It is unfortunate that a good portion of the reaction to the Trump Middle East peace plan in the international community and the Democratic political world – from Joe Biden and Senator Dianne Feinstein on down – has been a collective sigh over the U.S. tilt toward Israeli unilateralism and its supposed killing off of any remaining prospects for a co-equal “two-state” solution.
“Two states for two people” has long been the unexamined catchword for many as the indispensable pathway to ending the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
In truth, we have views about the Biblical grant of land to the Jewish People that are wholly inconsistent with notions of Palestinian sovereignty over any land that constituted biblical Israel. Nor do we have any illusions about Palestinian intentions to finally relinquish claims to any of it or, indeed, its institutional ability to do so.
But most Israelis now seem willing to support the Trump Plan as providing a framework for policy in the here and now. It is also important to understand why that context could work in the short term and why the earlier approaches necessarily had to fail.
As the Trump policy is currently understood, the U.S. supports Israel’s unilateral extension of its laws to these areas (annexation) as long as Israel commits to future negotiations with the Palestinians over the establishment of a state of their own in the remaining 70% of the West Bank still available – and this, only if the Palestinians meet certain conditions such as stopping incitement, granting its citizens civil rights.
In addition, any Palestinian state would have to be a demilitarized one with Israel responsible for its military defense. This “state minus” is what Israel had in mind all along and the Palestinians simply would not accept.
So the die has been cast and the president leapfrogged over Palestinian resistance. That’s because if the Palestinians don’t agree to negotiations with Israel and follow through, the plan kicks in as is with Palestinian control of the remaining 70% in limbo. As the American Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman put it in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post:
“If the Palestinians refuse to show up, I’m not sure what else the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] can do. But I think there ought to be an unequivocal communication to the Palestinians that they are invited to negotiate in good faith on the president’s vision.”
In fact, the Trump plan – which presents the Palestinians with a fait accompli and the correlative incentive to negotiate for a state of their own – is the only approach to resolving the dispute that was ever possible. The notion that parity and co-equality must drive any Israel/Palestinian interaction was wrongheaded from the start as Israel was a modern, prosperous and functioning state and the Palestinians were still looking to establish one, notwithstanding the support the Palestinians enjoyed internationally.
And certainly now and going forward, any approach that does not reflect the even greater political, economic, military and technological contrast between the two sides would be absurd and futile.
Significantly, the Trump plan embraces two key Israeli requirements: that any Palestinian state be demilitarized and that the Palestinians abandon their claim of a right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees. These were stumbling blocks in the past and effectively doomed any negotiations. Yet the Palestinians, solely by virtue of international support, were positioned to resist Israeli demands for their abandonment, revealing the fallacy of the co-equal approach and the absurdity of its use as a tool to get Israel to make a deal.
However, the Trump Plan seized upon the massive shift of the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Israel in the past few years, which had caused countries there, erstwhile and essential Palestinian allies, to rethink their alliances; Egypt led the pack, followed by Saudi Arabia and others. A prominent Saudi journalist, Abdulhameed Ghobain, claims the Arab public is now largely “indifferent” to the Palestinian cause, recognizing that Israel is key to their security vis-à-vis Iran and to their economic and technological prosperity.
He said, “Israel is an advanced country and we benefit from it. [When] Turkey established relations with Israel, it experienced great progress.”
Coupled with this is the deterioration of two of the most important states and past Palestinian allies, Syria and Iraq, which are no longer able to project power beyond their borders. The Gulf States are dealing with the collapse of the oil market. The significance of a strong Israel to their own well-being has overtaken any notion of support for any adversary of Israel. Nor can the cash-strapped Iran offer any help as long as crippling U.S. sanctions continue.
Russia will also offer little help, given its current deep ties to Israel and what it gains economically, politically and technologically from them. Further, India and China are each cultivating ever-greater economic and technological cooperation. And while institutionally the European Union favors the position of the Palestinians on West Bank issues, their strongest sanctions require unanimous support from their members and both Hungary and the Czech Republic – both building relationships with Israel – can be counted on to veto any serious sanctions on Israel.
The Palestinians were now being forced to realize that the international support that had long encouraged and sustained their recalcitrance had evaporated and that it had no leverage with Israel for the foreseeable future.
So it was in this period of ebbing Palestinian strength and burgeoning Israeli strength that Trump chose to push his plan that essentially reflects Israel’s current wish list. While a Palestinian veto would be precluded, it still provides the Palestinians the opportunity to secure what is now realistically available to them.