Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan, explained

President Donald Trump claims his peace plan for Israel and Palestine will prove to be a triumph that will last for the next 80 years. But it’s unclear whether it will be viable for even 80 minutes.

That’s because most analysts believe the deal — the political portion of which was finally released on Tuesday — is dead on arrival.

“It’s a total shitshow,” a former senior White House official familiar with the peace plan process told me the day before its release.

In roughly 50 pages, the administration’s political strategy — masterminded by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — aims to solve the intractable problems that have stymied both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades.

It defines the future of Israeli settlements, how Palestinians might conditionally form a state, and America’s view of Israel’s myriad security concerns.

US President Donald Trump meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on January 27, 2020.
Kobi Gideon/GPO/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What it doesn’t do is provide a “right of return” for displaced Palestinians to their ancestral homes in Israel, allow for a sovereign state of Palestine to form a military that it could use to threaten Israel (or to defend itself against Israel), or give Palestinians any meaningful part of Jerusalem as its capital.

In fact, it essentially ignores all of the Palestinians’ key desires, as the plan was drafted with no input from Palestinian leaders.

The rollout’s optics, which featured Trump alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but with no Palestinian leadership present, won’t quell those concerns. Some even argue the plan’s release is more meant to help Netanyahu win a tough election in March.

“The so-called ‘deal of the century’ isn’t a peace plan at all. It is a plan to reelect Benjamin Netanyahu,” Guy Ziv, an Israel expert at American University, told me. “If this plan was truly aimed at breaking the diplomatic stalemate, the Palestinians would have been consulted in the plan’s formulation.” He noted that their negotiators cut off ties when Trump’s team decided to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

“It’s not a serious plan,” Ziv continued. “It satisfies neither the national aspirations of the Palestinian people nor Israel’s security needs.”

But to hear Trump tell it, he has brokered the most important diplomatic breakthroughs not just of his presidency but of modern history. “It’s been a long and very arduous process to arrive at this moment,” Trump said in a speech at the White House Tuesday, standing next to a smiling Netanyahu. “All prior administrations from President Lyndon Johnson have tried and bitterly failed, but I was not elected to do small things or shy away from big problems.”

Netanyahu, for his part, was thrilled with the outcome.

“I believe that down the decades, and perhaps down the centuries, we will also remember January 28, 2020, because on this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas that are vital to our security and central to our heritage,” the prime minister said to Trump.

What happens next is key. It’s unclear if America’s allies in the Middle East and Europe will stand behind the strategy, and Palestinian leaders have already rejected it. Netanyahu aims to push for a vote Sunday to annex 30 percent of the West Bank and parts of the Jordan Valley — clearly emboldened by the plan’s release.

Which means it already looks like the Trump administration has deepened the crisis it promised to solve. “The real threat to peace is if the plan succeeds,” Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to Palestinian leadership from 2004 to 2009, told me.

What the new peace plan actually says

There’s a lot to this document, but there are four major elements of the new political proposal in particular you need to know about: 1) Israel keeps the vast majority of Jerusalem as its sovereign capital; 2) Palestinians get no right of return; 3) it redraws borders mainly between Israel and the West Bank; and 4) doesn’t allow for Palestine to create a fighting force to defend itself.

Christina Animashuan/Vox

Jerusalem

First, Israel gets the entirety of an undivided Jerusalem as its capital. A future state of Palestine would get a few neighborhoods in far eastern Jerusalem.

That’s a major decision. For the first 20 years of Israel’s existence, Jerusalem was divided. Israel controlled the parts of Jerusalem and its suburbs inside the red dotted line on this map, while Jordan controlled everything outside of it (blue dotted lines separate Jerusalem proper from suburbs):

BBC

Jordan controlled the Temple Mount, a hill in the map’s brown splotch. The hill hosts the Western Wall, a retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple and one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and two of Islam’s most important landmarks, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Israeli Jews weren’t allowed to pray in the area while Jordan controlled it. During the 1967 war, Israel took control of East Jerusalem.

Israel calls Jerusalem its undivided capital today, but few countries recognize it as such. UN Security Council Resolution 478 condemns Israel’s decision to annex East Jerusalem as a violation of international law and calls for a compromise solution.

So for the Trump administration to basically say, “Sorry, all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel,” is a gutsy move that will make Israel’s leaders happy but doom any chance of bringing the Palestinians on board.

No “right of return” for Palestinian refugees

The plan explicitly states that there shall be no “right to return” for the millions of Palestinians forced out of their ancestral homes during the formation of the Israeli state.

The 1948 war uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that is still not resolved. Palestinians call this mass eviction the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — and its legacy remains one of the most intractable issues in ongoing peace negotiations.

Today, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees, defined as people displaced in 1948 and their descendants. A core Palestinian demand in peace negotiations is some kind of justice for these refugees, most commonly in the form of the “right of return” to the homes their families abandoned at the time.

Israel can’t accept the right of return without abandoning either its Jewish or democratic identity. Adding 7 million Arabs to Israel’s population would make Jews a minority; Israel’s total population is about 8 million, a number that includes the 1.5 million Arabs already there. So Israelis refuse to even consider including the right to return in any final status deal — and now, it seems, the Americans agree with that view.

The plan lays out three options for these refugees:

1. Absorption into the State of Palestine (subject to the limitations provided below);

2. Local integration in current host countries (subject to those countries consent); or

3. The acceptance of 5,000 refugees each year, for up to ten years (50,000 total refugees), in individual Organization of Islamic Cooperation member countries who agree to participate in Palestinian refugee resettlement (subject to those individual countries’ agreement).

Redrawing of borders

The proposal redraws borders to effectively give Israel more land in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, in exchange for “land swaps” that include two areas in the Negev Desert.

Here’s the “conceptual map” included in the proposal:

White House

As you can see, the map gives Israel a large chunk of the West Bank where there are currently a number of Israeli settlements. These settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory are currently illegal under international law and are not considered part of Israel proper. This plan would change that by granting Israel the big section of land they’re built on.

The map also shows that Israel would take control of the Jordan River Valley. That’s a promise Netanyahu made to his people last September, and it’s highly controversial.

The Jordan Valley runs along the east edge of the West Bank, the heavily Palestinian-populated area taken by Israel in the 1967 war, marking its boundary with neighboring Jordan. It contains both Palestinian population centers, like the city of Jericho, and a number of Israeli settlements.

The most credible argument for Israel formally seizing control of this land is essentially strategic. Israel has faced invasions from Jordan before, and an IDF military presence in the Jordan Valley is arguably vital to protecting Israel from a hypothetical future invasion.

However, there is no imminent risk of such an invasion to justify an immediate land grab. And there are lots of arrangements by which Israel could protect legitimate security interests in the Jordan Valley without outright seizing the land. It could station some troops there with permission from a Palestinian state, for example.

Which means the plan looks simply like a big land grab that would also ruin any hope of a future Palestinian state.

A permanently demilitarized state of Palestine

Finally, the plan calls for a future state of Palestine to basically never be able to secure itself.

“The State of Palestine will not have the right to forge military, intelligence or security agreements with any state or organization that adversely affect the State of Israel’s security, as determined by the State of Israel,” the document reads. “The State of Palestine will not be able to develop military or paramilitary capabilities inside or outside of the State of Palestine.”

In other words, a future Palestinian state would not be able to create armed forces to protect itself or fight others. This might seem prudent for Israel’s security, but it would basically leave the state of Palestine at the mercy of Israel’s strong military, giving Israel a greater ability to bully its future neighbor.

There’s an economic component to the peace plan too

This is all supposed to add to the economic portion of the peace plan the administration released last June.

Dubbed “Peace to Prosperity,” the economic plan was billed as “a vision to empower the Palestinian people to build a prosperous and vibrant Palestinian society.” The administration claimed it had “the potential to facilitate more than $50 billion in new investment over ten years.”

But critics slammed the proposal, likening it to a “real estate brochure” — complete with glossy promotional photos from Palestinian aid programs that the Trump administration has cut funding for.

Crucially, the plan lacked any details about a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That was by design: Kushner decided to put out the economic half before releasing the political half, saying that releasing the economic bit was “less controversial.” But without that second political half, the economic proposal was essentially meaningless.

It’s hard to imagine anyone investing billions of dollars in big infrastructure and transportation projects for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza while the Israeli government continues to annex more and more territory in the former and regularly bombs the latter. The question now is if the political portion satisfies any of those concerns, but experts almost unanimously say that it won’t.

No plan was ever going to be perfect. Past administrations, Republican and Democrat, failed to realize a peace deal. Trump’s plan was thus always likely to join theirs on the trash heap of diplomatic history.

But this administration’s attempt differed in the way it bluntly sidelined Palestinian interests and leaders while prioritizing Israeli interests. It was less of a negotiation, then, and more of a strong-arming.

The peace plan continues Trump’s support for Israel’s right wing

A hallmark of Trump’s approach to the Middle East is his close personal relationship with Netanyahu and his support for the right-wing government he leads.

Their friendship, and Trump’s extremely pro-Israel advisers — from Vice President Mike Pence to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to Kushner himself — have led his administration to back many of Netanyahu’s priorities in the region, in some cases overturning decades of US foreign policy and destroying the chance of bringing Palestinians into the process.

For example, Trump moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, following through on his promise from months earlier.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman stand next to the dedication plaque at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019.
Jim Young/AFP via Getty Images

In March 2019, the US recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, another massive change in US foreign policy. The Golan Heights, as Neri Zilber wrote for Vox in 2018, is a “strategic area of elevated land situated along Israel’s northern border with Syria. For decades it was part of Syria … [but] Israel conquered the region during the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community.”

And last November, Pompeo announced he was reversing a longstanding State Department legal opinion labeling Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law. The new position sharply contradicted mainstream interpretations of the law, the historical US approach to the conflict, and the broader international community’s view of the situation.

The announcement sent a clear message to Israeli settlers and its government: Go ahead and keep moving into land that the Palestinians want as a home for their future state.

All of that, mixed in with Trump’s order to close a Palestinian mission in Washington and stopping aid for Palestinian refugees, showed just how much Trump favored Netanyahu’s vision for Israel and why Palestinian leaders gave up on the process.

But Trump also had a domestic political reason to do all this: Republicans want the US president to show pro-Israel bona fides.

There’s been a remarkable surge in pro-Israel sentiment among Republicans over the past several decades. Gallup polling shows that in 1988, 47 percent of Republicans and 42 percent of Democrats took Israel’s side in the conflict with the Palestinians. As of March 2019, that figure is roughly similar for Democrats (43 percent) but dramatically higher for Republicans (76 percent).

Gallup

It is therefore in Trump’s political interest to keep siding with Netanyahu.

“Rather than build on previous efforts, the Trump White House has taken measures, such as recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and created a plan that serves the interests of Netanyahu, Israeli settlers, and the agenda of the conservative evangelical community in the US — the latter a key part of Trump’s base,” American University’s Ziv said.

And that brings us to why Trump wanted to release the peace plan now.

The new plan is mainly about Netanyahu, not peace

Netanyahu is battling corruption and bribery charges while simultaneously campaigning for reelection in March 2020.

A November 2019 indictment against Netanyahu covers three different cases, with his alleged offenses including the receipt of inappropriate gifts from a billionaire and corrupt arrangements with media magnates aimed at improving his press coverage. The technical charges are bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust — bribery being the most serious under Israeli law.

Israeli Likud party campaign posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strewn on the floor at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2019.
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Jail time is not out of the question: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got wrapped up in a bribery scandal during his time in office in the late 2000s and eventually served more than a year in prison.

The indictment came at a critical time in Israeli politics: the aftermath of an inconclusive election. Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor its chief rival, the centrist Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, has been able to form a governing coalition.

The parties had been in talks to ally and form a national unity coalition, but one of the key sticking points has been Netanyahu himself. He wants to keep the top job in some capacity, while Blue and White leaders have adamantly refused to allow him to do so while an indictment is still on the table.

That’s why Israel will have its third election in a year to form a government, with Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s parties still the leaders. This political and legal crisis has left Netanyahu clawing for power. Enter Trump, who with this right-wing-friendly strategy could give his Israeli friend a boost.

“The timing of this plan’s release was clearly orchestrated by Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington. It provides an embattled prime minister, who seems to be on his way out, with a major pre-election gift — possibly a life raft,” says Ziv. “It shifts the focus of the Israeli election campaign from an indicted prime minister who may face prison time to a plan that is portrayed as highly favorable to Israel.”

“It’s therefore the most blatant interference in domestic Israeli affairs we’ve seen to date,” he concluded.

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