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A win for Israel, but it must keep its stars aligned

By Dr. Bren Carlill
From the Australian Jewish News, 7 February 2020 edition

Reactions to the Trump ‘vision’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace were exactly as expected. Palestinians and their supporters rejected it before seeing it. Most of those who deride anything Trump does derided it. On the other side of the political aisle, Trump’s supporters saw it as a revolutionary rejigging of the entire Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio—a cutting of the Gordian Knot, as it were.

But what is actually in the plan? And what are the chances it will foment peace?

The plan is highly detailed; it is 181 pages long and answers most questions—assuming its ‘vision’ is faithfully enacted—regarding the final status issues put off by the Oslo negotiators, such as the status of Jerusalem, the fate of the settlers, water rights, Palestinian refugees and their descendants and so on. That the plan is highly favourable to Israeli hawks is due to three broad factors: first, the tendency of the Trump Administration to favour Israel; second, because the Palestinians pointedly refused to be included in discussions about the plan over the last two years; and third, because the main Arab states (with which the Trump Administration consulted widely) are much more focused on Iran, and now see the Palestine Question as a largely annoying sideshow.

The plan envisions a Palestinian state (which upset the settler community). However, the proffered state is far from what Palestinian leaders have come to expect; it is without the Jordan Valley and every single settlement remains in place (with convoluted roads, bridges, tunnels and enclaves to clumsily uphold a principle that no one should lose their home over this plan). Further, this state won’t be established for four years, and even then not until the Palestinians establish—to Israel’s satisfaction, no less—that which is required for a viable state and a viable peace: no violence; no incitement; no corruption; rule of law; and full Fatah control of Gaza (or else a Hamas Damascene-like conversion to full acceptance of the Jewish state). These things really are required for a stable peace, but pre-conditioning the establishment of a Palestinian state on them all but guarantees, in a Catch-22-like scenario, that the state will never be established. It’s one of many examples in the Trump plan where the drafters were so focused on the trees that they lost sight of the forest.

The reality is, peace cannot be imposed. A sustainable peace requires all parties to be involved in both negotiating and creating peace. Like myself, I’m sure many reading this article will have had significant doubts about the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to peace over the years, but that doesn’t mean Israeli-Palestinian peace can be established without them.

That said, the plan offers a number of observations. First: It’s a clear win for Israel. After eight gruelling years of the Obama Administration increasingly angrily pushing Israel to make more and more concessions to Palestinians (who weren’t asked to concede anything), it’s nice to have that reversed—especially in an official document by a president who (likely) has five years left in office.

Second: For Palestinians, the plan is a clear loss, and not just one they can chalk up to ‘Trump doesn’t like us’. After decades of supporting Arab invasions of Israel, and more decades of undertaking terrorist attacks, the Palestinians realised Israel couldn’t be defeated militarily, and so came to peace talks in the 1990s. In doing so, they obtained limited autonomy. Full autonomy—that is, statehood—required them to gain Israel’s trust. But three more decades of anti-Jewish incitement, facilitation of violence, existential threats, a refusal to water down maximalist demands and the rejection of repeated Israeli peace proposals (coupled with a refusal to suggest their own) has reduced what little Israeli trust there was to zero.

The Trump plan is a reflection of this reality: The Palestinians get far less than what they want, and far less than what Israel has previously offered—a direct blowback from decades of rejectionism.

Still, given how many conversations Jarod Kushner and his team had with (non-Palestinian) Arab leaders, there is little chance the plan would have delivered such a swingeing blow against Palestinian aspirations if the Arabs had put their foot down. They clearly didn’t, and their lukewarm but still positive response to the plan is proof of this.

The problem for the Palestinians is, their usefulness has passed. Palestinians were, for decades, a stick with which the Arab world could beat Israel (and the West, for supporting Israel). They weren’t loved or liked, but they were useful. Israel is neither loved nor liked in Arab capitals, but it has become useful—and more useful than the Palestinians. Iran looms as the biggest threat to regional and regime stability. Israel is the only regional country bold enough and capable enough to hit back, and it’s quietly helping the Arab states protect themselves. Arab support for the Trump plan’s bias toward Israel is a reward.

But herein lies a trap for Israel to avoid: Outside of the US (and Arab capitals), Palestinians are widely seen as hapless victims, and so the UN, academia, much of the media (and much of the left) will reject this plan because the Palestinians do. However, according to its drafters, the plan is supposed to be a basis for negotiations, not a take-it-or-leave-it situation. And while Palestinians hate the plan, they will likely be pressured to negotiate. For one, despite already shifting its embassy to Jerusalem, suspending its funding for the UN Palestinian refugee agency and other moves, the Trump Administration still has plenty of ways to hammer the Palestinians into submission. Second, the West will grudgingly follow Trump’s lead and urge negotiations based on the plan (as have the Arabs). This paints the Palestinian leadership into a corner. They will be punished by Trump and isolated by their European and Arab friends if they are intransigent. But all of that might change if Israel unilaterally annexes anything. The Arabs will have no choice but to back the Palestinians, and it will be from the Arabs that the Europeans take their cue. The result will be Israel and the US isolated, not the Palestinians.

Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz—a strong contender in the 2 March election—said before the plan was released that he would annex the Jordan Valley only in consultation with Jordan (this really means he won’t annex it). Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu walked back talk of immediate annexation after being cautioned by Kushner. This was sensible and, impending election notwithstanding, one hopes sober heads will prevail in Jerusalem. The stars have currently aligned for Israel; Jerusalem should be most careful to keep it that way.

Bren Carlill is the public affairs director for the Zionist Federation of Australia. His doctorate examined Israeli–Palestinian peace efforts.