The National / February 3, 2020
Whether Donald Trump wins re-election in November or not, Israel is already setting about the annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Last week, US President Donald Trump announced his peace plan and world leaders, he said at the White House ceremony, were calling him nonstop to get on board.
But the only one he could name was “Boris”; we assume he means Britain’s prime minister.
Reactions to the plan around the world have been markedly formulaic.
Some countries have welcomed the initiative, provided it leads to a resumption of the long-dead negotiations to end the Palestinian-Israel conflict – although it won’t, as Palestinians have already roundly rejected it.
The same countries have said they support “any effort to achieve a just and comprehensive peace”.
They say it is a “good starting point”.
In diplomatic speak, this is all holding copy. Filler.
The statements from around the world were the diplomatic equivalent of a smile and a nod at Mr Trump without any intention to act. They have more to do with the countries’ relations with America than their view of Palestine.
Sadly, unless there is a war in Gaza, the international community no longer prioritises the peace process or the occupation of Palestine. That was laid bare when 110 Gazans were killed and thousands wounded by Israeli soldiers between March 30 and May 15, 2018, during protests against Mr Trump moving the embassy to Jerusalem. The reactions in Europe and elsewhere were statements of concern and calls not to use excessive force even as Israeli snipers shot children and a doctor treating the wounded.
On the flip side, few countries seem willing to praise a plan that was drafted by America and Israel without consulting any Palestinians. A plan that supposedly resolves the questions of Israeli settlements and Jerusalem before talks have even begun. And a plan that only offers Palestinians vague promises of a state under US-monitored conditions.
For many states, keeping the Trump administration on your side is of the utmost importance. Since he took office in early 2017, Mr Trump has blasted old allies and cosied up with historic rivals. He has waged a trade war with China and tried to bully NATO partners to stump up more cash.
But one thing is clear to anyone looking to master the art of making deals with Mr Trump – flattery is a valuable chip.
No world leader has pulled this off quite to the same extent as Mr Netanyahu. This American president is the “best friend Israel has ever had in White House”, Mr Netanyahu said as he spoke at the peace plan announcement. His address devoted whole paragraphs to praising Mr Trump’s administration, Mr Trump’s policies and Mr Trump himself.
The strategy paid off. According to Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the peace plan “is 100 per cent the ideas I personally heard many times from Netanyahu and his negotiators”.
Mr Erekat went further in his statement last Wednesday. “I can assure you that the American so-called peace team have only copied and pasted Netanyahu’s and the settlers’ councils’ plan, and also demanded statements of appreciation from some states,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu’s flattery and praise, along with a White House team filled with ideologues rather than experts, gave a prime minster fighting not only for his job but to stay out of prison, his dream peace plan.
The Israeli leader is not alone in using flattery to stay on Mr Trump’s radar.
Mr Johnson got his name check in the announcement. The UK prime minister then reciprocated the next day in Parliament, rejecting criticism of the plan from the British opposition and urging Palestinians to engage with the US.
The UK prime minister has courted Mr Trump and it seems to have paid off – the American commander in chief has lots of good things to say about the divisive UK leader in return. But why is Mr Johnson so concerned about the opinion of the US president? With the UK having left the European Union last Friday, the government is desperate for a good trade deal with America to kick-start its vision for what it bills as an outwardly facing, international business-focused UK.
On the European continent, countries and the bloc itself are more likely to stand together and have strength in numbers so can afford to be less effusive. In European capitals, the statements have been typically bland, even when calling for talks to start from the long-established point of a two-state solution on the basis of 1967 borders.
On The National’s Beyond the Headlines podcast, Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that the “tranquil” statements from European states had more to do with relations with the Trump administration than Palestine.
“These relations, which are predicated on common security concerns, I think, have priority over the Palestinian issue,” he said. Simply, in Brussels, issues like Iranian missiles and fighting ISIS are of more importance than a Palestinian state.
In Beijing, the view is simply that any peace plan has to start from the basis laid down in UN resolutions – appearing to a call for a return to past efforts but in effect saying very little of substance.
At an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on Monday, the body affirmed commitment to “solutions based on international resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative”. Countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia reaffirmed their commitment to the Palestinian cause. It too simply called for solutions based on the old approach.
Moscow has perhaps issued the most interesting response yet by making almost no mention of the proposal, even as President Vladimir Putin hosted a triumphant Mr Netanyahu on his return from Washington. In the joint news conference, Mr Putin simply did not mention the plan even as Mr Netanyahu talked almost exclusively about it.
On Sunday, five days after the announcement, Russian news agencies cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: “We see the reaction of a wide range of Arab states which have sided with the Palestinians in rejecting the plan. This, obviously, makes one think about its feasibility.”
No concerns then in the Kremlin about the opinions of Mr Trump. Russia, it seems, is more focused on relations in the region that in the West.
But, many in Brussels, Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East will probably be hoping that – now the long-delayed plan is out – Mr Trump will move on. Faced with a looming 2020 election and fresh from an impeachment inquiry, the president has a busy year ahead.
With Palestinians unlikely to agree to a sit-down, the peace talks aspect of a settlement is stuck.
Many are simply happy to issue statements that Mr Trump could read as praise but say very little while they bide their time to see who wins the 2020 election. A change in the White House in November will probably consign the Trump plan to a brief footnote in history.
But if Mr Trump wins again and he remains focused on implementing his deal, then countries will need to start taking a stance, be that for or against. Only then will the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process be back on the international agenda.
Worryingly though for Palestinians, Israel is already setting about the annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley and solidifying the existing reality of occupation into permanence. Indeed, Mr Trump has already recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the occupation of the Golan Heights.
Biding time in the international community leaves Palestinians alone to face the darkening future.
James Haines-Young is the foreign editor at The National