A peace agreement, as was clear from the very start, won’t emerge from the diplomatic plan presented by Donald Trump’s team this week. Annexation of some of the West Bank settlements? Maybe, but at the end of the week, this outcome too looks a lot less clear than it did when the plan was presented by the U.S. president at midweek.
Despite the high ratings for the live broadcasts, and the quasi-festive atmosphere in the television studios in summing the week up, it appears the plan’s implications will be far less dramatic than they seemed when the document was presented in Washington.
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Above all, it was another massive airlift that Trump granted his friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The political effect has yet to become clear – maybe it will turn out minimal when Israelis cast their votes on March 2 for the third time in 11 months (a matter that Trump found endlessly amazing).
In any case, there was nothing in the U.S. president’s move that provided any aid against the real trouble facing Netanyahu this week – the filing of the corruption indictments at the Jerusalem District Court after he had to retreat in his Knesset battle for immunity from prosecution. Even Trump hasn’t found a way to extricate Netanyahu from this pit.
Ever since the two leaders’ joint press conference Tuesday, the immediate question has been Israel’s steps toward annexation. That evening, in leaks to the media and in a remark (subsequently erased) on the Twitter account of one of Netanyahu’s spokespeople, it was said the decision to annex the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, would be brought before the cabinet this Sunday.
Here is where a battle of titans broke out in the president’s peace team. The U.S. ambassador, David Friedman, a definite supporter of the settlers, was at the outer right flank of the administration’s team the whole time it was being crafted. In an attempt to get the settlers and hawks on board, Friedman promised them heaps of goodies.
According to a number of sources, the ambassador suggested the possibility of swift annexations. Also, Tuesday afternoon, some of Netanyahu’s people briefed journalists about immediate annexation; Netanyahu himself talked about this Tuesday night with reporters traveling with him. Still, some of these journalists understood that he was leaving an opening for a postponement.
At this stage Jared Kushner intervened. On Wednesday night, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, the main person behind the plan, said he hoped Israel wouldn’t annex settlements before the Knesset election. Kushner’s statement was preceded by talks between the administration and Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz, who had met with Trump in Washington on Monday. In those talks the Americans were told that a green light from Trump for an immediate annexation could scuttle the entire plan.
It seems Friedman had to toe Kushner’s line. Ultimately so did Netanyahu, who decided to postpone a move to bring an annexation bill to the cabinet (if he indeed intended to do so in the first place). Now there’s doubt on whether the annexation will happen before the election.
This is making it harder to market the plan to Israel’s deep right, which with every passing moment is noticing more defects in the “deal of the century.” More important is the fact that Kushner put on the brakes when the Mack Truck called Trump was about to hurtle into the abyss, dragging the Israelis and the Palestinians down with it.
Annexation is the key question because more than the U.S. president’s statements it can affect events on the ground. Even the imposing of Israeli sovereignty doesn’t necessarily need a physical process of building more fences and guard posts. But as Trump’s positions were also known to the Palestinians beforehand, here the decision took on the hue of an irreversible step.
The joint press conference by Trump and Netanyahu sufficed to exhilarate observers from the Israeli right, despite the reservations that have been expressed ever since by the settler leaders. Trump looked as smug as he usually does at his election rallies, undoubtedly under the influence of the enthusiastic cheers from the audience, which represented the furthest right and the most religious extremes (both Jews and evangelical Christians) of the political spectrum in Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu, who was visibly thrilled, managed to be relatively restrained in his remarks, perhaps under the influence of the news from the court back home.
Trump and Netanyahu presented a reversed version of the Oslo accords, this time without the Palestinian bride. According to the approach they took in their speeches, the vision will be implemented at any price – and to hell with the ramifications. But the captains of Oslo dreamt of reaching a peace agreement that would end the conflict between the two peoples, and they failed – in part because they did not give sufficient weight to the Palestinian terror organizations’ intention to block the historic move.
Now, despite the lip service paid to it in the official text, peace is not the aim but rather perpetuation of the settlement project in the territories. And this, in the way that it is planned, also entails denial of the fulfillment of the Palestinians’ national rights. Thus, despite the stipulation of a Palestinian state as a goal down the road, the vision of two states will be buried – and the road will be paved to the establishment of a single, bi-national state.
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In some of the arguments presented by Trump and his aids, in the speech and in the plan, there is a modicum of reason. The American president is correct in emphasizing the importance of preventing a reprise of the era of terror attacks on buses (which, as noted, scuttled Oslo), he concurs with many in the Israeli defense establishment in his recognition of the security importance of the Jordan Valley, and he strikes from the agenda unrealistic ideas about evacuating hundreds of thousands of settlers from their homes. However, at the same time he veers sharply to the right, in the direction of the impossible: from the promise that no Israeli will be evacuated from his home to the stipulation of impracticable threshold conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state, beginning with the demand from the Palestinian Authority that it take control of the Gaza Strip.
Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote this week that the Oslo process underwent a slow disintegration because of the change in the way the United States and key Arab states see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the conflict has become less important because the main issue is joint Israeli-Arab coping with other threats, from Iran and from Shi’ite and Sunni terror organizations. In addition, he believes that the vision of two states is appealing less to the Israelis. They would prefer maintaining the status quo and the continued control of settlements to the price and the uncertainty entailed in signing a peace agreement.
However, annexation, if it does happen in the end, is not maintenance of the status quo. It could exact a price – and in extreme circumstances it could also lead to a return to the days of bus bombings. The plan also gives an opening for other lunatic ideas, among them the transfer of the Triangle and its Arab Israeli inhabitants to the territories of the future Palestinian state (which in actuality will never arise). This looks like an unnecessary jab at the Arab public in Israel. Netanyahu, who was deeply involved in the formulation of the plan, is liable to pay a price for this if it leads to an increase in the percentages of Arab Israelis who go out to vote in the Knesset election.
It is hard to escape the impression that one aim of the move, the implementation of which has now been delayed, was to provide Israel with an excuse to annex the settlements. There have indeed been some journalists and leftists who have argued in recent days that in the historical perspective the plan is in fact confirmation of leftist ideas, because by means of it Netanyahu is recognizing a Palestinian state. However, the Palestinian state is depicted in the plan in such an unrealistic and unachievable way that the concession Netanyahu is making here is small. Moreover, the prime minister already expressed support for the two-state idea in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, and since then has done everything in his power to thwart it.
What Netanyahu has extracted from Trump has earned him a renewed embrace for some of the settlers. Theoretically, the embrace is justified. Netanyahu is promising to make the right’s list of dreams come true. His failings in their view – the non-demolition of the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar, and practicing restraint with regard to Hamas in the Gaza Strip – pale in comparison to his achievements. Trump’s gestures would apparently not have happened without his close personal relationship with Netanyahu.
Within a period of two years, the president transferred the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran (“I did this for you,” he said repeatedly in his speech this week), recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights and has now published the decidedly pro-Likud plan for the Palestinian conflict. Will this most recent move really be good for Israel? Out of so much love, an American interlocutor familiar with the plan's issues said to me on Thursday, the president is liable to hug you to death.