North Africa, West Asia

Trump’s peace plan and the future of Palestine

Will the ‘Deal of the Century' force the Palestinian Authority to find a new approach?

Douglas Gerrard
19 July 2019
Trump signs a proclamation recognizing Israel's claim to the Golan Heights with Benjamin Netanyahu and Jared Kushner on 25 March 2019.
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Picture by Amos Ben Gershom/Prime Minister of Israel/dpa - PA images. All rights reserved.

Last month, Jared Kushner led a delegation of US envoys to Bahrain for an “economic workshop,” where he outlined his vision for a lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine. Titled “Peace to Prosperity”, the $50 billion plan was effectively a bribe, a one-time payment intended to persuade Palestinians to abandon their core national ambitions. Roundly scorned, Kushner’s deal was rejected before it even emerged.

The central innovation of “Peace to Prosperity” is its attempt to resolve what is essentially a political problem through economic means. “Land for Peace”, the organising framework of the past three decades, has been traded for “Money for Peace”, a Trumpian formula designed to work in lockstep with the increasing neoliberalism of the Palestinian Authority (PA) economic policy. The language of the plan is appropriately corporate: it speaks vaguely of ‘empowerment’ and ‘opportunity’, and leans heavily on the influence of the private sector.

‘Modern’ is a key buzzword: everything stands to be modernised, from the dilapidated transportation network in Gaza, to the old-school inspection techniques that clog up West Bank checkpoints. Palestinians are envisioned as customers in a vast transnational business deal, rather than political subjects making a moral and historical claim to their land. There is no mention of an occupation, or of a Palestinian state. The plan’s appeal, such as it is, is directed squarely at Palestinian desperation, designed to exploit their powerlessness in a region increasingly dominated by Israel.

Kushner’s deal is not distinguished by its newness – the PA has been trading resistance for economic incentives since at least the Oslo accords – but by its ineptitude. Its specifications are either suspiciously vague, or haphazard and incoherent. Take the $910 million intended to revitalise Palestinian agriculture. Where would this money actually go? To the West Bank, where the verdant Jordan Valley has been almost entirely seized by the occupation, leaving Palestinians to tend the dry Wadis and desiccated olive groves of Areas A and B. Or to Gaza, where 35 per cent of the fertile land lies within the Israeli-enforced buffer zone, meaning that any Gazan foolhardy enough to actually take advantage of Kushner’s provisions risks being shot.

Palestine doesn’t control its agriculture, or its infrastructure, where the bulk of the cash would have flowed. The occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza have ensured that. When the plan begins to address education, the irony becomes even richer, the punch line even sicker. Palestine’s beleaguered schools are promised close to $2 billion in funding, an amount that might initially appear generous, until you consider that their economic woes stem in good part from Trump’s decision to cut all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), which operates schools in the West Bank. Agriculture, infrastructure, education: Kushner’s plan presupposes statehood while carefully excising any mention of a Palestinian state.

With the economic portion of the deal having been rejected, attention will soon turn to the next chapter of this long, doomed process: the release of Trump’s political plan, the centrepiece of the much-hyped ‘deal of the century’.

Initially, the plan had been forecast for release after April’s election, which the U.S. had anticipated would result in a Likud-led coalition. But with internecine right wing squabbling thwarting Netanyahu’s attempts to cobble together a government, the unveiling has been delayed again, and no one has any serious idea of when it will now emerge. Jason Greenblatt, a Middle East envoy and one of four people privy to the plan’s contents, has speculated that it might be unveiled before Israel’s next election on September 7th. But with Kushner’s plan having been so thoroughly rejected, some on the Palestinian side think it may never emerge at all.

With such a lengthy gestation period, it’s no surprise that there have been a plethora of leaks supposedly revealing the plan’s contents. As the process has dragged on, these leaks have increasingly dominated media coverage, and their sheer volume has ensured a deeply diminished standard of reportage. Leaks have emerged in Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian papers; they have come from “senior US diplomats” and “knowledgeable Arab diplomatic sources”; they have disclosed everything from Israeli annexation to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. In the process they have provided every partisan hack with irrefutable evidence of the truth of their particular narrative. One especially egregious example of this appeared on the website of American uber-Zionist Daniel Pipes, who attempted to cast a since discredited report in the Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat as proof that Trump was planning to sign East Jerusalem over to Palestine.

So I propose that we ignore leaks, or at least learn to read them far more sceptically. We should instead approach the plan like good materialists, interpreting the actions of Israeli and American authorities, and examining what kind of deal is permitted by conditions in the occupied territories.

If we follow this strategy, there emerges at least one thing that we can confidently say about Trump’s plan – chiefly, that it will issue some kind of U.S. recognition of Israel’s claim to the West Bank. This is overwhelmingly likely for a host of reasons, from Trump’s recognition of Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights – captured in the same way and in the same war as the occupied territories – to Netanyahu’s announcement that he intends to annex parts of the West Bank. There are also the close links the plan’s authors have to the settler movement. This includes Greenblatt, who in the mid-1980s lived in a settlement east of Jerusalem, which he patrolled with an M-16; it also includes ambassador David Friedman, who once headed a pro-settler organisation, and has called Jews opposed to the occupation “Kapos”.

U.S. recognition would create a somewhat paradoxical situation in the occupied territories. On the one hand, a plan that formalized the occupation in the eyes of the U.S., the longstanding mediator between Palestine and Israel, would represent a monumental, epochal shift. It would mean that the U.S. had abandoned the two-state framework, obliterating a decades-old diplomatic precedent in the process. Perhaps more significantly, it would likely prohibit any future President from ever again taking up the two-state baton, effectively salting the earth from which a prospective solution might grow.

At the same time, for residents of the West Bank – Palestinians and settlers alike – life would remain the same. Alongside two decades of steady settlement growth, a slew of changes to Israeli law have essentially collapsed the legal distinction between the settlements and the state, ensuring that everything from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is governed by the same regime.

Often slow to catch on, western discourse around Israel finally seems to be coming to terms with this reality. It’s now commonplace to come across articles proclaiming the death of the two-state solution, and not just in the left wing press. Over the past couple of years, the New York Times has run at least five such pieces; Foreign Policy at least three. Similar reports have been commissioned by prestigious think tanks, like Chatham House and the Brookings Institute (a good indicator that the media is taking something seriously). And if the two-state solution has run out of road, Trump recognizing the West Bank as legitimately Israeli would merely bring White House policy into alignment with reality.

Reckoning with the reality of the Israeli present, however, seems to be entrenching a warped media perception of its past. In configuring Trump as a radical break from Presidential precedent, journalists and analysts obscure the fact that it was the failure of this precedent that produced the current situation. In fact, there’s little that’s meaningfully new about Trump’s position on Israel, save the honesty of its biases.

In order to demonstrate this, let us imagine how Trump’s plan might present itself to Palestinians. To accomplish this, I’m going to shamelessly break my own rule, and rely on unauthenticated leaks from the Israeli press – specifically, a document that was printed in Israel Hayom. This document alleged that Trump would seek to establish ‘New Palestine’, a semi-autonomous state-minus comprised of Areas A and B, with a capital in Abu Dis, a town on the eastern border of Jerusalem. New Palestine would not have control of its borders, which would be administered by Israel, or be allowed weapons to defend itself.

While there may be divergences here and there, there are good reasons to think that the parameters of New Palestine will be close to the final deal. For starters, it would be an act of colossal self-sabotage for the plan to not offer Palestinians anything at all. And while Kushner’s deal intentionally omitted mention of a Palestinian state, New Palestine would not infringe upon any impending annexation; in fact, it would not require Israel to give up an inch of settled land. Moreover, the authors of that deal will have known that talk of statehood would only inflame the Israeli far-right, allowing them to attack Trump as an appeaser, and Netanyahu as a spineless squish.

Now, here’s the key point: should New Palestine be offered to the PA, Trump’s plan would represent anything but a break from precedent. Abu Dis has been mooted as a potential capital since the Oslo accords, and divvying up the West Bank in a way that avoids expelling settlers in Area C has been a bipartisan position in Israel since the late 1990s. As for demilitarisation, the PA accepted that back in 1995, after a secret meeting in Stockholm that never translated into a concrete plan. On that occasion, when the deal had been agreed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas met Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin in an embrace, his eyes moist with tears. He thought he had his state.

Two decades on, all that has changed is the portion of the West Bank over which the PA rules. Abbas, now 83, has not yet abandoned his quest for statehood, and New Palestine might find a measure of support amongst the PA elite. But Abu Dis isn’t Jerusalem, and a borderless mass of Bantustans isn’t a state, no matter which way you cut it.

Under Abbas, and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the PA leadership has become sclerotic and increasingly corrupt, forced into a fundamentally defensive posture by over reliance on Israeli industry. It launders its supplication through symbolic ‘resistance’, and through an illusory prosperity that has prettified the capital Ramallah but not done anything to remedy widespread poverty. Since the 2000s, their strategy has been to accept the dictates of Israel and the World Bank, to deregulate their economy and entice private investment, in the hope that they’d eventually be rewarded with a state. They cling to it still: no sooner had Kushner’s deal been rejected than Abbas was beseeching the White House to return to the status quo. “Recognize the vision of two states and [acknowledge that] East Jerusalem is occupied land,” he implored Trump. “If you say these words to me... you will find me at the White House the following day.”

But while the PA remains officially wedded to two-statism, elsewhere there are signs of an incipient paradigm shift. Polls suggest that the confidence of the Palestinian public in such a solution has utterly collapsed. And after Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Saeb Erakat, a principal architect of the Oslo accords, declared that Palestinians would be forced to begin striving for equal rights in a single state – “historic Palestine, from the river to the sea”.

In the current moment, talk of a one-state solution feels quixotic. There is no popular energy behind it, no serious work being done on its implementation. The obstacles to it are numerous and vast – even ignoring the obvious Israeli opposition to the prospect, there is currently no mechanism for coordinating Palestinians spread across the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. But in the absence of a US framework for a two-state solution, the PA will be driven to a one-state position eventually. They will realise, in time, that all their other options have been exhausted, and that there is no other approach that might keep them on their land.

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