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Date Published:February 26, 2020

President Trump’s Plan to End the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Some “Big Picture” Observations

By Joel Singer

Numerous articles have already been written about President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century.” Released by the White House to much fanfare on January 28, 2020, the plan was modestly styled “Peace to Prosperity, A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People.”  The 181-page document, however, is more than a vision – in fact offering a comprehensive plan to resolve the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article aims not to repeat what has already been said by others, nor to provide my own, detailed analysis of the plan – truth be told, such an analysis would be twice as long as the Trump team’s Vision, as each of its proposed solutions appears to create two new problems. Rather, this article seeks to provide some perspective through the lens of my experience, having been deeply involved in the tortuous road toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the transformational period between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s 1977 Autonomy Plan to the Oslo Agreements of 1993-1995.

Trump’s Plan Expands on Oslo, But in the Wrong Direction

The White House plan makes a point to thank Saudi Arabia for its leadership in proposing the 2002 Arab Peace initiative (API), asserting that the API informed the vision. However, the Trump Plan appears to build much more heavily on concepts established in the Oslo Agreements of 1993-1995. The irony of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement of – and alluded role in developing – the Trump Plan was not lost on the Israeli public. Netanyahu was the strongest critic of Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Agreement in the mid-1990s.  When the Trump and Rabin maps were placed side-by-side – their similarities on full display – Bibi became the butt of jokes across Israeli social media. In the days following the plan’s release, a meme quickly spread comparing the two maps – captioning the Oslo map “Rabin is a traitor,” while Trump’s map declared “Netanyahu is a genius.”

On the right Oslo Map with caption: “Rabin is a Traitor.” On the left Trump’s Map with caption: “Bibi is a genius”

 

But beyond the visual similarities, Trump’s plan features numerous concepts that Rabin and I created in developing the Oslo Agreement, including some expressions, which I recall writing myself, that were copied, word-for-word, from Oslo.  Following are a few examples.

Area A, Area B, Area C

When negotiating the Oslo Agreement, I developed the concept of dividing the West Bank into three areas, as a part of interim steps to transfer responsibilities to a fledgling Palestinian entity (the Palestinian Authority):

  • Area A – to include all the large Palestinian cities, where the Palestinian Authority would have both civilian and security responsibility;
  • Area B – to include more than 400 Palestinian villages, where the Palestinian Authority would have responsibility for civilian affairs and public order, while Israel will retain the responsibility for internal security;
  • Area C – to include the rest of the West Bank, comprising the Jordan Valley, the Israeli settlements and areas important to Israeli security, where Israel will retain responsibility for both civilian affairs, public order and internal security.

Under Trump’s Plan, Areas A, B and a portion of C would become part of the State of Palestine. The balance of Area C would be annexed to Israel, allowing Israel to absorb some 30% of the West Bank.

Interestingly, under Trump’s Plan, the parts of Area C that will be annexed to Israel will include some 54 Palestinian villages that will become part of the State of Palestine, but remain as enclaves within the expanded State of Israel. Trump’s Vision prescribes these villages to be “subject to Palestinian civilian administration” but “subject to Israeli security responsibility” (Page 12). In sum, Area B perpetuated

Israel’s Overriding Security Responsibility

Trump’s Plan prescribes that the State of Israel will maintain “overriding security responsibility for the State of Palestine” (Page 21). Compare this to the 1995 Oslo Agreement (Section V.3 of Annex I) which addresses security matters as follows: “Israel shall have the overriding responsibility for security for the purpose of protecting Israelis and confronting the threat of terrorism.”

Note that what I wrote in the Oslo Agreement was intended to apply only in Area B, but not in Area A.  Further, it was limited to protecting Israelis and confronting terrorism and, moreover, applicable only during the transitional autonomy period. Trump’s plan, conversely, expands the overriding security provision to the entire area of the State of Palestine, attaching no limitations to this responsibility and applying it indefinitely.

Gradualism

One of the cornerstones of Rabin’s Oslo plan was the gradual approach to empowering the Palestinians through a multiple-phase process – allowing Israel to expedite or slow the handover process, depending on how Israel perceived the Palestinian Authority’s ability to assume responsibility for internal security and to prevent terror attacks against Israel from Palestinian-controlled areas.

This process included, among other steps, the following main phases: Gaza and Jericho first; then, Israeli limited withdrawal from the large cities in the West Bank (Area C); then further redeployments in the West Bank (still under autonomy arrangements); and finally, permanent status discussions.

Trump’s Plan borrowed this gradual approach by stating that even after the creation of the State of Palestine, Israel will withdraw its forces gradually:

As the State of Palestine meets and maintains [its security obligations], the State of Israel’s involvement in security within the State of Palestine will be reduced. Both the Israelis and Palestinians have a common interest in maximizing Palestinian capability as quickly as possible. The United States and Israel will continue their work to strengthen the capabilities of the [Palestinian security forces] (Page 22).

But, just to be on the safe side, Trump’s Plan also states that Israel may, at any time (that is, forever) reverse the process of gradually transferring security responsibility to the State of Palestine and reassume responsibility for security:

Should the State of Palestine fail to meet all or any of [its security responsibilities] at any time, the State of Israel will have the right to reverse the process outlined above. The State of Israel’s security footprint in all or parts of the State of Palestine will then increase as a result of the State of Israel’s determination of its expanded security needs and the time needed to address them (Page 23).

When I negotiated the Oslo Agreement, I proposed to include a similar provision in the agreement, that would outline several scenarios in which Israeli forces may re-enter Area A.  My Palestinian counterpart (whose name will remain confidential) responded quite frankly: “Look, if such a situation occurs, Israel will do what it has to do. But you cannot expect us to add our signature to an agreement that includes such a humiliating provision.” Of course, that discussion concerned potentially necessary incursions during the transitional autonomy arrangements, not in a period after the sovereign State of Palestine had been created.

Other Concepts Copied from the Oslo Agreement

Many other concepts in Trump’s plan were copied (sometimes lock, stock and barrel) from the Oslo Agreement. Examples include: 1) safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 2) extensive security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces; 3) the creation of numerous joint Israeli-Palestinian committees to address various issues of common interest; 4) the emphasis on both parties’ participation in joint and regional economic cooperation and development programs; and 5) the obligation to prevent incitement against one another and develop various “people-to-people” programs that will foster dialogue and cooperation.

But while Trump’s Plan borrowed so many concepts from the Oslo Agreement, rather than building on those concepts to decrease Israeli involvement and significantly increase Palestinian freedom, as would be appropriate for the relations between two sovereign, neighboring states (a viable two-state solution for which the President pledged support), in many ways the administration’s vision erodes even the more limited  powers  offered to the Palestinians under Oslo. The end result is that, as more fully elaborated below, the administration’s vision for a “State of Palestine” appears to be a thinly-veiled scheme for perpetuating a scaled-down autonomy arrangement under an everlasting Israeli control.

Getting to No

A comparison between the Trump Plan and the Oslo Agreement gives the administration’s “vision” too much credit – especially in the assumption that it really intends to serve as a basis for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The administration’s intentions matter, and in this case, it is fair to question the authors’ real motives.  The plan seems less a blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian bilateral peace treaty, than it is a plan to facilitate Prime Minister Netanyahu’s aim to unilaterally draw Israel’s borders in such a way to kill the two-state solution, while pretending to embrace it.

Never was this reality more obvious than when, after Netanyahu declared his intention to immediately apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman chided him gently saying: “Before annexing settlements, committee approval is needed.”  The task of this committee, so it seems, is to carefully draw the precise borders of areas to be annexed to Israel, including 15 Israeli settlements sprinkled throughout the West Bank that will, under Trump’s Vision, become enclaves inside the future State of Palestine.

Under Trump’s Plan, however, that committee is not a bilateral Palestinian–Israeli committee; rather, it is an American–Israeli committee. Indeed, why should the Palestinians be involved in drawing the borders?  As the administration seems to see it, those would be Israel’s borders. True, on the other side of Israel’s borders there is supposed to be, according to Trump’s Vision, a Palestinian State. But, apparently no one – on either the Israeli side or the American side – takes that part of Trump’s Vision too seriously.

When a third party, such as the United States, offers to mediate a dispute between two other parties, such as Israel and the Palestinians, the normal sequence of events is as follows:

First: the mediator proposes a plan to resolve the dispute.

Next: the two parties consider the proposed plan and, if they both accept it as a basis for discussions, they begin to negotiate an agreement based on the plan as a reference.

Then: if an agreement between the parties is reached, each party brings the negotiated agreement to its own domestic political bodies for approval.

After that: if approval is given, the parties sign the agreement.

Finally: each party implements the agreement internally through any necessary domestic legislation, such as by applying its laws to any new territory acquired pursuant to the agreement.

Here, however, even though the Vision pays lip service to the need to reach a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the plan (“The peace agreement that will hopefully be negotiated on the basis of this Vision should be implemented through legally binding contracts and agreements”), Netanyahu is attempting to turn the normal process upside down: annexing West Bank territory proposed to be a part of the State of Israel up front. This maneuver – which seemed to receive a not-so-tacit American blessing – implements one aspect of a much more comprehensive Trump Plan, which also includes ceding Israeli sovereign territory of an almost equal size to the future Palestinian State.

Jared Kushner

Thus, in his annexationist haste, Netanyahu has skipped all four preliminary steps normally required before one gets to implement a peace treaty, such as, well, concluding an agreement with the other side. And while Jared Kushner asked Netanyahu to not annex these areas to Israel yet, he emphasized that annexation should take place only after the Israeli elections (scheduled for March 2, 2020), rather than after an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has been reached with the Trump Plan serving as terms of reference.

No one really contests the proposition that Trump’s Plan is the most pro-Israeli American plan ever published. Netanyahu even bragged about it. In fact, the Vision is more pro-Israeli than all prior Israeli plans proposed to the Palestinians in every round of negotiations since Oslo with regard to all the key issues: East Jerusalem (which will be under full Israeli sovereignty); refugees (not even a symbolic number will return to Israel); borders (which will be drawn so as to annex 30% of the West Bank to Israel); and security (complete demilitarization of the State of Palestine and freedom to Israeli forces to operate in that state).

Further, Trump’s Plan imposes on the Palestinians several requirements, the accomplishment of which is a pre-condition for Israel to be required to comply with any of its obligations under Trump’s Plan. Importantly, the Palestinians must first achieve full control over the Gaza Strip, either by defeating Hamas or, alternatively, by obtaining Hamas’s agreement to recognize the State of Israel, commit to non-violence, accept the Oslo Agreement and other Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and disarm itself and all other terrorist organizations operating in Gaza – a very tall order.

And that’s not all: under Trump’s Vision, the State of Palestine will not be allowed to be created unless Israel has first determined that the Palestinians have met a series of other conditions, including conditions that don’t exist in any other Arab countries (as well as many other, non-Arab countries), such as freedom of the press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, and even “uniform and fair enforcement of law and contractual rights.” (Page 34).

Really? No Palestinian State will be created before Israel has determined the Palestinians can uniformly enforce contractual rights?  While we’re at it, why not require that a Palestinian spacecraft first land on the moon?

Every objective and reasonable observer understands that the Palestinians cannot accomplish all of these pre-conditions, even if they accepted them. Every objective and reasonable observer similarly understands that the Palestinians cannot and will not accept a plan that gives them significantly less than what they have been offered, and rejected as insufficient, in the past.

So, Trump’s peace team has offered Israel the most generous deal it has ever received by any American administration (indeed, the “Deal of the Century” – for Israel), while simultaneously offering the Palestinians the worst offer they’ve ever received. The deal includes preconditions that the American peace team knows the Palestinians could not meet even if they wished to (which they don’t), while allowing Israel to reap the territorial benefits of the plan almost immediately, if the Palestinians refuse to accept the plan – which is deliberately guaranteed.

Thus, one can safely conclude: this is not a peace plan. Rather, this is a ploy – a scheme to allow Israel to have its cake and eat it. Further, the plan appears to have been deliberately designed to allow Netanyahu to obtain the support of his extreme right and religious coalition parties by being able to tell them: “Don’t worry. You can vote for this plan even though it requires Israel to make far-reaching concessions that you don’t accept, because the plan is written in such a manner that it guarantees that the Palestinians will reject it and allows us to proceed with annexing the West Bank settlements and Jordan Valley when the Palestinians reject the plan. Lose no sleep over the creation of a Palestinian state.” Indeed, immediately after the plan was published, an anonymous American official in Israel was quoted confirming that the Israeli right’s concerns over a “State of Palestine” are ill-founded: “If you look at the dictionary, you’ll understand this isn’t the definition of a state. That is not what the plan allows, and so the resistance from the Right and the rabbis is a mistake.”

The End of the Two-State Solution?

You don’t need to be an expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs to understand that currently there is no possibility for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their dispute. It will likely take many years before the circumstances change so that what is now impossible may become possible. But, rather than improving the landscape, the administration’s plan may actually complicate things even further. By allowing Israel to immediately annex the settlements and Jordan Valley before reaching a peace treaty with the Palestinians, Trump’s plan may effectively eliminate the possibility of an agreement ever being reached.

For instance, if, miraculously, an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty based on Trump’s Plan is accomplished, Israeli law requires that the treaty be brought before the Knesset for approval before signing. For Netanyahu, or any Israeli Prime Minister, it will be extremely difficult to garner the necessary political support to approve the concessions required from Israel under Trump’s Plan, however generous it may otherwise be.  These concessions include: (1) Israel would permanently waive rights and claims to 70% of the West Bank, known in Israel in their biblical name: Judea and Samaria; (2) allow the creation of a Palestinian State in those areas; AND (3) cede Israeli sovereign territory to the State of Palestine of almost equal size to those West Bank areas to be annexed to Israel.

Fierce opposition to these provisions of Trump’s Plan is expected to come from all parties to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, from the religious parties, from many members of the Likud Party itself, as well as from some members of the centrist Blue & White Party, many of whom are former Likudniks, who left only because of their objection to Netanyahu’s corrupt conduct.

When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin brought the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (also known as Oslo II) before the Israeli Knesset for approval, he could barely obtain the necessary support – achieving only a slim majority of its 120 seats (61:59). Importantly, Oslo II was intended to only introduce limited autonomy in the West Bank, not to transfer sovereign rights to a Palestinian state. Moreover, during the Oslo days, Rabin’s coalition government was based on two leftist parties totaling 56 seats in the Knesset. Today, as the Israeli body-politic has moved rightward, these two parties hold only nine seats.

The only chance to obtain Knesset approval for the required Israeli concessions in Trump’s Plan would be to bring the entire peace treaty for Knesset vote as a package deal, one that includes both the Israeli gains and concessions. Each Knesset member will then have to determine whether, on balance, in order to receive the benefits offered to Israel by such a peace treaty, it is worth paying the required price. While not guaranteed, Knesset approval appears to be more likely in such a setting.

Indeed, Trump’s Plan, at least superficially, advocates this package-deal approach, by stating:

Both Israelis and Palestinians have long-standing negotiating positions but also must recognize that compromise is necessary to move forward. It is inevitable that each side will support and oppose aspects of this Vision. It is essential that this Vision be assessed holistically. This Vision presents a package of compromises that both sides should consider, in order to move forward and pursue a better future that will benefit both of them and others in the region. (Page 5).

But if Netanyahu proceeds with annexing the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements without first reaching an agreement with the Palestinians – including not only the Israeli “take” but also the Israeli “give” – the chances of ever reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty will drop from low (their current odds) to nil.

First, after pocketing right away all of the pro-Israel territorial elements of Trump’s Plan, it is unlikely that a majority of Knesset members would approve (perhaps many years later) an Israeli-Palestinian agreement including mostly the pro-Palestinian elements of Trump’s Plan.

Second, to fully comprehend the reason for this grim prediction, one must understand an Israeli law passed by the Knesset in 2014 called “Basic Law: Referendum.” This law was passed with the intention of making territorial concessions almost impossible, complicating what was already an extremely complicated situation. The law states that any agreement by the Israeli Government that will result in a situation where “the law, jurisdiction and administration of the State of Israel shall no longer apply to territory in which they currently apply,” must be approved by a two-thirds Knesset vote. Alternatively, the measure could be approved by a majority in the Knesset AND a majority vote in a nation-wide general referendum (a very difficult process that has never been tried before in Israel).

This law will be triggered by the requirement in Trump’s Plan for Israel to transfer sovereign Israeli territory to the created State of Palestine. Moreover, once Israeli law has been applied unilaterally to all the numerous Israeli settlement enclaves in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, giving up even one of those tiny enclaves or even adjusting the size of an enclave as a result of an agreement with the Palestinians would trigger this law.

In sum, Trump’s Vision, rather than being a very pro-Israeli plan as it superficially appears to be, in fact will prevent Israel from ever reaching peace with its Palestinian neighbors – potentially putting many future generations in a state of perpetual conflict.

Bridges, Tunnels, Overpasses and Extraterritorial Roads to Nowhere

Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War, in which it conquered the West Bank from Jordan, has in time come to resemble a restaurant patron choking on his steak: can’t swallow it and can’t spit it out. For many years, most of the world attempted a Heimlich maneuver on Israel, to help it spit out the West Bank, and a large portion of Israelis supported the direction. Yet, a small portion of the Israeli public – the religious and right-wing segments – was calling for Israel to swallow the West Bank. As the years passed, that small portion of Israelis has grown to become a majority. Intransigent Palestinians, who repeatedly have refused any compromises and failed to prevent terror attacks against Israelis, empowered those Israeli factions. An equilibrium of forces has been created between those trying to pull the West Bank out of Israel’s throat and those pushing to swallow it. Meanwhile, the West Bank has remained in place – stuck in Israel’s throat.

Now, Trump’s peace team has come up with a new idea: they will help Israel to swallow just one third of the West Bank, and Israel can spit out the other two thirds. However, this is wishful thinking – in reality, under the Trump Vision all of the West Bank is guaranteed to remain stuck in Israel’s throat.

The root of the problem is the Vision’s insistence on not uprooting a single Israeli settler. The Vision does not distinguish between those settlements constructed with Israeli government approval and those established illegally (that is, not in accordance with Israeli law; most countries, the United Nations and the International Court of Justice consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal). Under Trump’s scheme, 62 settlements will be absorbed by Israel as a part of large blocs of contiguous land, whereas 15 enclaves further into the West Bank will become Israeli sovereign enclaves inside a future sovereign Palestinian State. Simultaneously, some 54 Palestinian villages trapped inside the contiguous blocks to be annexed to Israel will become Palestinian sovereign enclaves inside the newly expanded State of Israel. And how will Palestinians move from one enclave to another and from the enclaves to the main parts of the Palestinian State under Trump’s Plan?

“This Vision… contemplates a Palestinian state that maximizes ease of travel within the State of Palestine through state-of-the-art infrastructure solutions comprised of bridges, roads and tunnels, and provides significant benefits well beyond the borders of the State of Palestine.” (Page 12).

These Palestinian enclaves and their access roads, however, will be subject to Israeli security responsibility. The access roads to connect the Israeli enclaves to other Israeli sovereign areas, which cross through the State of Palestine, also will be subject to Israeli security responsibility (page 12).

The result, as shown in the conceptual map attached to Trump’s Plan, will be a Palestinian State resembling Swiss cheese.

Yitzhak Rabin

Rabin’s vision, when launching the Oslo Agreement, was that, in order to bring peace between the Jews and the Arabs living in the former Mandated Palestine, there is a need to first separate those two peoples – based on the old adage that “good fences make good neighbors.” Trump’s Vision, conversely, dictates that Jews and Arabs must remain commingled.

The Trump Administration’s Vision guarantees that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be resolved. The plan’s execution would turn the West Bank areas not annexed to Israel into a series of non-contiguous enclaves, surrounded by the State of Israel on all sides, with no borders to the rest of the world, and subjected to Israeli military control. Sooner or later, the Palestinian Authority would likely weaken to the point of collapse. The Trump Administration will ultimately be replaced by another administration whose views regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues will be completely different, and Israel will lose the kind of backing it receives from the Trump Administration. Having already annexed 30% of the West Bank, Israel will be unable, constitutionally or politically, to reverse the annexation – doomed to remain stuck in this situation forever, left alone with no hope for a brighter future. The choking patron may face even darker days ahead.

 

 

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