Analysis

Can Netanyahu and Trump Downgrade the Palestinian Issue for Good?

In line with Netanyahu's vision, the Trump administration is steadily dismantling the orthodoxies that have underpinned the so-called Israeli-Palestinian 'peace process' for decades

A Palestinian demonstrator protects himself from teargas during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, August 10, 2018.
Khalil Hamra,AP

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had a fascinating revelation for his guests during a meeting with an Israeli delegation on Sunday afternoon. U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, had inquired whether Abbas was prepared to consider a confederation with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

The idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation was taken off the table three decades ago, when both Jordanian King Hussein and the Palestinian leadership replaced it with the two-state solution. Then came the Oslo Accords – signed 25 years ago this month – and Israel formally accepted that the Palestinians would obtain some form of autonomy or statehood. 

If anyone had any illusions that the Trump administration could still launch a viable peace plan, its representatives clutching at the confederation straw is clear proof that it never had any real chance. What the administration is doing, in fact, is steadily dismantling the diplomatic orthodoxies that have underpinned the so-called peace process for decades.

Oslo Accords - 25 years on

>> Defunding UNRWA: The opening shot of Trump's Middle East 'peace plan'

It’s still unclear to what degree the decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy there, and the recent defunding of the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, the United Nations' relief agency for Palestinian refugees, are part of a detailed plan. The moves were secretly coordinated between Jerusalem and Washington, with only a small number of officials in the loop – the fact that both countries’ ambassadors, Israel’s Ron Dermer and America’s David Friedman, are not professional diplomats but hard-right ideologues who are fundamentally opposed to a Palestinian state has played a major role. 

Oslo Accords 25 years.

But the ultimate strategist is Benjamin Netanyahu. The man who has devoted his political career to convincing the world that the true threat facing the west is radical Islam and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is merely a sideshow – a diversion from the real regional confrontations – finally has a U.S. administration that agrees with him. He hasn’t convinced the rest of the world, but the small team of advisers Trump still listens to, is more than enough for Netanyahu. 
 
“In a permanent peace settlement,” Netanyahu wrote in his 1993 book "A Place Among the Nations," which appeared shortly before the Oslo Accords were signed, “the Palestinians should have all the powers to administer Palestinian life.” This would mean, he went on to write, that “these arrangements would leave the Palestinian entity with considerable powers, and certainly all the ones necessary for self-government.” 

“Yet,” Netanyahu wrote of the Palestinians, “they are not compatible with the idea of unlimited self-determination, which is what many normally associate with the concept of statehood.” 

This has remained Netanyahu’s policy throughout, despite his ostensible acceptance in 2009 of the two-state solution under pressure from the Obama administration. He never meant it though, and even in his well-known Bar Ilan speech, he added so many conditions and caveats as to make a Palestinian state totally unviable. 

Palestinian children attend a ceremony to mark the reopening of an UNRWA school after the summer vacation, refugee camp al Wehdat, Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

Without any standing in Jerusalem, the Palestinians are to make do with much less than a contiguous sovereign state. The solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, Netanyahu wrote, is that “the overwhelming majority should be given full rights and rehabilitation in the respective Arab countries where they reside.” Netanyahu’s solution is for the Palestinians to be bullied into accepting limited autonomy in Gaza and a few enclaves in the West Bank. That’s all. 

And twenty months into the Trump administration's tenure, that is exactly what has been happening. Jerusalem is “off the table,” the administration and key Arab regimes are supporting a separate agreement with Hamas in Gaza, and with the defunding of UNRWA, Washington has indicated it is about to take the refugees issue off the table as well. 

What about the rest of the world? So far, the outcry from other governments, from the West to the Arab world, has constituted little more than a weak chorus. No more. Is Netanyahu starting to realize his goal of downgrading the Palestinian issue?

Formidable obstacles still stand in the way of Netanyahu's vision; first and foremost of course, the Palestinians themselves, who have signaled no willingness to relinquishing their aspirations for full statehood, at least in some portion of the land between the river and the sea. Whether by diplomacy, international pressure or a return to violent struggle, the Palestinians seem insistent on continuing their quest for full statehood. 

But can the Palestinians reverse the trend? 

Over a decade since the Second Intifada ended, there is still no appetite in the West Bank for a third one, and the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remains strong. In Gaza, even Hamas is willing to accept a long-term ceasefire in return for a gradual upheaval of the closure Israel imposes on the Strip. The split in the Palestinian leadership between Hamas and Fatah seems nearly permanent, with each side reaching its own accommodations with Israel.

Other forms of pressure on Israel have proven ineffective. The BDS campaign has succeeded in bullying a few artists to refrain from performing in Israel, but has failed to make even the slightest of dents on Israel’s economy. The prosecutorial process of the International Criminal Court is slow, cumbersome and unlikely ever to yield anything more than a few largely inconsequential indictments, if that. 

The “international community” goes through its routine rituals of condemning settlements and paying lip service to the two-state solution. But in practice, as long as the U.S. administration remains uninterested and the European Union is weakened by increasing discord within its ranks, no real pressure is applied on Israel. Publicly, Arab dictators say full peace with Israel will only be possible when the Palestinian issue is solved, but in private, they are continuously drawing closer to Israel. Indeed, their joint interests in confronting Iran and the Islamic State easily trump any true Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a joint press conference in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Washington, May 3, 2017.
Bloomberg

But nothing is irreversible. Another Intifada could still break out and swing the world’s attention back to the Palestinian issue. Abbas will leave the stage and a new Palestinian leadership may embark on a new course when the succession battle ends. A different U.S. administration may decide to once again change tack and pressure Israel, perhaps even renewing the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority. The European Union could overcome its internal angst and become a major player again. Any or all of those events could still occur, but right now, none of them are even on the horizon. 

Netanyahu’s vision of removing the Palestinian issue from the global agenda is still distant, but like it or not, this weekend, he made a significant step toward his goal.