When is a peace plan not a peace plan?
Look no further than Donald Trump’s cynically timed initiative to end the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
If a breakthrough does result, it will be in spite of itself.
Released in late January after three years lurking in the shadows, it would jettison decades of international mediation. In place of a negotiated agreement, it would impose a unilateral American scheme giving Israel, right off the top, pretty much everything it wants.
The Palestinians, for their part, would be handed the possibility of a deeply scaled-back version of their goals and four years to negotiate some of the final details, including borders and concessions aimed at ensuring Israeli security. A future Palestinian state, if achieved, would have limited sovereignty and consist geographically of a mostly scattered patchwork peppered with sovereign Israeli enclaves.
Boasting of his reputation as a great dealmaker during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pledged to do his best to bring peace to the region. But it has always seemed unlikely that his promise could result in something acceptable to both sides and their international partners.
Consider, for starters, the plan’s prime architect, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose family is steeped in pro-Israeli activism and counts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an old friend.
As the Trump team geared up, its players turned out to be Orthodox Jews with close ties to Israel. Its main audience was never in doubt: conservative Israelis, strong American supporters of Israel and American evangelicals. Netanyahu and his supporters, sensing a sure thing, quickly embraced the effort while the Palestinians, sensing that the fix was in, eventually refused to participate.
Over Trump’s first three years in office, the plan grew so lopsided that its fundamental relevance was thrown into question and its release was repeatedly delayed. At times, there seemed little chance it would ever see the light of day, much less gain international traction or bring the sides any closer to an agreement. By the start of 2020, Kushner had left behind his Middle East responsibilities to focus on the Mexican border wall and his father-in-law’s 2020 re-election campaign.
So why is the plan being announced now? Not because the odds of success have increased but to give an electoral boost to two political figures: Trump, who is fending off an impeachment proceeding and eager to ask voters for a second four-year term, and Netanyahu, who faces March parliamentary elections under the cloud of a criminal corruption indictment.
While the US Senate is unlikely to remove Trump from office, Netanyahu still faces imminent prosecution on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust after failing to win a parliamentary grant of immunity. The coming Israeli vote is the third such poll in a year, after two earlier tries led to a deadlocked parliament unable to form a new government.
“Two Allies Draw Map With Voters in Mind,” as The New York Times put it on its Jan. 29, 2020 headline for its “Quotation of the Day” feature.
Ever since Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood triggered fierce and enduring Arab opposition, US presidents have regularly sought to tamp down or resolve the Middle East conflict, whether on their own or working with international partners.
In this context, Washington has always claimed, although not always truthfully, to play the role of neutral mediator. Much of the past Middle East diplomacy has come through the United Nations Security Council, which counts the US as a permanent member with veto power, or, more recently, from the so-called Middle East Quartet of Russia, the US, the UN and the European Union — although the group’s efforts ran into an Israeli brick wall during Obama’s presidency.
Never before has an American head of state so blatantly sought to impose his own blueprint on the region, shunning international participation and law in the process.
The Security Council, with US support, has over the years generally discouraged, if not outright condemned, Israeli settlements in occupied lands, branding them as illegal under international law. And it has steadily pushed Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states, living side by side in peace, with East Jerusalem as the eventual capital of a newly created Palestinian homeland. From the start, these and other crucial details were to be resolved only through negotiations between the parties.
But Trump has thrown all that away, now declaring an undivided Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital alone and creating a path to an immediate and unprecedented Israeli declaration of sovereignty over 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, more than any earlier international proposal.
His plan would shift the Palestinian capital to a dingy Jerusalem suburb, separated from Islam’s holy sites by Israel’s security barrier. Establishment of a Palestinian state, even a crippled one unable to control much of its own structure, would require major concessions and the fixing of borders to be negotiated over the next four years, or during the rest of Trump’s term, should he win re-election in November. Ironically, Trump now threatens to use the US veto in the Security Council to block international efforts to interfere with his implementation of the plan.
In fact, Trump may not actually need a peace deal but only a belief by voters that headway is being made to take credit for “success.”
While movement toward the so-called two-state solution has traditionally been interpreted as a step toward resolving the conflict, some observers interpret the Trump plan as actually meant to provide cover for killing off the possibility of a full-fledged Palestinian nation, per the presumed wishes of Netanyahu and Trump.
But without final borders, and Israeli sovereignty over all Palestinian lands, everyone would end up in a single country, with nothing to head off a growing Muslim population gradually overtaking Israel’s current Jewish majority. That could put the Arab population in a position to demand implementation of such rights as universal suffrage, freedom of movement and the ability to reside wherever one chooses. The only alternative could be adoption of an official Israeli apartheid system transforming Arab residents into second-class citizens, a prospect the global community could never accept.
So given all this, might the US plan lead to an unforeseen fundamental shift in the Palestinians’ relationship with Israel, particularly if Trump wins a second term?
Palestinian leaders, while long divided into bickering factions, often act as if they believe that time is on their side in their struggle. But Israel has been steadily improving its position on the ground. Meanwhile, support for the Palestinians in the Arab world has slowly been ebbing.
Given this scenario, the more time passes, the more Palestinians will suffer by standing on the sidelines and waiting for things to break their way. Will the bogus Trump-Netanyahu peace plan somehow end up helping to break the stalemate, in fact giving peace a chance? It might, but if it did, it would occur for all the wrong reasons and give credit to all the wrong people.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.