WASHINGTON - Who would have believed that Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, would stand alongside an American president at the White House and announce his willingness to negotiate over establishing a Palestinian state in 70 percent of the West Bank, with its capital in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and incessantly call it a “historic day?”
He even managed to infect many of those attending the launch of the American peace plan with his enthusiasm. Until the last minute, many of these people had been convinced they would hear a “historic” speech by U.S. President Donald Trump in which he would proudly announce that he would recognize Israeli annexation. But they ultimately left a bit confused by all that talk in the room about a “future Palestine.”
The plan itself is ostensibly still subject to negotiation – or as the Americans put it, to committee discussions. This is the quintessential Israeli solution to all problems, one used systematically to bury documents.
Nevertheless, based on the details announced Tuesday, it’s clear that despite all the hype, the plan didn’t contain anything that hasn't been heard in the past. Even the leaks were fairly accurate.
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The plan is ultimately based on the two-state solution, like every previous plan, but with one salient and critical change: It leans significantly toward Israel by accepting the existing situation and making it permanent.
“But what difference does it make what the plan says?” one disappointed listener reassured himself. “What matters is what Netanyahu will now do unilaterally.” And he’s right. The plan itself is doomed to failure in any case and will promptly be thrown in the trash.
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Thus the big public debate, which will start in this Sunday’s cabinet meeting, won’t be about the plan itself, but about what Netanyahu intends to do with its assistance – annexing the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and all the other West Bank settlements. This would mean abolishing military rule there, and it would obviously preserve and even deepen the occupation.
If the cabinet does adopt such a decision, then from the standpoint of both Israel and the current U.S. administration, the settlements, for the first time since 1967, will be an inseparable part of Israel.
Netanyahu knew that immediately after the launch, he would have to brief the media and spin the narrative. “I agreed to a Palestinian state? What are you talking about? Look, this is about annexation.” That, more or less, was the gist of it.
There will be a lot of justified criticism from the world, the Palestinians and the Israeli left about the unilateral steps that this plan legitimizes. The right, including people to the right of Netanyahu, will for the most part laud and exalt it, in the hopes that the portion they consider dangerous will never come to pass.
But what actually happened here? Israel has already annexed the settlements de facto and applied Israeli law to the settlers. The current moves will merely recognize and legalize the existing situation.
Like the annexations of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, the new annexations will change the situation symbolically and legally, but won’t necessarily rule out ceding this territory under a future agreement, if and when all the parties involved finally produce leaders who want real peace instead of a sham. And, as with those other annexations, these moves won’t be recognized by the rest of the international community.
But looked at from another, longer-term angle – one that will apparently be less talked about in the coming days – something else interesting happened on Tuesday: Large portions of the Israeli right effectively renounced the dream of retaining the entire Land of Israel. In principle, they accepted the idea of dividing it in exchange for 30 percent of the West Bank.
“In the end, even we are pragmatists, and this is apparently the best deal we’ll get,” said one settler who supports annexation and came to Washington to make sure it would happen.
This in-principle recognition that it’s actually possible to accept a diplomatic deal that divides the land if it’s just good enough is important for the more distant future. Because now, it’s clear everyone understands that the argument isn’t about whether a Palestinian state should arise alongside Israel, but only at what price.