WASHINGTON – Jared Kushner’s statement that he hopes Israel won’t annex any settlements before its March 2 election is the first sign since the release of the administration’s Middle East plan on Tuesday that he wants the plan to become the subject of actual negotiations.
It is still far from guaranteed that negotiations will start anytime soon between Israel and any of its neighbors. But if Israel were to annex all the settlements and the Jordan Valley area next week, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially promised to do, the question would be completely irrelevant. But if Kushner’s position regarding annexation – made in an interview with GZERO Media on Wednesday – proves to be the Trump administration’s policy, then negotiations are at least theoretically possible.
Kushner’s plan is unlikely to ever win the support of any Palestinian leader “as is,” because it basically offers the Palestinian side the continuation of the current reality, masquerading as a “state.” But there is still a big difference between a Kushner plan with immediate Israeli annexation of all settlements, and a Kushner plan without such annexation.
The annexation question will determine whether Kushner’s plan will become a reference point for future peace talks, or if it will become the basis for the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The fact that Kushner – the son-in-law and senior adviser of U.S. President Donald Trump – is offering the Palestinians a deal they have no reason to accept doesn’t mean they cannot, theoretically, agree to negotiate with Israel “on the basis” of his plan.
He is offering them a state on 70 percent of the West Bank, dissected by dozens of settlements and under complete Israeli military control – to the extent that Israeli soldiers would be able to patrol every street in their state and put up random roadblocks between communities. That state is one that no child would ever be able to draw in school: it looks like a collection of leftover pizza crumbs in various sizes.
Kushner’s plan also comes with a long list of conditions for the establishment of this Palestinian state. These conditions range from the unlikely – the Palestinians proving, to the Netanyahu government no less, that they can fight corruption – to the impossible: President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads a non-militarized entity, is required to demilitarize Hamas – a task that Israel, with the strongest military in the Middle East, has failed to accomplish after a decade of fighting.
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What’s to negotiate?
But all of the failures and absurdities within the plan are only relevant if it is presented to the Palestinians as a “take it or leave it” kind of document. Previous American peace plans also had some ridiculous clauses and bad ideas included in them. But they were always presented in the context of “let’s negotiate over this and strike a deal,” not as a final offer. Kushner hinted on Wednesday, in an article published on CNN, that he indeed wants the plan to serve as the basis for negotiations. This could just be posturing: Kushner knew full well that the Palestinian Authority would reject his plan – and, in fact, the document was written in a way that would guarantee its rejection by the Palestinians. But if he is truly interested in the plan serving as a basis for negotiations, why not play the game?
This is where annexation comes into the equation. The Kushner plan offers a huge benefit to Israel: It promises the Israelis they will keep all of the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley – all in all annexing some 30 percent of the West Bank. The Israelis also get full control over an undivided Jerusalem, while the Palestinian state will have its capital in three remote suburbs in eastern Jerusalem. To the Palestinians, it offers economic promises – without any clarity over who will foot the bill – and not much more.
But the most problematic aspect of the Kushner plan isn’t its content: it’s the agreement, by the United States, that Israel can get its “reward” – in the form of annexation – without being asked to make any actual steps toward implementing the few small benefits promised the Palestinians. This is what U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman said explicitly on Tuesday night, following the joint Trump-Netanyahu announcement at the White House.
Israel, Friedman declared, can annex all the settlements whenever it pleases. The only thing it is required to do, in return, is not build new settlements in the 70 percent of the West Bank “reserved” for a future Palestinian state. That’s not a real concession, since most of that territory is already home to Palestinian cities, towns and villages. And anyway, the settler movement won’t cry as long as it can continue to build thousands of new homes in the existing settlements.
Once annexation of all the settlements happens, there is nothing left to negotiate. Israel already got its share of the deal – what interest will it have in negotiations that can only lead to it having to implement the few bread crumbs offered to the Palestinians?
As for the Palestinians, their interest would be just as low: there would be nothing left to talk about. It’s more likely the PA would be dismantled and Israel would have to take over all the Palestinian communities, with the 2.5 million people who live in them, and manage the schools, sewage systems and hospitals in them. Very few Israelis actually want that to happen.
Without annexation, the Palestinians can at least pretend to tell the U.S. administration: We read your plan; you’re offering us a semi-state on 70 percent of the West Bank – but we want a real state on 95 percent of it. Maybe we can find something in between to agree on.
The Palestinian leadership over the past two decades rejected or ignored much better peace proposals, and the Palestinian people have paid a terrible price for the poor judgment of Yasser Arafat and Abbas. But Abbas has repeatedly said, even over the past year, that he won’t rule out direct negotiations with Israel.
Abbas is stubborn, frustrated and lacks a real public mandate – he last won an election in January 2005. It’s extremely unlikely any negotiations with him will be productive. But he is also very old (84). Whoever comes after him could theoretically look at the Kushner plan and say: We are being offered 70 percent of the West Bank, with too many small settlements in between, and a joke of an arrangement in Jerusalem. Why not negotiate for a better deal?
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But if by the time Abbas is out, Israel has already annexed all the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley, the 70 percent offer will be the only game in town. And if that happens, negotiations won’t come out of it. Violence or a “one man, one vote” campaign are much likelier outcomes. The Palestinians will have nothing left to lose – and also nothing left to gain.
The Gantz factor
For now, it is too early to have any hope for negotiations, even after Kushner’s apparent red light to Israeli annexation in the immediate future. First of all, there have been times in the past where senior officials in the Trump administration made statements that contradicted things Friedman had told Israeli journalists – for example, regarding the timeline of the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. In most of those cases, Trump eventually did what Friedman, his former bankruptcy lawyer, advocated.
It is still entirely possible that, despite Kushner’s statement, Israel will go ahead with annexation before March 2 and that the Trump administration will allow it. In addition, Kushner’s statement doesn’t rule out complete annexation of all the settlements; it just says now is not the best time.
But there is an important detail worth remembering: Benny Gantz, the leader of the Kahol Lavan party vying with Likud to form the next government, has said that he supports annexing settlements only if it is done “in coordination” with Jordan, Egypt and Israel’s European allies.
It is possible to envisage a scenario where these countries turn a blind eye to partial Israeli annexation, such as annexing the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement just outside of Jerusalem. But it’s impossible to see any of these allies welcoming what Friedman and Netanyahu promised – full annexation of each and every settlement. Gantz knows this, and that’s exactly why he set such a condition. Gantz leads a secular centrist party, not a messianic religious party. His voters will be fine with adding several large settlements to Israel, but they don’t want the Israel Defense Forces to be patrolling the small alleys of Nablus and Bethlehem for the next 50 years.
Gantz is running neck and neck with Netanyahu to become prime minister, but even if he fails to defeat Netanyahu and is then forced into a unity government alongside him, the retired general could still demand that no annexation take place without his earlier condition – international coordination.
That kind of result would lead to some form of annexation, giving the Trump administration another “achievement” to present to its evangelical supporters ahead of the November presidential election. But it would not turn Kushner’s plan into a recipe for the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and would also leave the door open for potential negotiations in the future.
If Kushner wants his plan to serve as a basis for such talks, he will continue to block the Netanyahu-Friedman full annexation plan. If he doesn’t, it will become evident that, as suspected all along, his plan has more to do with Israeli politics than any Mideast policy.