3 Feb 2020

Trump contested peace plan for Israel-Palestine conflict

Chris Doyle

President Trump’s long-awaited and hyped proposal for Israel-Palestine peace was launched on January 28. For some it is the possible basis of a future negotiation to end the conflict; for others, it is a US-endorsed Israel declaration of war on Palestinians. The international community broadly welcomed the US efforts. However, as the Arab League statement on 1 February demonstrates, not everyone agrees with all the contents, particularly the issues of annexation and Jerusalem.

The US has proposed that Israel should annex around 60 percent of Palestinian territory it currently occupied. Under the plan, Israel would retain “overriding security responsibility,” keep control of all airspace and territorial waters. Any so-called Palestinian state would be fully “de-militarized.” The security section of the Trump proposal makes it clear that Israel has security control over a state of Palestine. It will use drones to lighten its footprint in the Palestinian state. In other words, Palestine would be a state under occupation. The 53 years of occupation that started in 1967 would not end with this deal.

Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are throwing the gauntlet down to the sacred tenet of international law that has lasted since the Second World War, of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory through war. Trump has shattered the international consensus on Israel-Palestine whether it was on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees or statehood.

Any doubt as to Netanyahu’s ambitions was erased swiftly during and after the White House jamboree. Netanyahu never once mentioned a Palestinian state in his comments. Then his spokesman stated that Netanyahu would announce the first phase of the annexation of Israeli settlements on Sunday 3 February. Benny Gantz, his rival for the post of the prime minister, will mull over the wisdom of having traveled to Washington given the election present Trump has just given to Netanyahu.

Trump’s Vision for Peace | Source: Twitter

This is first and foremost a Trump administration blueprint that allows for Israeli annexation. The Palestinian leadership was not consulted. No Palestinians were present in the White House. Even then, it was notable that Netanyahu did not accept the proposal. He only accepted it as a basis for negotiations. President Trump had only ever made token efforts to engage the Palestinian leadership. The early talks were deliberately and knowingly shattered with the US decision to move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This was backed up in 2018, with the decision to close the PLO mission in Washington and cancel all funding to UNRWA, the agency responsible for providing for over five million Palestine refugees. The US administration also announced that it no longer deemed Israeli settlements to be illegal.

Annexation would create a whole set of new issues aside from killing off the two-state solution. A total of around 185,000 Palestinians live in Area C. Will they become Israeli citizens with full voting rights? Will they be given similar status to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem? Or will some or all of them, as a result of the coercive environment Israel has imposed for many years, be forced out of the area to be annexed?

Trump described his plan the day before its release as “a suggestion between Israel and the Palestinians”. Unlike previous US administrations, the Trump administration including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and the US Ambassador David Friedman, have made little to no attempt to consult the Palestinian leadership. Consider Trump’s extraordinary statement. “I think we’re relatively close but we have to get other people to agree to it.” The other people are those who live on the land, the Palestinians.

President Trump suggested that while he expected Palestinian leaders initially to reject the deal, they would come around. Not much indicates any form of Palestinian leadership would flip on this issue absent a huge remodeling of any plan by which stage it would be unacceptable to the current array of Israeli leadership candidates.

As has often been the case with the Trump administration, much of the international community was taken aback by the sudden impetus to release the proposals. The widespread assumption was that in order not to impact the Israeli elections scheduled for March 2, the administration would hold back. It has not.

The timing, the reason why the release date was brought forward, is clearly devised to distract attention from impeachment proceedings against Trump in the US Senate and Netanyahu’s indictment in Israel. What is most unsettling is the manner in which Messrs Trump, Netanyahu, and Gantz would be so willing to scrap any prospect of a negotiated peace deal to end a conflict of over 100 years that has blighted the lives of so many Israelis and Palestinians for their own short-term political interests? Is peace so trivial?

If one focusses on the content as revealed at the plan’s launch one gets slim pickings despite President Trump claiming that our plan “is the most detailed proposal ever put forward by far.” The document itself contains many holes that may never need to be filled in because the details will ultimately not matter given the Palestinian rejection.

President Trump made vague references to what his plan contained including Palestinians doubling the area under their control but Israel also annexing the Jordan valley and settlement areas.

Palestinians control (to an extent) 18 percent of the West Bank not including East Jerusalem as Area A under the Oslo Accords of 1994. Double that to 36 percent and it allows for Israel to annex the remainder which is basically Area C, or around 61 percent of the West Bank. Remember that the West Bank and Gaza Strip make up just 22 percent of what used to be Palestine.

The challenge is that Area C contains all the 150 illegal settlements is one contiguous area, meaning any settler can drive from any part of it to the other. The plan states: “Approximately 97 percent of Israelis in the West Bank will be incorporated into contiguous Israeli territory.” A few settler enclaves inside Palestinian areas will likely remain a dangerous thorn in their side.

Palestinians survive in 227 separate territorial areas of the West Bank as the World Bank reported, all of which can be closed off from the other by the Israeli military. Trump said they would “work to create a contiguous territory within the future Palestinian state.” Note that this is not a commitment to ensure that the state will be one single territorial contiguous unit. Israel has plans to offer what it calls “transformational contiguity” between many of these areas, a system of tunnels and fenced roads. Israel’s barrier, 85 percent of whose route is inside the occupied West Bank, would form part of the new borders, itself alone annexing around 10 percent of the West Bank.

The plan mentions possible land swaps. These could include the transfer of 10 Arab towns located in the so-called Triangle inside Israel to the Palestinian state. This would involve over 250,000 Israeli citizens having their status changed. One can imagine why they might be unwilling to be pushed out into a Palestinian state that is neither sovereign nor truly economically viable.

The plan goes back to the Oslo Accords provision for a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza: “the State of Palestine will benefit from a high-speed transportation link that will enable efficient movement between the West Bank and Gaza, crossing over or under the State of Israel’s sovereign territory.” This avoids the accusation that the plan is a three-state solution, with Gaza as a separate entity. This is one area that could lead to a minor improvement for Palestinians on the ground allowing Gazans and West Bankers to renew ties.

The future of Gaza will depend effectively on the removal or downfall of Hamas. That said the plan envisages Gaza being expanded, with the official conceptual map showing a strangely shaped area to the south, a thin strip of land connecting two bubbles of territory, neither of which is fertile land akin to the land lost in the West Bank. Israel would maintain in Gaza, as in the West Bank, all control over crossing points including the right to deny all dual-use items going into the state of Palestine. This has been used to deny all sorts of items going into Gaza including concrete and wood.

Israel will also maintain all maritime access. “The State of Israel will retain sovereignty over territorial waters [Gaza’s], which are vital to Israel’s security and which provides stability to the region.” This effectively means the blockade of Gaza that has lasted since 2009 can continue if Israel wills it. Gaza may one day get a port on an offshore island but not yet, the plan stipulates.

Yet there is another side to this. At face value, it means that Israel will acquire the sovereign right to Palestine’s gas off the coast of Gaza. This should be one day a State of Palestine’s economic safety net, but not under the Trump plan.

Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of the state of Israel but there would be a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem at Al-Quds, the Arabic name for the city. The plan treats Jerusalem and Al-Quds as if they are in two different cities. Netanyahu confirmed that this would be at Abu Dis, which has been proposed before. It lies outside of the Israeli defined municipal boundaries of Jerusalem so it allows Trump and Netanyahu to claim they have not divided “Israel’s capital”.

The document specifically rules out any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The future for the five million Palestinian refugees is pretty bleak. The document simply dismisses any Israeli responsibility for the future of Palestinian refugees. It is hard to see how any Palestinian leader could ever just ignore this constituency.

The overall document is entitled “Peace to Prosperity.” It does reaffirm what was in Jared Kushner’s economic blueprint revealed at the Manama workshop in June 2019. This was not a positive harbinger of a successful political proposal. It was a $50-billion economic revival plan. Critics pointed out that Palestinians were unlikely to sell away their national rights even for a $500 billion.

Palestinians of all hues are not ready to be bribed in such a way. Kushner spoke about empowering the Palestinian people but not about freedom, end of occupation and self-determination which he ignored. It spoke a goal of reducing regulatory barriers to the movement of Palestinian goods and people but did not deal with the issue of checkpoints, barriers and other obstacles to the movement that blight Palestinian lives every day.

What are the options for Palestinians? President Abbas could not attend the memorial event at the White House for the assassination of the two-state solution. He turned down a request from the American President to discuss the plan with him on January 27. What would Abbas have brought back to Ramallah if he had gone to Washington? Vague pledges of billions down the line in exchange for the loss of Palestinian patrimony and rights would not have impressed his fellow Palestinians. For Abbas, his strategy is to hold on and not give up. He has no ability to change the situation in any meaningful way.

Abbas will have to crank up the Palestinian diplomatic team to ensure European states, Russia, China, and other leading powers reject the Trump plan or suggestion. What might be harder is to get them to enact policies and actions to deter Israel from feasting on the carcass of the West Bank. The Palestinian aim is not be devoured, not to disappear, to resist by refusing to play the role allotted to them.

Will there be a reaction on the ground? Fatah and other factions have called for widespread protests. In Gaza, protest marches have been called along the border zone with Israel. The Israeli army announced the deployment of reinforcements in the northern part of Jordan Valley around Tubas to indicate its preparedness for any reaction. Israeli forces are well versed in handling such protests using a combination of tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets and overwhelming force including live fire. In the West Bank, the system of closures including checkpoints serves to ensure that protests cannot link up between major population centers and cannot pose any threat to Israeli settlements.

What did Arab states make of it? According to Trump, they were supportive. “Many of the Arab nations have agreed to it. They like it. They think it’s great. They think it’s a big start.” It is unlikely that any Arab leader will echo those exact thoughts in public. Like many powers, however, no Arab leaders of US-friendly states want to incur Trump’s wrath. A series of diplomatic formulations are likely along the lines of “we look forward to working on the President’s vision to realize full peace between Israelis and Palestinians”, while at the same time rejecting any Israeli unilateral moves toward annexation. The sensible option from their perspective would be to welcome the plan in a vague fashion as a stepping stone toward peace but slamming any Israeli expansionism.

Many Arab states not least in the Gulf are more concerned that the US backs them over Iran, which is more of a strategic threat to their interests. This is true but none of them will wish to see a massive Israeli annexation or changes to the status of Jerusalem.

What is clear from the Arab League reaction is that many states do want to see negotiations. The reiteration of their position and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is to show that resolving the conflict does matter and reflects understandable fatigue with the issue after so long.

Palestinians may hope that the European states will stand up for their rights and resist annexation. The EU maintains the international legal position on Jerusalem and settlements. Its initial statement suggests it will maintain this position. “The European Union will study and assess the proposals put forward. This will be done on the basis of the EU’s established position and its firm and united commitment to a negotiated and viable two-state solution that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, respecting all relevant UN resolutions and internationally agreed parameters.”

Britain’s initial statement was more welcoming of the proposals with no mention of its historic positions rooted in international law. Later, however, as with the EU, the language toughened not the least in warning Israel that any annexation would be illegal.

The real question is whether any major actor is prepared to do anything to prevent Israel’s annexation plans. The likelihood is that, aside from some expressions of condemnation, the answer is no. Even though the EU did sanction Russia for illegally annexing Crimea in 2014, it is highly unlikely to do the same against Israel.

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