Thursday, February 22nd | 13 Adar I 5784

February 2, 2020 12:53 pm

Trump’s Impossibly Pragmatic Peace Plan

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avatar by Mitchell Bard


Thousands of Palestinians in Ramallah protest against a social-security law established by the Palestinian Authority that has them concerned over the distribution of funds, Oct. 29, 2018. Photo: Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.

The peace plan released by the president is the most sensible ever devised — and, simultaneously, the least sensible. Jared Kushner was right about two things: First, that all previous paradigms for pursuing peace failed; and second, that his team adopted a dramatically new one. As expected, a great hue and cry came from the Palestinians, the antisemites, Israel’s critics, the Arab lobby, the failed peace processors, many liberal Jews, and Democratic presidential candidates. We are also hearing the usual specious doomsday predictions of a new intifada and the Arab/Muslim world erupting.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the Palestinians have been engaged in an intifada along the Gaza border for nearly a year, unrelated to anything Trump has done. The Palestinian leaders who have brought their people nothing but misery and refused deals that would give them a state in 94-97% of the West Bank are their usual splenetic selves.

Most of the Arab world, however, is unwilling to get worked up over the Palestinians. One critic, Elie Podeh, said Israel’s ties with the Gulf states would suffer in the same paragraph where he admitted, “The UAE, Omani and Bahraini ambassadors took part in the launching of the plan and Saudi Arabia released a mild statement in response to the launch.”

Similarly, contrary to fears about Jordan and Egypt, neither has any incentive to abandon their peace agreements with Israel. The Jordanian people, the majority of whom are Palestinian, may be upset, but the king must feel relieved that Trump didn’t call for Jordan to become the Palestinian state.

One of the most ludicrous criticisms, also expressed by Podeh, is that the plan will “strengthen the positions of those refusing peace” and “weaken the moderates on the Palestinian side.” What moderates? Is he seriously afraid the people who want to destroy Israel will now really, really want to destroy it?

The fact that the Palestinians threaten and the critics of the plan expect violence only underlines the Palestinians’ intransigence. Why should the response be violence rather than diplomacy? Sadly, we’ve seen this before when Clinton proposed a state in 97% of the West Bank. Instead of offering a counter-proposal, the Palestinians launched the second intifada. What did that accomplish?

The most novel and important shift in the Kushner paradigm is to put the onus on the Palestinians. After decades of following the Arabist playbook of pressuring Israel (though presidents such as George W. Bush placed an onus on both sides), Trump is now saying the Palestinians must take a host of steps if they want statehood, that their expectations are unreasonable, and that Israel’s claims are legitimate. It never made sense that the stronger party, which captured the territory in a defensive war, and that has legitimate political, historical, and religious claims to the West Bank, would be the one to make all the concessions.

The plan also allows for acting now to change the status quo rather than waiting for the Palestinians to agree to negotiate. Obama was the most pro-Palestinian president ever and he couldn’t get Abbas to negotiate with Netanyahu, despite eight years of criticizing Israel, condemning settlements, and proposing statehood in most of the West Bank. The people who led that failed effort are among the loudest critics of Trump. Unlike them, however, Trump will not allow progress to be held hostage by Palestinian intransigence.

Until now, the Palestinians have assumed that time is on their side. Meanwhile, the settlement population grew from 200,000 at the time Arafat rejected Clinton’s deal to more than 450,000 today. Perhaps the annexation of the Jordan Valley and some or all of the settlements will finally disabuse them of this delusion.

Trump’s vision of a Palestinian state would cover about 70% of the West Bank. This is sensible given the facts on the ground. Clinton recognized (and the Palestinians agreed) that Israel would not remove the large settlement blocs where about 80% of the Jews lived, and foresaw the Jews living outside them moving inside the negotiated border of Israel. Today, however, approximately 70% of the settlers live in the blocs and Israel would have to remove roughly 135,000 people. We saw how difficult it was to evacuate 9,000 from Gaza; there is zero chance Israel would or could remove 15 times that number.

Ceding the Jordan Valley to Israel is yet another recognition of reality. Going back to the Labor Party’s Allon Plan (yes, long before Netanyahu was prime minister), Israel has always insisted it must control the valley to defend its eastern border.

Since the Israeli electorate rejected Ehud Barak’s idea of dividing Jerusalem 20 years ago, it has been clear that Israel would insist on the city remaining unified, and that the Palestinians would not be given sovereignty in the Old City. If the Palestinians were to have a state, the capital would be where the Trump plan puts it, in Abu Dis, just outside the municipal boundary. Mahmoud Abbas agreed to just that solution in an agreement he negotiated with Yossi Beilin in 1995. The Palestinian parliament was built there and remains standing waiting for Palestinian legislators to fill it.

The plan also tells the Palestinians that their demand for the return of refugees to overrun Israel is another pipe dream. No Israeli government would ever accept it. Trump acknowledges the bogus criteria used by UNRWA to define refugees and, unlike previous plans that mostly ignored where the refugees would go, discusses limitations on how many could enter Palestine, threats posed by refugees hostile to Israel, and the need to resettle some refugees outside Palestine.

The pro-Israel right is upset about the plan giving the Palestinians any state at all, but this is again sensible. Given Israel’s demographic dilemma, it cannot annex the entire West Bank. Hence, there is a need to provide the Palestinians there and in Gaza with self-rule. The plan recognizes the reality that more than four million Palestinians live in the area and are not going anywhere. As it is, 98% of Palestinians are already under the direct rule of their leaders. Now, if the terms of the deal are fulfilled, the Palestinian Authority could be recognized as a state.

The plan also places Israel’s security concerns first, and recognizes the threat a Palestinian state could pose. Israel was never going to accept a state that was not demilitarized, or a plan that did not allow its forces freedom of action to interdict weapons transfers and respond to terror threats. The question is whether Israel could enforce this given its inability to completely prevent Hamas from obtaining weapons.

The positions outlined in the Trump plan are all sensible given the facts on the ground and the terms Israel can accept. What makes the whole plan the least sensible one is that it ignores the views of the Palestinians. Moreover, the UN and Europeans will try to sabotage it, and a Democratic president is likely to reverse it.

As I wrote before the plan was released, it will fail, but it has reset the baseline for negotiations. Instead of working from the assumption that Israel will withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank, the starting point for talks will be 70%; and instead of contemplating a mass evacuation of settlers, only those in small, isolated settlements are likely to be in play. Jerusalem is off the table as are the refugees. Most important, the Trump plan introduces a degree of realism missing from prior initiatives that will hopefully carry over into the future.

Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.

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