Foreign Affairs / March 6, 2020
The Palestinians should propose an alternative to Trump’s Plan.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s [so-called] Middle East peace plan, released on January 28, marks the effective end of the Oslo era of Palestinian-Israeli peace-making. It makes no reference to international law or to a mutually binding commitment to international resolutions aimed at ending the conflict. It ignores the commitments made by both sides under existing agreements, and it builds on none of the progress made by American, Israeli, and Palestinian negotiators over the past 20 years. Instead, it proposes a real estate transaction: Israel receives a large chunk of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, and the Palestinians receive financial compensation; their vital needs for sovereignty and for independence are, among other things, disregarded.
Although Trump’s plan pays lip service to a two-state solution, it gives Israel control of Jerusalem as its “undivided” capital and control over security in the West Bank. It allows Israel to annex 30 percent of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, turning the Palestinian entity into several unconnected enclaves inside the state of Israel. It rejects the principle of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and gives Israel veto power over their resettlement in the Palestinian entity.
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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the deal outright and later threatened to sever relations with Israel in protest. Any other response would have discredited the leadership of the already unpopular PA and ensured a public backlash against it. Yet Abbas’s denunciation of the deal was apparently not emphatic enough for the Palestinian public: by early February, Abbas’s approval rating had declined five points, to a measly 37 percent satisfaction rate. But because the U.S. plan was designed to be implemented with or without a Palestinian partner, Abbas’s response didn’t matter anyway; the deal was rigged to ensure the Palestinians’ failure, regardless of their response.
Damned if he does
Abbas can’t accept the U.S. plan as a basis for negotiations without risking unrest and possibly removal. But he can end relations with Israel only if he is willing to risk the collapse of the PA and the eruption of Palestinian-Israeli violence. His threat to sever relations with Israel lacks credibility; over the past decade, Abbas has made similar threats, and Israel’s leaders have called his bluff each time.
Abbas probably hopes the threat will buy him time to calm the angry Palestinian public. February polls show that 94 percent of Palestinians reject the plan and that support for the two-state solution has declined to 39 percent, the lowest since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. Difficult compromises that received tangible support in the past—including land swaps, refugee resettlement, the sharing of Jerusalem’s Old City, and special security arrangements in the Jordan Valley—are increasingly becoming taboo because they are now associated with Trump and his plan.
Admittedly, public opinion among the Palestinians and the Israelis was not a force for peace before Trump’s plan was announced; now, however, it is increasingly becoming an impediment to peace. On the Israeli side, Trump’s plan emboldens the Israeli right wing and creates greater expectations that a peace plan must meet Israel’s maximum, rather than minimum, demands on all issues related to the conflict. On the Palestinian side, the demand for a one-state solution had already begun to intensify as a result of settlement expansion, the turn toward right-wing politics in Israel, the rise of Hamas, and the failure of the Palestinian leadership to effectively challenge the status quo; as of February, 61 percent of Palestinians thought that the two-state solution was no longer feasible, and 37 percent favoured abandoning the idea and demanding a one-state solution instead.
Over the last 15 years, Palestinian violence against Israel has been kept under control, particularly in the West Bank. Public rejection of violence by the Palestinians, the rebuilding of a highly effective PA security sector that has cooperated with the Israeli army and security services to enforce order, and the elimination of Hamas’s military infrastructure in the West Bank have all helped keep the peace. But the demand for violence among the Palestinians is likely to increase once the U.S. plan is implemented. Already, the February poll findings show that 64 percent of Palestinians would support violence as an answer to the Trump plan. The annexation of Palestinian territory, large-scale settlement construction and the expansion of existing settlements in areas already annexed by Israel, and the change in the status quo in Jerusalem are just a few of the measures put forth in the plan that are likely to increase support among the Palestinians for violence. These developments will probably trigger the militarization of Fatah, or at least of its youth movement, and the rebuilding of Hamas’s military infrastructure. Organized and sustained violence will most likely follow.
This grim future is not inevitable. On the Palestinian side, Abbas and his Arab allies can respond to Trump’s plan with a detailed joint counterproposal, one that builds on the progress already achieved in past rounds of negotiations and in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and one that benefits from the covert Israeli-Arab coalition-building efforts of the past three years. Nurtured by the Trump administration, these efforts were triggered by a rising Arab concern, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, about the regional threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a concern strongly shared by Israel. The cooperation achieved during these discussions may boost confidence and help reduce Israel’s concerns about withdrawing its army from the West Bank.
The Trump plan’s disregard for previous progress made during Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is no accident. Those who designed the plan seem to have concluded that concessions made by Israel in previous rounds of negotiations between 2000 and 2014, including those made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are unacceptable to American evangelicals and to right-wing pro-Israel supporters of the Trump administration. Furthermore, the plan demands more concessions from the Palestinians, some of which were not seen as vital to previous Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s government. Now, more than ever, Netanyahu’s political survival depends on support from Israel’s most extreme national-religious settlers and ultra-Orthodox political parties.
A Palestinian counterproposal
It is therefore essential that the Palestinian side outlines areas of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreement. The Palestinian counterproposal should build on existing documents, such as the Clinton parameters (the compromises laid out, in December 2000, by U.S. President Bill Clinton), as well as the 2008 paper drafted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, documenting the progress and areas of disagreement between the two sides during the Annapolis process. The counterproposal must also identify Palestinian vital needs in the areas in which disagreement exists—for example, on the size and locations of the territorial swap—and explain why the Palestinian positions in these areas pose no threat to Israel’s vital needs. In coordination with the major Arab countries, the Palestinian leadership should outline a detailed timetable and framework for a regional vision of peace that integrates Israel into the region’s political, economic, and security infrastructure. This element of the joint Palestinian-Arab response should provide a narrative illustrating the direct benefits of peace to Israel and the region.
Such a response would likely find support among Israelis who seek to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. It would also likely find support in Europe and among Democrats in the United States. A Democratic U.S. president, if one is elected later this year, could put the Trump plan aside, lay out a new proposal for bridging the gap between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and provide a more even-handed U.S. policy to resolve the conflict. In contrast, Trump’s re-election would probably doom any chance for Palestinian-Israeli peace, particularly if the next Israeli government is controlled by the right-wing Likud Party and its more extreme partners among the religious parties. In such a scenario, the PA would have no choice but to embark on a gradual process of dissolution, leading eventually to an irreversible, de facto one-state reality.
Khalil Shikaki is Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah