A few days after Jared Kushner, President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, met with United Nations Security Council members offsite in New York to sell the United States’ Mideast deal for peace, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to the Council to vehemently oppose it. While Abbas’s criticisms were echoed by most members of the Council, the US proposal thrust the longtime Israeli-Palestinian conflict back into the international spotlight.
“Who among you would accept a similar state and similar conditions? It’s like Swiss cheese,” Abbas said in the Security Council on Feb. 11, holding a map of Trump’s proposed Palestinian state, presented in his three-years-in-the-making “deal of the century.”
“Every time I look at this map, I lose hope,” Abbas added.
The plan, encompassed in an 181-page document, would give the smallest amount of territory ever offered to the Palestinians, including the annexation of West Bank settlements. It departs from many previously agreed-upon UN Security Council binding resolutions and other internationally agreed parameters, providing the Palestinians a capital in Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb of East Jerusalem, rather than in the heart of the holy city.
The long-simmering dispute over the fate of Jerusalem has always been central to the Mideast conflict. So when the Trump administration recognized the city as the capital of Israel and moved the US embassy there in 2017, Abbas cut all contacts with Washington.
The new Trump plan also offers Palestinians $50 billion in infrastructure projects, which Abbas noted in his UN speech, emphasizing that there cannot be any economic incentive to end the conflict as long as there is no political solution. Most of the 15 members of the Security Council aligned with Abbas’s criticism, although not as harshly, with the US relegated to championing the Trump proposal. One ambassador in the Council who had been working on a draft resolution to reject the proposal paid a huge price for his effort, as he was reportedly fired from his job by his government, Tunisia.
Nevertheless, Abbas did open the possibility for negotiations in his speech, calling for an international peace conference to go beyond a US plan, reviving a proposal by France two years ago.
“We have taken note of the proposals presented by United States in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and note that they depart from the internationally agreed parameters, notably on the final-status issues with regard to the status of Jerusalem, future borders and Israeli settlements,” Jurgen Schulz, Germany’s deputy ambassador, said in the Council.
Although the African Union, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have rejected Trump’s plan, many Council members, including China and Russia, raised the possibility that new discussions could focus on resolving the decades-old conflict, which has been overshadowed in the last three years by more burning issues, such as Syria, Yemen and US-Iran tensions.
Negotiations, however, would have to be predicated on previous relevant UN resolutions and other international law, Council members emphasized. (See UN video below.)
The UN itself is poised to pitch in. “Some member states have expressed their hope that the release of the vision would be an opportunity to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, in the interest of advancing a two-state solution,” the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said in the Council.
Britain, a permanent member of the Council but no longer speaking as part of the European bloc in the UN since Brexit, was one of the few countries to express more optimism than rejection.
“The United Kingdom does not believe these proposals are the end of the road, but we hope that they may lead to a first step,” Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, said. (She was recently named her country’s ambassador to Washington, D.C.)
Even the US, the mastermind behind the plan, showed flexibility in modifying the plan, saying, “It is not our way or the highway,” Ambassador Kelly Craft told the Council. Yet a few Council members who attended the Kushner meeting in New York on Feb. 6 said he showed no such willingness to negotiate.
Craft called for a need to be “innovative” in solving the conflict, an achievement that has eluded all American presidents. “This Council and the General Assembly have demonstrated their belief in the importance of the Middle East peace through countless hours of debate and by passing more than 800 resolutions addressing this issue,” she said. “But neither these debates nor these resolutions have resulted in a true and lasting peace.”
Craft also quoted Trump in her speech, saying he wants the plan “to be a great deal for the Palestinians. It has to be.”
For his part, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, quoted Albert Einstein, to try to prove Danon’s point that the UN resolutions on the conflict are obsolete, saying, “I define insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Danon also attacked Abbas for his unwillingness to negotiate directly with Israel: “Abbas should not come to New York, he should come to Jerusalem,” he said.
He added, “Only when he steps down, can Israel and the Palestinians move forward.”
But the 84-year-old Abbas came to New York with some support from Israel: after the Council meeting, he held a press conference with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, partly organized by J Street, a pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, D.C., that supports an independent Palestinian state.
Olmert said that as an Israeli leader, he has probably had the most most meetings with Abbas, noting: “He is a man of peace. He is opposed to terror. And therefore he is the only partner that we can deal with.” (Watch the video of the conference here.)
Danon said in a statement after the Olmert-Abbas press conference, held at a New York hotel, that Olmert’s decision to support Abbas was “shameful.”
Olmert also said in the briefing that the two men — Abbas and the Israeli leader, without a mediator — should meet directly to negotiate, and that the basis of discussions will be a two-state solution, the foundation of the Trump plan, he said.
More controversy: another UN resolution
But if many of the Council members seemed to agree that Israelis and Palestinians should use this moment to restart negotiations, the next steps are unclear. Some countries asked Abbas in the Council for more specifics about his proposed peace conference.
Yet over the last few weeks, a draft resolution circulating among members in the Council would not have encouraged any such conference. Tunisia and Indonesia, elected members of the Council, had been working with Palestine to draft a resolution rejecting the Trump plan. But at the last minute, it became apparent that it was not ready to be voted on for the Feb. 11 meeting, due to lack of support from 9 of the 15 members, the number needed to adopt a resolution, although the US would have surely vetoed it. Or the text could have been waylaid by the Palestinians because it had been watered down too much by the US, British and some Europeans.
The resolution, aimed at denouncing the fact that Trump’s plan departs from internationally endorsed terms on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, may not be dead. But it placed a heavy toll on Tunisia. (Tunisia, as part of the Arab League, was the go-to state for the Palestinians in the Council to draft a resolution. Indonesia, a Muslim-heavy country, was also a penholder.)
Tunisia’s ambassador to the UN, Moncef Baati, was reportedly fired for working too independently on the resolution, although the acting chief of staff for the Tunisian mission to the UN, Tarek Ladeb, said his capital’s decision to recall Baati was “administrative.” Several Council diplomats say the US had denounced the ambassador’s “hardline” position on the Trump plan, so he was summoned back to Tunis for good.
Conveniently, Ladeb was the first Council member to speak at the Feb. 11 meeting. In careful remarks, he asked Israel to stop building fait accompli on the ground in Palestinian territories. Tunisia also called for a united international community to respond to these issues.
Ambassador Dian Triansyah Djani of Indonesia spoke next and paid tribute to his former colleague, Baati, being the only diplomat to do so in the Council.
Besides reiterating many previous UN resolutions on the issue surrounding the conflict, the latest version of the draft text calls for any future negotiations to follow agreed-upon international parameters, based on the pre-1967 borders.
PassBlue saw the latest version, a skeleton of its original self, with most mentions of the “illegality of annexation” and “occupied territories” cut. Mention of Jerusalem was also deleted. The US was not mentioned in the draft, and the Trump plan was referred to as “the initiative presented on 28 January 2020,” which one diplomat said was a request of the British.
For now, the draft resolution remains in the pipeline, according to the Indonesians.
But at least one ambassador said that he did not see the need for the Council to pass more texts that cover previous ground. Where have the previous resolutions got the Palestinians?, he said to PassBlue.
This article was updated to add more information on Olmert’s remarks at the media briefing in New York on Feb. 11.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.