Trump and Netanyahu

by David R. Parsons

Israel’s third election season in the past year started out fairly blasé but was jolted awake in late January when US President Donald Trump invited caretaker Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington to unveil his long-awaited plan for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

After teasing us with his “Deal of the Century” for over two years, Trump released it in the midst of a close election campaign. The move certainly felt like election interference, but you did not hear many Israelis complaining. By inviting both Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz to Washington to discuss his “Vision” for peace, it appears Trump sought to give Likud and Blue & White something around which they could coalesce in a unity government after the elections – finally delivering Israel from its prolonged political impasse. Netanyahu’s legal troubles will still be a major obstacle to that end, but the national ballot on March 2 suddenly became all about the Trump peace plan.

Trump’s plan is quite lengthy and complex, and it quickly emerged that Washington and Jerusalem had different understandings on the terms and timing of some of its main provisions, especially regarding the “immediate” annexation of settlement areas.

The exact legal nature of the proposal is also still unclear. Normally, the US or another mediator has offered a suggested outline for resolving the core issues, which Israel and the Palestinians are then invited to hammer out in a final agreement through direct negotiations. But this appears to be more an adhesion contract – meaning “take it or leave it”.

For instance, plan architects Jared Kushner and David Friedman quickly chastened Israeli leaders for prematurely seeking to trigger the annexation mechanism, seeming to suggest they consider the deal to be set in stone, with the US team already installed as judges of compliance. Yet on the other hand, when the Palestinians promptly rejected the plan, as expected, Trump’s team urged them to come to the table and negotiate a final peace accord based on the American proposal.

Nevertheless, my initial reaction to the plan is one of cautious receptiveness. This is especially so as the plan continues to demonstrate that President Trump is a great friend of Israel, in line with his earlier landmark decisions on Jerusalem, the Golan, and the legality of the settlements.

The plan contains numerous elements that would be very beneficial to Israel, such as full sovereignty over Jerusalem and full security control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, plus all air space above. There would be no mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. No Israeli settlements would be uprooted. It also dramatically reverses the trend of recent decades whereby the international community has slowly eroded away Israel’s rights and positions without requiring any Palestinian concessions. In addition, it truly tests – for the first time in the history of the Mideast peace process – the real intentions of the Palestinian leadership, and appears to penalize them for rejecting peace with Israel.

However, if the Trump plan plays out as currently written, it would require Israel to permanently cede its claim to 70% of the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) for a Palestinian state, essentially dividing the Land which is contrary to Scripture. It also holds out the possibility of statehood to a corrupt Palestinian leadership which remains firmly entrenched in its rejection of Israel and continues to squander the hopes and future of the Palestinian people.

Still, the plan has its merits and deserves Israel’s consideration.

Reversing the Trend

Ever since the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991, the international community has been slowly but steadily trying to force Israel back to the pre-1967 lines in order to create a Palestinian state. The Oslo process culminated at Camp David in July 2000 with Ehud Barak’s offer to cede 92% of the West Bank to the Palestinians. After his talks with PLO chief Yasser Arafat collapsed, some of Barak’s peace team continued the talks at Taba in early 2001 and sweetened the offer to 95% of the West Bank. Around the same time, outgoing US President Bill Clinton set forth his suggested parameters for peace which called for negotiations based on the pre-67 lines with minor land swaps so Israel could retain the “consensus” settlement blocs. Eventually, Ehud Olmert upped the Israeli offer to a reported 97% of the West Bank.

Vision of Peace Conceptual Map
The Conceptual Map released with the Trump Peace Plan.

Every time, the Palestinians rejected these generous offers and refused to even table a counteroffer, believing all the time that the international community would eventually deliver them 100% of the territory without having to formally end the conflict with Israel. This slow march back to what Abba Eban once described as the “borders of Auschwitz” culminated in UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed in December 2016, which declared that all the West Bank and East Jerusalem were “occupied Palestinian territory.”

But that reckless trend is now reversed, as Trump’s plan would only give the Palestinians up to 70% of the West Bank, and outlying slivers of eastern Jerusalem, for a Palestinian state. So in that sense, it is a welcome turnaround from what Israelis refer to as the “salami process” of the world powers slowly slicing away at their rights and positions.

Still, there are risks in the plan for Israel. It would provide US backing for Israel to immediately annex up to 30% of the West Bank where the majority of Jewish settlements are located, including the entire Jordan Valley. But doing so would lock Israel into a negotiating process that could lead to a Palestinian state. US recognition of Israel’s claims to the annexed areas would be conditioned on a four-year freeze of Israeli construction in some 15 isolated settlements inside the areas designated for a future Palestinian state, and Israel would be required to negotiate with the Palestinians the terms of statehood along the lines of the US plan.

Testing Palestinian Intentions

The Palestinians also would have a long list of limitations, requirements, and conditions in order to receive American recognition of their statehood several years down the road. The Palestinian state would have no army, no security control of their borders or air space, and no right to form mutual defense pacts with Iran or other enemies of Israel. They also would have to end incitement against Israel, as well as ‘pay-for-slay’ welfare benefits to families of jailed or dead terrorists.

Perhaps the biggest test of whether the Palestinians truly want peace is the requirement that the Palestinian Authority disarm Hamas. Given that Hamas will never voluntarily lay down their arms, this would require the PA to launch a bitter civil war among the Palestinians to meet the Trump requirements for statehood. That is an enormously high, even unrealistic threshold for the Palestinians to achieve.

There are other problems with the Trump plan. For instance, Trump seems to have limited coattails when it comes to other nations following his lead. Only a handful of nations are ascending to Jerusalem with their embassies like the US, and no one has endorsed his recognition of the Golan as sovereign Israeli territory. I do believe more countries will follow Trump’s lead on these issues if he gets re-elected, but he first needs to win a second term. Otherwise, the plan is dead in the water.

I do not expect the Palestinians to buy into this plan, but rather they will wait out Trump’s fate comes to the US presidential elections in November. Yet the plan’s architects seem to have anticipated as much, and I believe they already have a tacit understanding with Israeli leaders on how the Palestinians will be made to pay for continuing to reject peace with Israel. Even so, we also can expect a number of world leaders coming to their rescue – starting with the European Union and Russia.