February 27, 2020

Five Comments on Trump’s Revolutionary Peace Plan

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump is expected to release details of his administration's long-awaited Middle East peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Here are 5 quick comments on a peace plan like no other before it, or, as President Trump defined it, a “fundamentally different” plan. More news to follow in the coming hours and days. 

1. What’s in the Trump peace plan? Two important items (and “peace” is not one of them). 

Important item number one: Israel must agree to a Palestinian State. Small, demilitarized, but a state. 

Even more important item number two: This Palestinian State no longer means an evacuation of settlements or an Israeli withdrawal from territory it deems crucial for its security or for symbolic reasons. In fact, the opposite is true: Israel can quickly annex the rest of the territory. 

2. All peace plans pose the same dilemma to Israel and its neighbors: Is this the best deal the sides can hope for, or maybe they ought to wait for a better option, in some unknown, distant future? 

The Palestinians have no doubt: The future will be better than the present. They could be right. Although, it is worth remembering that they relied on the same math when they rejected all previous peace plans. 

Israel faces a true moment of choice this time. In return for the many advantages this plan offers compared to all previous plans, would Israel accept, on principle, that the Palestinians deserve to get something that they can call a “state”? I assume the answer is likely to be a resounding yes.

3. A few days ago, under the headline “Deal of the Century: First Take on Next Week’s Drama”, I also listed some of the items that ought to be looked at when the plan is revealed. Let’s look at them one by one:

Is there a hint of any Right of Return for Palestinians? Answer: No. Israel can be pleased.

Is there a need to evacuate Israeli settlements, and how many? No. Maybe some outposts, not “real” settlements. Some settlers are going to oppose this item nonetheless, because they cannot accept the idea of a Palestinian state. 

Is the 1967 line the reference for a future border? No. Trump proved once again that he does not feel obligated to follow the orthodoxy of peace making based on 1967. As I wrote when Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights: “It is the final nail in the coffin of the 1967 line — the armistice line that separated Israel from its neighbors before the Six Days War. More than 50 years since this line was crossed by the Israeli military, we can finally kiss it goodbye.”

Does the plan let Israel keep the Jordan Valley? Yes. The question now becomes one of operational meaning: Israel can annex the area immediately with the blessing of the Americans, but does Israel want to do it amid Jordanian objection (the timing is an issue on which Netanyahu and Gantz disagree)? 

What does the plan say about Gaza? That as long as Hamas controls it, Gaza will not enjoy any of the benefits proposed in the plan. And since the plan does not propose a clear way for changing the Gaza situation, this could mean a very long time. 

What does it say about the involvement of Arab countries in the peace process? The plan builds on Arab support. Trump was optimistic that such support is forthcoming. Israel – more grounded in reality – probably knows that the Arab world is likely to take a wait-and-see approach to this whole process. Its leaders would want to see what Netanyahu is doing, if Trump wins reelection, how the situation on the ground evolves. Until they get a clearer picture of possible outcomes, most Arab leaders will stay on the sidelines (but if they don’t – if they support the plan – it would be a dramatic development).

4. Most Israeli leaders up until now did not think that a Palestinian state is a viable, nor a desirable idea. Then again, as Prime Minister Netanyahu mused in a meeting with the leaders of the settlement movement, “what is a state?”. The Trump plan offers the Palestinians something that they can call a state. Israel would have to call it a state out of respect. Basically, the deal offered to Israel is this: accept a symbolic statement of statehood in exchange for an arrangement that includes almost everything you need and want.

The deal includes: jurisdiction over territory that does not include Palestinians; self-rule for the Palestinians to prevent a one-state reality; all security needs met (including control over all borders and passages); Old Jerusalem under Israel’s control (again, with a symbolic Palestinian jurisdiction over areas in east Jerusalem that mean little). And the most important thing: No more waiting for Palestinian acceptance. Israel can move forward and establish its future borders with or without Palestinian cooperation.

5. What if it’s all a political ploy to assist Netanyahu in the third election (March 2nd)? Today, Netanyahu withdrew his immunity request and the indictment against him is moving forward in the court system. He is in a binding political situation, and many observers suspected, with understandable reason, that this was the main or only reason for the sudden release of the Trump plan at this time. They might be right, or wrong, in two ways. One: I do not think this was the only reason for the early release (but was surely a factor). Two: It is not at all clear that the release of the plan helps Netanyahu. 

Consider how it could help and hurt him.

Help: He gets credit for seizing the moment and establishing great relations with a sympathetic US administration; he makes the plan, rather than his upcoming corruption trial, the main issue of the coming election; he puts pressure on Gantz to join him in a unity government that could implement the plan (and complicated his way for a coalition based on the Arab party’s support). 

Hurt: It could strengthen the rightwing Yamina at the expense of Likud (voters who oppose the plan); it could give Arab voters an incentive to vote (against the plan – and him); it made Gantz, who also visited Washington, look like a leader; it proved that Blue and White is not a leftist party (they support the plan).

But ultimately, there is a very good chance that the plan will not matter, politically speaking. For about a year now, the polls show an unchanged picture of voters who already made up their minds. No crisis or maneuver significantly altered their principled preference – for or against Netanyahu. There is reason to suspect that the Trump deal will have the same effect. That is, no effect on the governing coalition in Israel.