspect of the plan leaked in 2018. Israel, of course, finds this more than workable. These villages, part of Greater Jerusalem, do not carry the significance of the city itself.
In a more subtle move, the Trump plan contains a hidden gift to the radical Israeli right. Although it states that the status quo in Jerusalem—whereby Jews may visit the Temple Mount during specific times, but may not pray there — is to be maintained, it also declares that people of all faiths be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, something which is a fierce desire of certain radical Jews (although many Jewish religious authorities say it is forbidden under Jewish law for Jews to even enter the Temple Mount), but has been forbidden since Israel captured the area in 1967.
Another ambition of parts of the Israeli right has been the transfer of the Arab-Israeli towns of the so-called Triangle to Palestinian rule, thus reducing the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel. This goal is accentuated now that the largely Palestinian Joint List coalition has grown more important in Israeli politics. Trump’s plan would transfer the Triangle towns to Palestinian rule in a future Palestinian state. The transfer would be “subject to agreement of the parties,” — i.e. the Israeli and nascent Palestinian governments — but, apparently, not the agreement of the Israeli citizens who live there. Plans like this one have been proposed in the past, chiefly by the notoriously anti-Palestinian former minister, Avigdor Liberman, and have been sharply rejected by Palestinians in and outside of Israel.
Every final status issue is decided in the Trump plan in Israel’s favor. Palestinian refugees, much like prior U.S. ideas, would not be allowed back to Israel. They would receive compensation from some amorphous global fund unlikely to yield very much, and would be pressed to remain in camps for years while their fates are sorted out between the host countries (who largely don’t want them there), a new Palestinian state (which, according to this plan, couldn’t possibly accommodate the vast majority of them) and other Muslim countries which the U.S. would try to pressure into accepting this scheme.
The main feature of the Trump plan is that it gives its blessing to permanent Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and of all the settlements in the West Bank. Indeed, a feature that Trump repeatedly harped on is that his plan would not force a single “Jew or Arab” from their current homes. There is no mention of citizenship for Palestinians of the Jordan Valley, so presumably their status would remain unchanged, particularly in light of the fact that the plan does envision that “existing agricultural enterprises owned or controlled by Palestinians shall continue without interruption or discrimination.”
The absorption of the settlements will turn the small amount of territory left to the Palestinians into a scattered assemblage of islands adrift in a sea of Israeli territory, barely connected by a thin network of bridges and tunnels. The Palestinian “state” would be demilitarized, and at the mercy of a country that occupied it brutally for over half a century. Israel would have complete security control over all the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Palestinians would be equipped only enough to police their crumbs of territory.
No Promise of a State
During his speech, Trump referred to this plan as a two-state solution. But there is no commitment to a Palestinian state. Instead, the plan lays out a series of conditions the Palestinians must meet. Moreover, Israel and the United States would decide whether these conditions have been met. That alone would have been enough for the Palestinians to reject the plan. The insult of having the state which has dispossessed the Palestinian people and held millions of Palestinians without rights for more than five decades deciding if they “deserve” a state is an obvious non-starter.
But the conditions are clearly constructed to fail. For example, the demands include establishing a Palestinian constitution (a standard Israel itself would not be able to meet, as it has none) or some similar mechanism to guarantee rights for citizens of Palestine. This is supposed to happen in the four-year period that is set aside for negotiations, during which Israel would freeze all settlement expansion, according to the deal. That is an untenable time frame, given the ongoing occupation and the fracturing of Palestinian politics.
The Trump plan also demands that Palestinians establish democratic structures including an independent judiciary as well as “transparent, independent, and credit-worthy financial institutions capable of engaging in international market transactions in the same manner as financial institutions of western democracies” that meet International Monetary Fund standards. Again, this would be impossible under occupation, where the Palestinian economy depends on international aid, which is inconsistent with building a self-sustaining and stable economy.
The plan demands that Palestinians halt “incitement” in textbooks, an accusation which has been shown to be grossly inflated by independent research. A report in September by a group affiliated with the Israeli settlement movement unsurprisingly came to a different conclusion, keeping the controversy alive.
The Trump plan further demands that Palestinians cease “compensat[ing] or incentiviz[ing] criminal or violent activity.” This refers to a fund that compensates Palestinian families who lose members to Israeli violence or arrests, some of whom have committed potentially or actually lethal acts, but many of whom have not.
Finally, there is an open-ended demand that Palestinians comply with “all the other terms and conditions” of the plan.
Palestinian rejection of these conditions is a certainty, but Israeli acceptance with broad public support will mean the Trump plan is likely to be a diplomatic reality for years to come.