Trump’s ‘deal’ has made things even worse than they were
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former prime minister, are due to meet at the United Nations in New York in the coming days to express their joint opposition to President Donald Trump’s controversial “deal of the century” to bring about an end to the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict.
The Trump plan, unveiled in the White House on January 28, has been widely condemned as likely to worsen relations between Israelis and Palestinians. It calls for the annexation by Israel of the Jordan Valley, the application of Israeli law to the settlements it has built since 1967 and for a Palestinian state broken up into disconnected enclaves – Bantustans - with its capital in the dreary East Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis.
That Palestinian “state” in the West Bank – inverted commas are necessary to underline how meaningless the term is – will be connected to the Gaza Strip by a tunnel. Its truncated territory will be compensated for partially by Israeli ceding agricultural land in the Negev desert south of Gaza. The “state” will be demilitarized and Israel will continue to control its external borders, airspace and territorial waters. Hamas in Gaza must disarm.
And that is not all! The Palestinians will be required to recognise Israel formally as a Jewish state and curb payments to the families of martyrs and prisoners. In addition, Palestinian citizens of Israel (adjoining the West Bank) may be pressured to move to the new “state.” No refugees will be permitted to return to homes and land that were lost in the Nakba of 1948, even symbolically.
Trump’s deal, prepared by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, reads like a fantasy wish list of the Israeli right. (Kushner’s boast that he had read 25 books on the conflict did not convince anyone that he had any idea what he was talking about.) The president clearly saw it as a helpful distraction from his impeachment proceedings (shortly before his acquittal) and allowing him to boast to his Christian Evangelical supporters that he had done so much for Israel.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to face corruption charges while in office, who beamed with undisguised pleasure during the White House event, may be protected and boosted by his moment of glory. Whether he will win the country’s third election in early March (after two inconclusive ones last year) is hard to predict.
Reactions have been understandably angry, but it is important to place the plan in historical perspective. Trump’s deal was launched nearly six years after the last peace talks between the two sides. In March 2014, John Kerry, secretary of state in Barack Obama’s second term, threw in the towel after months of shuttling between Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem and Abbas’s in Ramallah. Obama is rightly criticised by Palestinians for not applying sufficient pressure to the Israeli side. But at least he tried to be fair within familiar constraints!
The Twitterer-in-chief in the Oval Office makes no such claim. His “plan” (inverted commas are entirely justified here too!) is the culmination of a series of moves that show open bias towards Israel and hostility to the Palestinians – from the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the closure of the PLO mission in Washington, recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights to the slashing of aid to the refugee agency UNRWA.
The danger is not that the US “plan” will be implemented: the adamant refusal on the Palestinian side, with the unified support of the Arab League means that it is a non-starter. But it may well alter future expectations by shifting the parameters of the issue to downgrade Palestinian hopes of a sovereign and viable state (without the inverted commas) to something closer to autonomy under continued Israeli control.
The risk for Israel, as Olmert warned (as he also did when he was still prime minister from 2006-2008) is that if the Trump deal were implemented it would turn his country into an “apartheid” state like South Africa in the bad old days, attracting increasing international opprobrium. Annexing all the West Bank settlements was the opposite of what Israel should be doing – which, he said, is “to separate ourselves from controlling the Palestinians.”
By Olmert’s own account he and Abbas came close to striking a deal of their own in September 2008. Israel’s prime minister showed the Palestinian president a map but refused to hand it over to him. Abbas sketched the map on a napkin, saying he was unable to decide and needed to consult his colleagues. Olmert urged him to take the pen and sign on the spot because they did not have the option of not resolving the conflict. The historical evidence is unclear. Yet when they meet in New York they will surely look back ruefully at a missed opportunity. Now things are much grimmer. Peace, equality and national self-determination for the two peoples who are doomed to share the land between the river and sea look more remote than ever.