Opinion

Israel, Beware the True Cost of Trump's 'Peace' Plan

If Netanyahu adopts a plan that greenlights unilateral annexation, he should acknowledge what's at stake. Setting Israel up for an immediate clash with a Democratic president is only the beginning

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference during Trump's visit to Israel. 22 May 2017
Pool/Mark Israel Sellas

I believe in being honest among friends.

That principle is relevant as President Donald Trump prepares to unveil his "Deal of the Century." While its details have still not been presented, every indication is that it will envision Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, Israel’s retention of all other settlement areas, and isolated islands of limited Palestinian autonomy in perpetuity - all without any negotiations or agreements between Israelis and Palestinians. In other words, a sharp break with decades of bipartisan consensus U.S. policies across multiple administrations.

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If, as expected, the Palestinians reject it, Trump may well give a green light to unilateral Israeli annexation.

So, in the spirit of openness, as Israelis prepare to respond to Trump’s proposal, they should take into account the following: no Democratic president elected in 2020 will stick with this plan, nor will they support unilateral annexation.

Now, some will say that is all the more reason to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunity Trump presents: Get these favorable terms for Israel presented as American positions while you can. Lock them in.

Palestinian houses in the village of Wadi Fukin with the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the background. Occupied West Bank, June, 19, 2019
NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

Others will say: if Trump survives impeachment and is reelected, there will be no difficulty proceeding with this plan from the beginning of his second term.

But if Trump loses, adopting this plan now, or proceeding with unilateral annexation, sets Israel up for an immediate clash with the next American administration when it makes clear it is not bound by these terms.

In fact, it is a near certainty that if any of the current Democratic presidential candidates are successful, they will return to a more traditional U.S. policy that calls for strong support for Israel’s security and legitimacy alongside a vigorous commitment to achieving a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least to keeping that option alive until the next realistic chance for negotiations under different leaders comes around.

Will they win? Who knows? Only the American people will decide. Call it a 50-50 proposition. But smart strategic planning by Israel would take that 50 percent possibility into account.

Palestinians should not expect a new Democratic president in 2021 to save them from their own responsibilities. In part through lessons learned from unsuccessful negotiations during the Obama Administration, a new Democratic administration will likely place strong emphasis on Palestinian leaders’ need to tell difficult truths to their own people that they have yet to do - about the total illegitimacy of violence and terror, the legitimacy of a Jewish state of Israel, and the reality that Palestinian refugees and their descendants could return to a Palestinian state, but not to Israel.

Supporters of the Palestinian Fatah movement take part in a parade marking the 55th foundation anniversary of the political party in the West Bank city of Nablus. January 6, 2020
AFP

I am often asked by Israelis about Israel’s standing among U.S. Democrats. While no short answer can encompass all views in the party, the prevailing attitudes were on display in a series of resolutions passed by the House of Representatives this last summer and fall, with overwhelming Democratic support.

These resolutions expressed strong support for the U.S.-Israel partnership, the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security through the $38 billion military assistance package, recognition of the serious threats Israel faces from Iran and terrorist organizations, and voiced opposition to BDS and other attacks on Israel’s legitimacy.

They also reiterated the belief that a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much in the United States’ interests, and opposed one-sided measures, including unilateral annexation, that could make such an outcome impossible.

What these resolutions convey is the deep belief that the vast majority of Democrats have in the United States’ strategic and moral partnership with Israel. It is a deep partnership, which serves the security interests of both nations, but which is based, first and foremost, on our shared democratic values. And they worry that if that shared basis starts to erode, it will damage our relationship. That would harm U.S. interests.

Israeli Likud party supporters wave a Trump 2020 electoral banner as they react to exit polls at the Likud's campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019
AFP

That is why preserving the realistic possibility of a two-state solution is a strategic priority for the United States. If Israel retains permanent control of the entire West Bank and its Palestinian population, losing its opportunity to find a way to separate from the Palestinians, its Jewish and democratic character will be at risk. Israel will drift slowly, steadily toward becoming a binational state. That is something Prime Minister Netanyahu told me many times he wanted to avoid.

In that circumstance, it will be harder and harder for the United States and Israel to sustain our security partnership. The United States does maintain security partnerships with non-democracies, like Saudi Arabia. But they bear no resemblance to, and have none of the enduring quality of, its values-based partnerships with democratic allies like Israel, NATO countries, Japan, and South Korea.

If the Trump plan is implemented by the United States and Israel without an agreement with Palestinians, it will not represent an end to the conflict, but rather its perpetuation in a new form.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the opening ceremony of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. May 14, 2018
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The Palestinians, who are far from blameless for the stalemate that Trump inherited, have not been consulted on the plan, as a consequence of their own choice to boycott the Trump administration, but also perhaps out of a sense that Trump did not take their legitimate aspirations seriously.

And when the Palestinians reject it - and with them Israel’s peace partners, Jordan and Egypt, and most European nations, while some Gulf states may make equivocal noises - Israel may find that, Trump's support notwithstanding, many of its other international relationships will be harmed.

So an Israeli embrace of the Trump plan - with its obviously political timing in the thick of an Israeli election, Knesset consideration of Netanyahu's immunity, and President Trump’s impeachment trial - puts a lot at risk. No one can predict the outcome of the elections in either country. But Trump won't be president forever, whether he departs office in 2021 or 2025. There will be Democratic presidents after him, supported by the rising progressive majority that every recent study of American demography has identified.

I am already working to ensure we can sustain the U.S.-Israel partnership when that occurs. I hope my Israeli friends will as well.

Israel is a sovereign nation, and will calculate its interests as it sees fit. If it chooses to implement Trump’s plan in the next few months, knowing that a new American administration in a few more months will oppose it, I think we should be honest with each other about where that could lead.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro