It would be nice to dismiss White House announcement on Israel/Palestine on Tuesday as simply a scam, offering more material to political satirists and comedy writers than to policymakers and conflict resolution practitioners in the Middle East. Nothing to see here, move on.
The timing hardly adds to the seriousness of the equation with President Trump in the midst of an impeachment trial, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having an indictment filed against him on Tuesday by the Israeli Attorney General on three corruption cases for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. To round it off, the key protagonists invited to discuss the plan with Trump, were, wait for it, the leaders of Israel’s main ruling and opposition parties. Not a Palestinian in sight.
One could also dismiss today’s festivities on the grounds that it changes nothing — Israel will be in control just as it is today and will still have no answer for what to do with millions of Palestinians. Those Palestinians will remain stateless and without basic freedoms or rights, no more willing to accept that permanent enslavement than they are today.
When the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv and recognized Israel’s claims in Jerusalem, there was no international stampede to follow suit. Nothing changed in Jerusalem — the approximately 350,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites are still there, still part of the reality of the urban fabric of that city, still awaiting representation and equality.
But this is about more than the Israeli right and center managing to reach understandings with the Republican Party. The plan announced today cannot be so easily dismissed.
The long document released today is nothing short of an American declaration of war against the Palestinians, which is likely to have serious and long-lasting consequences. Contempt for the very humanity of Palestinians seeps from every page of a plan that is intentionally designed to be rejected by one side in order to provide cover for Israel to move forward with its own maximalist intentions.
Except this is not actually an American plan at all. It is a move that takes to a whole new level America handing its own national security over to unreliable allies who harbor their own interests, often at odds with those of the U.S.
For this plan is nothing more than the rehashing and rebranding of a proposal Netanyahu offered in a speech more than a decade ago at Bar-Ilan University, shortly after he resumed the office of the premiership in 2009 and from which he has not budged ever since. Go back and read that speech. The narrative is the same narrative and the parameters are the same parameters, updated to reflect Netanyahu’s confidence in assuming even more extremist positions.
The core elements of the Netanyahu plan were all on display: A Palestinian entity that can be called a state but is de facto nothing of the sort; recognition and legitimacy being accorded only to Jewish rights and historic claims; nothing to address the Palestinian experience or Palestinian rights, notably including those of the refugees; no withdrawal of settlements; exclusive Israeli control; and a focus on economic peace and projects for regional normalization.
The plan served to crystallize a White House policy that had already been implemented over the past three years with the embassy relocation to Jerusalem, the endorsement of settlement annexation and redefining of the U.S. position on the settlements, the de-funding of the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), and the de-recognition of Palestinian national representation with the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, DC.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Trump is applying a distinctively Marxist approach to Israel/Palestine, heightening the contradictions and sharpening the tensions, not between labor and capital as Karl Marx foretold would be the fate of late stage capitalism, but rather, in accelerating the fundamental choices that confront Israelis, Palestinians and Americans.
The plan is intended to shake things up, and that is likely to be achieved, just perhaps not in the way its architects envisaged. The international reaction may have been soft, a mixture of supportive politeness and skepticism, that is a consequence of this era in which every country has to manage its own challenges and equities with a U.S. administration prone to unprecedented acts of Mafia-style bullying and illogical and unpredictable treatment of friend and foe alike. Nevertheless, make no mistake, this plan is intended to be a game- changer.
Attempts to depict these proposals as making hard asks of both sides are willfully dishonest. Only things that Israel has already agreed to and even implemented are requested of it — in the meantime, Israel can essentially build in the Occupied Territories wherever it has displayed an interest in doing so, continue to demolish Palestinian homes (just under new pretexts), and exclude from Jerusalem those parts it has already positioned outside of its unilateral separation barrier/wall. In the future envisaged by the plan, Israel can continue to enjoy control over security everywhere, extend its sovereignty wherever it has shown a desire to do so, maintain control of air space and territorial waters, implement the political transfer of some of its Palestinian citizenry, receive economic rewards for its crimes, and continue to act as judge and jury on Palestinian performance.
The edifice of a quarter-century-long peace process was already fragile, rather discredited on all sides and perhaps even collapsing beyond repair. Trump has now taken a sledgehammer to that process. Perhaps the exposure of the peace process in all its inadequacies is overdue, but, in replacing it with the vision of Israel’s hardliners and the permanent disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, there will be consequences for all parties, including the Americans.
The center of gravity of the Israeli political debate has for some years now been less between doves and hawks and more a tactical disagreement on how far and how fast to go within a consensus around permanent Israeli control over Palestinian territories and the evisceration of any genuine two-state option.
The competing camps pit the gradualists — in favor of incrementally extending the matrix of control over Palestinians under cover of a peace process — against the impatient camp. That second grouping — the annexationist and victory-now camp — has become empowered and gained pre-eminence under Trump and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, alongside the influence of key Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, and the pro-settler Evangelical base. Their immediate concern is that the opportunity that exists under Trump may expire after November’s U.S. election or even sooner if Netanyahu falls from power and Gantz urges a more gradualist and cautious approach. Hence, their push to have this plan released now — even if they quibble over the details, for mostly tactical reasons.
The boost that the extremist Israeli position has received also carries destabilizing implications for Jordan and implicitly contains the seed of an expulsionist future logic vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Following today’s U.S. announcement, the victory-now camp is ready to go for broke. Netanyahu’s promise, within hours of the U.S. plan’s release, to immediately extend Israeli sovereignty over Israeli settlements, is a signal of that. But this risks bringing the heightened contradictions inside Israel, to possibly a breaking point.
For the subjugation of the Palestinians only works until the day it works no longer. When that moment comes, if, as in any conflict, the more powerful party has left itself with no off-ramp, no exit strategy, then it poses a potentially existential problem. By annexing territory, Israel is formalizing the apartheid regime warned against by two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Israel is burning that off-ramp in irreversible ways and now with unprecedented encouragement from the Trump administration, which is not known for strategic thinking.
For the Palestinians, the negative clarity on display in Washington DC throws an already harsh dilemma into even sharper relief. The PLO accepting a state on 22 percent of the historic land, less than half of what was designated by the U.N. Partition Plan, was already a painful and controversial concession. Even that shrunken state of Palestine is no longer on offer; rather, a patchwork of Bantustans with no sovereignty and under permanent Israeli control. This naturally will accelerate the internal Palestinian debate over what to do next.
With a viable Palestinian state now taken off the table by the U.S., the already ascendant position among Palestinians — of striving for equal rights within the one political space that Israel has created and engaging in popular civil resistance — is likely to gain further traction. After Tuesday’s announcement, the idea that there can be a Palestinian strategy based on Washington delivering Israel for a dignified two-state peace deal belongs to the realm of fantastical delusion.
The U.S. may have exacerbated the power imbalance further in Israel’s favor but it will not have compelled Palestinians to abandon their own rights and freedoms. No people give up its yearning for dignity and equality. The conclusion likely to be drawn over time is that those goals will have to be pursued utilizing new strategies, new tools and with a new destination in mind. The Palestinian leadership may continue to issue tired and hollow political threats to close the Palestinian Authority or end security cooperation, while effectively maintaining a status-quo posture. But the moment when Palestinians go beyond that and embrace a strategy of disruption has surely been hastened.
Finally, America is facing the denouement of its own attempt to straddle unwavering support for Israel with a supposed interest in peace-making. The current White House team may see Washington’s interest as aligning with anti-democratic, hard-line forces globally and abandoning a multilateral and rules-based international order – whether in the Middle East or beyond. But that is a proposition unlikely to serve America in the long term.
If and when America returns to a different approach, it will still be hard to ignore the contradictions exposed under Trump. On one level, Trump’s plan is an extreme departure from previous U.S. positions. On yet another, however, it lays bare the fundamental contradiction that has long been at the heart of U.S. policy. By enabling Israeli impunity, by offering Israel cover even as Israel was violating the very policies America claimed to support, the U.S. was undermining its own two-state vision.
American complicity in not holding Israel accountable for preventing peace has not only stymied any honest political conversation inside Israel about the choices it faces. Itt also has guaranteed that there cannot be progress, whether towards an eventual agreement of two sovereign states or, if that is beyond redemption, to a future dispensation guaranteeing equal rights for all.
The farce of constantly allowing Israel to create new realities on the ground, even when they clearly defy U.S. policy, and of then insisting the Palestinians accept and recalibrate their positions accordingly has been exposed in all its absurdity by the Trump plan. America will soon discover how well its interests are served by owning the sponsorship rights to the Sparta settler state of Greater Israel that it has just endorsed.