Benjamin Netanyahu has a solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. If you haven’t heard of it, it‘s because you haven’t read chapter eight of his book “A Durable Peace” (the updated 2000 edition of his previous book "A Place Among the Nations," published seven years earlier). The chapter, also named “A Durable Peace,” is the plan Netanyahu formulated, based on the lessons from his first term in office after he lost the election in 1999.
Netanyahu’s plan is pretty straightforward. Under it, “Israel would retain some 60 percent of the territory with all the West Bank’s Jewish population; the Palestinian Authority would have some 40 percent of the area with virtually the entire Palestinian population."
Israel needs 60 percent as it “requires a land buffer that includes the Jordan Valley and the hills directly overlooking it and that would extend southward to the ridges above the Dead Sea. ... Israel must retain a security cordon around Jerusalem to ensure that the city is not choked by adjoining Palestinian areas. Israel must also keep its early warning stations at the heights of the Samarian mountains. ... Israel must maintain broad corridors of territory to facilitate movement from the coastline to the Jordan Valley buffer in times of emergency. Those corridors, not accidentally, include much of the Jewish population in Judea-Samaria. ... Equally, Israel must make sure that the main aquifer that supplies some 40 percent of the country’s water, running at the lower part of the western slopes of the Judean and Samarian hills, does not come under Palestinian control.”
So much for the area Israel will retain under the Netanyahu plan. In the remaining 40 percent of the West Bank (and Gaza), “the Palestinian entity can enjoy all the attributes of self-government, which include its own legislature, executive, judiciary, passports, flag, education, commerce, tourism, health, police, and every other power and institution controlling the collective and individual life of Palestinians within the Palestinian entity.”
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But wait, you say. Didn’t Netanyahu change course in 2009 when in his Bar-Ilan speech, he accepted the two-state principle? You may say that, but then you probably haven’t actually read the speech, which does not contradict in any way his Durable Peace plan. The parameters of Netanyahu’s “offer” to the Palestinians at Bar-Ilan were essentially the same as his Durable Peace plan.
There is nothing there about the borders or the contiguity of the Palestinian state. There are the stipulations that “the territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarized: Namely, without an army, without control of its airspace, and with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory ... the Palestinians will not be able to forge military pacts.” Any solution will ensure that Israel has “defensible borders, and Jerusalem must remain [its] united capital.”
At Bar-Ilan, Netanyahu made only one concession to the Palestinians — and in fact it was actually to Barack Obama. In 2000, he had written that the powers of the Palestinian entity “are not compatible with the idea of unlimited self-determination, which is what many normally associate with the concept of statehood,” and therefore, “when I am asked whether I will support a Palestinian state, I answer in the negative.” At Bar-Ilan in 2009 he said, “I told President Obama when I was in Washington that if we could agree on the substance, then the terminology would not pose a problem.”
One can sum up the Bar-Ilan speech in one sentence: If you really want to call a few semi-autonomous enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza a Palestinian state, go ahead. It’s just a matter of terminology.
Nineteen years later, and with Obama gone, Netanyahu is no longer talking of a Palestinian state, and his plan remains exactly the same. He has even taken recently to repeating in speeches and interviews a handy sound-bite which originally appeared in the book: That “the Palestinians should have all the powers to run their lives and none of the powers to threaten Israel’s life.”
For over half the period since his plan was published, Netanyahu has been prime minister. True to form, however, he has done nothing to implement it. Netanyahu is risk-averse and has an instinctive preference for the status quo. He has not taken any concrete steps to start the formal annexation of the 60 percent of the West Bank he wants to remain in Israeli hands. It wasn’t time and he had no illusions he could get away with it. The international community was too focused on the two-state solution, so why invite more pressure? Better to let quixotic diplomats like John Kerry wear themselves out by trying.
The Netanyahu-Friedman solution
But now everything has changed. The world has much more pressing concerns and with an American administration that seems not only amenable to the Netanyahu vision already recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, this is his moment to change the landscape.
While Donald Trump’s special adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and his special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, were originally perceived as the key authors of the much-vaunted Trump “plan of the century,” by all accounts in Washington U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman is now the most influential figure in crafting the plan. In some ways, Friedman — Trump’s lawyer of 25 years and the man who saved him twice from bankruptcy — is the closest of his advisers on this issue. And if anything, he’s to the right of Netanyahu. And he has identified the moment.
Last month at AIPAC's Policy Conference, Friedman said that moving now on the Trump plan was essential. “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, 'Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?' How can we do that?”
Lest anyone think that Friedman is freelancing, along came Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When senators asked him if the two-state solution was still U.S. policy and whether the administration had any objection to Netanyahu’s pre-election talk of annexing parts of Area C, he demurred. Instead, he said he is “hopeful that we have some ideas that are different, unique, which will allow the Israelis and the Palestinian people to come to a resolution of the conflict.”
It’s pretty clear now that Friedman will be Netanyahu’s stalking horse, presenting his vision, and taking the flak for him. Netanyahu will have the best of all worlds. If the administration manages to gain some traction for the plan, he will reap the rewards. If not, it will have been yet another round of wearing down the Palestinians and Israel will not have made any concessions. At worst, Netanyahu will have bought a few more years.
The Palestinians will of course reject such a plan out of hand. But then what? In Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will only be further isolated, as Hamas in Gaza won’t coordinate steps with him and will be focused anyway on the details of the long-term cease-fire plan there. That won’t solve any issues of Palestinian statehood, but will help them prolong their self-rule over the coastal strip. Palestinian rejection will mean that Israel and the United States can begin a one-sided implementation of the Netanyahu-Friedman solution, with gradual annexation of parts of Area C. What will the PA do then? Give up the little territory it has, disband and call for another intifada? Will anyone be on its side?
The Arab League may hold one of its summits, where Abbas will make a long speech in front of yawning foreign ministers who will then issue toothless declarations. But the Arab leaderships that matter in this context — namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — are expected to be at least tacitly behind the Trump plan. As one Western diplomat put it, “MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] owes Trump for standing by him after the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder.”
Trump strengthened his hand this week again when he vetoed a bill passed by Congress to end U.S. aid to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. The Saudis and their Emirati allies have considerable clout as they are bankrolling both the PA (Abbas was the first Arab leader to pledge continuing allegiance to the Saudis after the Khashoggi murder) and helping Egypt’s economy avoid collapse. They are also expected to provide much of the funding for the “economic package” to the Palestinians that will be part of the Trump plan’s incentive for them to give up full statehood.
So will anyone else stand besides the Palestinians against the Friedman-Netanyahu plan? Forty former senior European officials have already signed a letter opposing any U.S. plan that “reduces Palestinian statehood to an entity devoid of sovereignty, territorial contiguity and economic viability.”
So far, of the actual serving senior European politicians, only Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, has endorsed the letter. The other European leaders are sitting on the fence and will probably remain there. They won’t endorse the Trump plan, but it’s hard to see them adopting anything but a wait-and-see policy. They’ve got more immediate issues to deal with closer to home right now.
Some on the left have pinned their hopes on French President Emmanuel Macron as the savior of the two-state solution. Perhaps. But he also probably has enough to deal with, what with his domestic and European policies collapsing and rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral.
Others console themselves that this is all reversible, and that the moment Trump is out of the White House, U.S. foreign policy will dramatically change and pressure will immediately be brought upon Israel by a Democratic administration to go back to the two-state solution.
This is highly optimistic. Trump may win a second term and who knows when a Democrat will be back in the Oval Office. And even then, how high will putting the clocks back on Israel-Palestine be on his or her foreign policy priorities? Assuming the next Democrat president is even interested in spending much time on things other than reuniting a divided United States. And will Europe be a partner once again or, as is equally likely, will it still be sunk in a populist and nationalist quagmire?
Sure, this will change, probably, one day. But as Netanyahu looks at the world today, he can be excused for thinking there will never be a better chance of making his vision reality.