Trump's Peace Plan Means Settlements Are Permanent. Democrats, Get Used to It

Even when Democrats hold the White House again, they won't be able to reverse the core terms of Trump's Middle East peace plan, and U.S. leverage over Israel will have diminished. This is why

Jonathan S. Tobin
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President Donald Trump points as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally, in Toledo, Ohio. Jan. 9, 2020
President Donald Trump points as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally, in Toledo, Ohio. Jan. 9, 2020Credit: Jacquelyn Martin,AP
Jonathan S. Tobin

Those inclined to dismiss the unveiling of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan as solely related to short-term political considerations have a point.

No scheme for a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, when one party, the Palestinians, are ignoring that scheme, can be considered a realistic formula for peace. It’s also true that the international community is giving Donald Trump’s so-called "ultimate deal" just as little consideration as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Even more importantly, the Trump foreign policy team’s labor could be a footnote to history as soon as 12 months from now if the president is not re-elected. Any possible Democratic successor will preemptively reject this effort, as they will everything else the current administration has done since it came to office.

But any assumption that Trump’s plan has no long-term significance is almost certainly wrong.

As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro has pointed out, Trump’s plan will be no more binding on his successor than Barack Obama’s assumptions about the conflict were on the current U.S. president. The peace process - which has been on hold since midway through Obama’s second term - won’t be revived as a result of any announcement by Trump this week. And international efforts to promote Palestinian statehood or to censure Israel at the United Nations and its agencies will continue without so much as acknowledging what the United States has done.

Indeed, even those who are focusing on how Trump's meetings with Kachol Lavan Party leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will influence the March 2nd Israeli election - for Netanyahu's benefit - are probably exaggerating its impact. Gantz’s inclusion in this process formally undermines Netanyahu’s claim to be Israel’s indispensable man, as well as its sole Trump whisperer.

Israel's Kachol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz arrives on a flight via Zurich ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Dulles International Airport, January 26, 2020
Israel's Kachol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz arrives on a flight via Zurich ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Dulles International Airport, January 26, 2020Credit: JOSHUA LOTT/ REUTERS

Trump’s willingness to talk to former general Gantz also signals how his peace plan will help shape future diplomatic discussions. That Gantz - the only plausible alternative to Netanyahu - hailed the plan it as a "milestone," and agreed with much of it, is not just a tribute to his recognition that alienating the White House won’t help him win an election or govern.

Trump’s terms are largely consonant with the Israeli political consensus about peace that emerged after the second intifada and the withdrawal from Gaza. Even if those same terms may strike the Palestinians and the foreign policy establishment as outrageous.

Though the Obama administration spent its eight years in office seeking to revive peace talks with the 1967 lines as a starting point, that sort of approach is utterly irrelevant to an Israel where both leading parties are discussing annexation of the Jordan Valley. The same is true with respect to the future status of Jerusalem or any other issue. It is just as difficult to imagine a Gantz-led government agreeing to the sort of concessions made by Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert - whom he criticized for their willingness to give up the Jordan Valley - as it would be to think Netanyahu would make such an offer.

As with Trump’s decision to break with precedent and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, what his peace plan does is to recognize mainstream Israeli positions rather than ignoring or trying to override them.

Cheered on by liberal Jewish groups like J Street, Obama consistently sought to "save Israel from itself," by forcing it to accept what the rest of the world thought was reasonable with respect to territory and the outlines of peace. Had the Palestinians recognized the opportunity Obama was offering them, and negotiated seriously, that U.S. stance on Israel might have produced results. But believing time would always be on their side, the Palestinian Authority ignored the window of opportunity that Obama provided.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a ceremony marking the 55th anniversary of Fatah?s founding, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, December 31, 2019
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a ceremony marking the 55th anniversary of Fatah's founding, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, December 31, 2019Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Trump has done the opposite and ignored the Palestinians’ demands while accepting Israeli consensus positions about Jerusalem, refugees and the permanence of most of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The next Democrat to sit in the Oval Office could reverse course just as easily. But it’s not as simple as that.

It’s not just that, as Trump’s real estate cronies-turned-diplomats have pointed out, that Palestinian claims are a property that has depreciated in value. None of the Democrats vying to replace Trump, including Bernie Sanders, who is the most critical of Israel, will move the U.S. embassy out of Jerusalem. And even if they revive talk about the 1967 lines, Trump’s terms about the disarmament of Hamas and the demilitarization of the West Bank (neither of which was alien to Obama’s proposals) are likely to stick as well.

Netanyahu succeeded in surviving Obama’s pressure because he understood that there were limits to how much leverage even a hostile U.S. administration hostile could deploy. The next Democrat’s leverage will be even less, simply because Trump’s plan - building as it does on his attempts to force the P.A. to give up its funding to terrorists’ families, as well as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan - has effectively normalized the notion that parts of the West Bank will stay in Israeli hands, in a way that previously mooted ideas about land swaps did not.

Right-wing Israelis and their American supporters should not overestimate the extent of this shift. Even so, Trump’s willingness to greenlight Israel's annexation of the Jordan Valley or elsewhere in the West Bank has not yet been put to the test, much to the chagrin of the Israeli right, who rue the "lost opportunities" of doing just that, stymied by Netanyahu’s serial failure to form a government in the last year.

Moreover, even Trump’s scheme accepts the notion of a two-state solution, albeit one in which Palestinian sovereignty is shorn of any ability to make war and dependant on a fantasy in which Hamas is somehow forced to disarm and give up its rule of Gaza.

Palestinian Ali Farun, 74, gestures by a road in al-Eizariya town with the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the background, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, July 27, 2019
Palestinian Ali Farun, 74, gestures by a road in al-Eizariya town with the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the background, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, July 27, 2019Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

But the left’s hopes that the next Democratic president can simply take up where Obama left off are similarly unrealistic. There is simply no going back to a diplomatic universe in which there's a realistic assumption that Israel will bow to U.S. demands for territorial withdrawals - involving the mass eviction of settlers - once framed as a necessary basis for peace.

By the same token, any future Democratic administration will be reluctant to invest much political capital in pressuring Israel when there is no likelihood that the Palestinian Authority will budge from its ever-inflating demands, exceeding what even Barak or Olmert were prepared to offer them. Mahmoud Abbas’ repeated threats to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, or to blow up the region again in an intifada, are similarly empty.

Four - or possibly eight - years of Trump in the White House have given more time for the settlement enterprise to become a permanent reality - while the Palestinians continued to wait in vain for Western pressure that would deliver them fantastical, unrealistic concessions.

Trump’s peace plan doesn’t so much set these facts in concrete as acknowledge them. Like it or not, future American diplomatic initiatives will have to do the same.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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