The Deadly Consequences of a Dead-on-arrival Trump Mideast Peace Plan

When the U.S. ambassador states 'Israel is on the side of God,' he's voicing in off-base terms the Trump administration's one-sided support for Israel. But an excessively pro-Israel 'ultimate deal' could tip Israeli-Palestinian relations into apocalyptic territory

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US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during the National Association of Realtors Legislative Meetings and Trade Expo in Washington, DC, May 17, 2019
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak during the National Association of Realtors Legislative Meetings and Trade Expo in Washington, DC, May 17, 2019Credit: \ CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS
Evan Gottesman
Evan Gottesman

"Israel is on the side of God." At least, according to U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who stated as much last week at a function commemorating the first anniversary of the U.S. embassy relocation to Jerusalem.

That may be Friedman’s sincerely held personal belief, but it was off-base for a U.S. diplomat to say in a public venue, even about an American strategic partner like Israel. His comment was a stark reminder that the Trump administration has chosen a side too, shedding any pretense of America as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In this context, a report circulated last weekend on Israel’s Channel 12 from last weekend that the United States would implicitly greenlight Israel’s unilateral annexation of West Bank settlements should be unsurprising. Yet despite all of this, the Trump team is still gearing up to release their perennially-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan next month.

And the White House’s transparent and excessive one-sidedness begs an important question: when and if the American proposal is released, will it matter?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US ambassador David Friedman at an event marking a year since the US embassy move to Jerusalem. Friedman declared: 'Israel is on God’s side.' May 14, 2019Credit: AFP

After all, it seems obvious that the 'ultimate deal" will be dead on arrival. Over the past two years, the United States has slashed all forms of aid to the Palestinians, including for humanitarian programs not directly tied to the Palestinian Authority, such as USAID programs and funding for East Jerusalem hospitals outside the PA’s purview. The U.S. also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated its embassy operations there.

The president and his advisers once pedaled the idea that Israel would eventually have to pay for these benefits with concessions of its own. But they were always freebies, a fact that is painfully clear today. The PLO, for its part, cut off contacts with Washington relatively early in the process.

With each successive rumor about the Trump plan and the accompanying rounds of speculation, U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt takes to Twitter to ward off the leaks. Of course, the minutiae of the plan is still unknown, but it’s not clear what Greenblatt is trying to hide.

The administration’s past policies long ago laid bare its intention for Israel and the Palestinians. All of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, save Gaza, will remain under varying degrees of de facto Israeli control. The Palestinians will be expected to trade statehood and political independence for a nondescript package of economic improvements (to be coordinated by the same administration that cut off their aid).

Jared Kushner cast aside any remaining doubts about the United States position a few weeks ago when he publicly disavowed the two-state model. All that remains to be seen is how exactly this will all be worded in the context of a peace plan.

And yet White House’s proposal will still have a tangible impact in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington.

The Trump plan’s official unveiling will be a watershed moment in Israeli politics, particularly for the opposition. It will be difficult for Benny Gantz and the rest of the Kachol Lavan leadership to say the United States ought to offer the Palestinians more, especially after Gantz’s list campaigned on promises of retaining major settlement blocs in last month’s elections.

Meretz and the rump Labor Party (which returned to its vocal two-state advocacy in the late stages of the campaign), along with the politically isolated Arab lists Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad will make up the splintered opposition to the Trump plan. Their presence in the next Knesset totals 21 out of 120 seats. Without the help of Kachol Lavan, the largest opposition faction, the voices of these parties will be easy to ignore.

On the Israeli right, a Trump proposal can help move the goalposts on West Bank annexation. By now it is conventional wisdom that Netanyahu could swap some form of annexation for immunity from prosecution. This line of thought is now backed up by the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ very real demand of annexing all settlements in exchange for an immunity law.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks on "Inside the Trump Administration's Middle East Peace Effort" at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, U.S. May 2, 2019Credit: \ YURI GRIPAS/ REUTERS

In the past, the ever-cautious Netanyahu might have seen this sort of bargain as hazarding a sharp American retort. Today, Netanyahu can operate much more safely without fear of reproach from Washington, at least as long as Trump stays in office. And with potential opposition to personal immunity legislation from within Netanyahu’s own Likud party, the prime minister will take any help he can get.

The Palestinian reaction is critically important, and also perhaps hardest to predict, as recent months have seen new levels of brinkmanship from the Palestinian Authority.

Up until now, Israel and the Trump administration have sought, in tandem, to bludgeon the PA while still benefiting from its limited jurisdiction in the West Bank, not least security coordination between the PA and the IDF. A U.S.-backed plan leaving the Palestinians with a final status arrangement short of independent statehood would be the culmination of this approach.

Yet it now seems the Americans and Israelis can’t have it both ways forever.

For instance, the United States Congress recently passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, a law which stipulates that by receiving American aid, foreign governments consent to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. This would expose the PA and PLO to lawsuits in the U.S. (American citizens have tried before to sue the Palestinian leadership for damages in terror cases).

Indeed, the move was widely interpreted as targeting the PA, which has since refused U.S. funding for its security forces, the last remaining bucket of American aid to the Palestinians since the Trump administration’s massive cutoff.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas chairs a session of the weekly cabinet meeting, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. April 29, 2019Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

Meanwhile, a Knesset law from last year allows Israel to subtract money from tax transfers to the PA commensurate with the notorious "martyr payments" – financial benefits to the families of terrorists in Israeli jails. This codified a longstanding Israeli practice of withholding tax transfers to punish PA practices, including martyr payments and pursuing membership in international organizations.

But recently, the PA has declined even partial transfers from Israel, also turning down a European-mediated proposal to solve the dispute.

Thus an increasingly bankrupt Palestinian Authority is heading toward uncharted waters and it seems officials in Washington and Jerusalem have increasingly little leverage over the Fatah-run entity.

So what happens when the United States puts forward a plan that definitively closes the door on Palestinian statehood?

The PA could very well close up shop, demanding the IDF assume full responsibility for the parts of the West Bank not under direct Israeli administration. After all, the PA’s raison d’etre was always to negotiate independence for Palestine, theoretically through American mediation. When the official line out of Washington directly contravenes this objective, the PA’s already unpopular leadership may determine it is safer just to throw in the towel.

That opens a Pandora's box of dangerous outcomes, including full West Bank annexation or even a major armed conflict in the territory. Recently, former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned the Trump team about this very possibility.

Even if these most apocalyptic forecasts do not immediately come to pass, it will only inspire increasingly risky gambles on the part of Israel and the United States, who, feeling vindicated, will continue to test the Palestinians’ limits until something finally gives.

A Palestinian demonstrator holds an anti-US slogan during a rally marking the 71st anniversary of the 'Nakba', or catastrophe, on May 15, 2019 in RamallahCredit: AFP

Meanwhile, the Trump administration may pursue new ways to punish the Palestinians, especially when they (inevitably) reject the White House’s proposal. The complete cutoff of aid to the West Bank and Gaza stripped the United States of an obvious form of pull, but the Trump administration still retains a few punitive measures in its playbook.

Earlier this week, the U.S. denied entry to former P.L.O. negotiator Dr. Hanan Ashrawi. Just weeks after Trump took office, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, blocked ex-PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad from an appointment as UN envoy on Libya. This, despite Fayyad’s reputation as a moderate (earning him enemies in Fatah, including President Mahmoud Abbas).

It may simply be that the American strategy is now to blacklist any high-profile figure who has ever been associated with the P.L.O. and the PA, regardless of their actual record.

Within the U.S. political scene, the Trump plan is bound to have echoes too. The White House’s ultimate deal is likely to become the official framework of Republican policy on Israel, which has shifted dramatically rightward since the days of the Obama administration and especially in the 2016 presidential campaign, when the party struck the two-state solution from its platform. Democrats will have the Clinton parameters, and Republicans will run with the ideas conceived under Trump.

This is a dynamic that can outlive the current administration’s time in office, particularly as Republicans seek to exploit Israel and anti-Semitism as wedge issues among Democrats and Jewish Americans.

Since President Trump took office, the White House has hardly been opaque about its approach to Israel and the Palestinians. Still, even if the plan for the "ultimate deal" is woefully one-sided (and all indications are that it will be), it is still bound the have a major impact. But the question isn’t one of the proposal’s substance, or lack thereof - it’s how the parties will react.

It may be difficult to imagine Israeli-Palestinian relations deteriorating beyond the current low ebb. Yet the fallout from a prospective Trump plan could actually make a sustainable resolution to the conflict look even more distant than it already does.

Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. Twitter: @EvanGottesman