News from January 27 to February 2

President Trump's Middle East Peace Plan

Hey everyone. I’m going to do things a little differently this week. I’m only going to cover the peace plan because I think it needs a good amount of space to present effectively. I’ll cover this week’s many Israeli election developments next week. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or concerns, feel free to reach out at newsofthejews@gmail.com

Also, don’t forget to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections! You can do so here.

Trump Administration releases its Middle East Peace Plan:

What happened? On Tuesday, President Trump held a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu where he released his vision for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump administration described the plan, drafted primarily by Jared Kushner, Avi Berkowitz, and Jason Greenblatt, as a “vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

What are the details of the plan? Here are some key points:

Israel will freeze the construction of new settlements

Israel will annex the major settlement blocs in the West Bank and the United States will recognize the moves. The plan calls for Israeli control over West Bank “enclaves,” or communities in the West Bank not located in major settlement blocs. 

The United States will recognize a future Palestinian state consisting of roughly 70% of the current West Bank, Gaza, and land on the border with Egypt. A tunnel or above-ground roads will connect the West Bank and Gaza.*

Israel will retain control of the waters off the coast of Gaza as well as annex the Jordan River Valley, preventing the future Palestinian state from sharing a land border with Jordan.

Israel will retain Jerusalem as its capital, while the future state of Palestine has the option of locating its capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a neighborhood called Abu Dis.

The “Triangle” communities–self-identifying Palestinian towns in Israel on the border with the West Bank–would be transferred to the future state of Palestine.

No right of return for Palestinian refugees in Israel, but they can settle in the future Palestinian state.

The previously released economic portion of the plan calls for 50 billion dollars of commercial investment into the future Palestinian state.

* = American recognition of the Palestinian state comes with conditions. Notably, Israel will retain control over airspace and security matters. Gaza must also be demilitarized, and the Palestinian state must establish a constitutional democracy.

Source: Peace to Prosperity, White House

What do supporters say? The plan is a fresh look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that reflects the reality of the situation better than previous initiatives. The plan is not a final status agreement; it is intended to be a new basis for negotiations that resets the conventional wisdom away from improbable compromises based on the 1967 borders. For better or for worse, the political and geographic landscape in Israel and the Palestinian Territories has changed, and negotiating on outdated terms has proven to be futile. After all, every attempt at creating a final status agreement has failed. Why not try something new?

Another benefit of the plan is that it would not require the relocation of anybody. Disengaging from Gaza in 2005 was a controversial move in Israel that required a lot of political capital (and it didn’t end well either). Israeli politicians learned from that experience and are far more likely to accept a plan if it doesn’t require uprooting families from their communities. Along a similar vein, Israel has historically been more willing to negotiate when it is more secure. This is somewhat intuitive; a country facing frequent violence will be more willing to make compromises if its security is guaranteed. Any final status agreement must ensure Israel’s safety, and this plan treats security as its #1 priority. 

Then, there is the already-released economic portion. By securing investment in the Palestinian economy, the plan could revitalize the struggling Palestinian job market and deliver prosperity to a deserving people. A healthy economy is also good for security matters. People resort to terrorism when they have little to lose or there is no avenue to air their grievances. Jobs address the former, and strong democratic institutions address the latter.

More than anything, the plan acknowledges the reality of the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel cannot continue to allow new settlements in the West Bank if it wants to preserve the option of a two-state solution. Every settlement (outside existing blocs) makes a future Palestinian state more difficult to create. Ultimately, if a Palestinian state becomes unfeasible, Israel may have to absorb the Palestinians and become a binational state (depending on who you ask, this is a good or a bad thing). This plan preserves the two-state solution by freezing the construction of new settlements. 

For the Palestinians, the clock is ticking. Israel is unlikely to offer any compromise that is better than what it has offered in previous negotiations. If they reject this deal, Israel is likely to continue to build settlements, making the creation of a future Palestinian state improbable. Although it’s far from what Palestinian leaders have looked for in the past, it might be the best deal they can get. Given the Israeli political landscape, waiting and hoping for a more amenable Israeli government could prove fatal for Palestinian statehood.

The plan has also received some support from Arab states, a new development in recent attempts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regional support for a plan is critical for the success of any final status deal. 

What do its opponents say? The vision calls for self-determination for the Palestinians but then strips them of vital elements of sovereignty necessary for statehood. As mentioned earlier, the Palestinians would not have control over their airspace or the waters off the coast of Gaza. The plan addresses this point by claiming sovereignty is an “amorphous” concept that changes with time. That may be true from an academic perspective, but does that reflect the opinion of the people who would have to accept this form of sovereignty?

By not relocating the Israelis living in the “enclaves,” the future Palestinian state looks like a heavily gerrymandered Congressional district. Calls for an infrastructure initiative to connect the irregular borders also give off the impression that pockets of Israeli settlers are more important than Palestinian dignity. Sure the transportation conduits technically preserve Palestinian territorial continuity, but in the eyes of the Palestinians, it’s only necessary because Israel refuses to evacuate the settlers.

The plan also calls for the transfer of the Triangle communities to the future state of Palestine. Do they want to go? They may self-identify as Palestinian, but without a referendum to determine if they actually want to become part of the state of Palestine, it would be undemocratic. Moreover, the other land that the Palestinian state would receive on the border with Egypt is largely empty desert. 

The plan does not materially deliver on any traditional Palestinian demands. The Jerusalem arrangement is lopsided in favor of Israel. The Palestinians wouldn’t get East Jerusalem–they would essentially get a suburb. There is no real right of return for Palestinian refugees and Palestinians would have limited control over their affairs. While the United States may see its vision as creating a future Palestinian state, many Palestinians just see the plan as a continuation of the occupation. 

Perhaps most damning, the Palestinians weren’t consulted during the development of the plan so we can’t really consider this a comprehensive solution to the conflict, or even a basis for negotiations. Also, by showing distinct favoritism towards Israel, the United States can no longer be considered a fair mediator and the Palestinians lost what little trust in America that it had. Lastly, while the plan might have some support from regional actors, the Arab states are not nearly as important as the Palestinians themselves. A deal without the Palestinians is not a deal. 

How did everyone react? Leaders all over the world had very different opinions.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “We say a thousand times over: no, no, no.”

Qatar: “welcomes all efforts aiming towards a longstanding and just peace in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba: The plan “offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.”

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi: “Jordan supports every genuine effort aimed at achieving just and comprehensive peace that people will accept,” but be warned against the “dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures that aim to impose new realities on the ground.”

Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry: “appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan.”

High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell: The plan “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” to end the conflict.

Turkey: Described the plan as “stillborn.”

Iran: Described the plan as “doomed to fail.”

Hamas official Ami Abu Zuhri: “Trump’s statement about Jerusalem is nonsense and Jerusalem will always be the land of the Palestinians. The Palestinians will confront this deal and Jerusalem will remain a Palestinian land.”

Hezbollah: “This deal would not have taken place had it not been for the complicity and betrayal of a number of Arab regimes, secretly and publicly involved in this conspiracy.”

French Foreign Ministry: “France welcomes President Trump’s efforts and will carefully study the peace plan he presented.”

UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab: “This is clearly a serious proposal, reflecting extensive time and effort. We encourage [leaders] to give these plans genuine and fair consideration, and explore whether they might prove a first step on the road back to negotiations.”

Though several Arab states initially expressed support for the plan, the Arab League unanimously passed a resolution rejecting the deal. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinian Authority would stop coordinating security efforts with Israel and the United States.

My take (personal opinion): The plan is valuable insofar as it’s an acknowledgment of the current reality in the region. Whether we like it or not, the situation in the West Bank is complex. No matter how badly some may want it, a long-term arrangement will not be as simple as returning to the 1967 borders. I don’t think this will yield a final status agreement, but hopefully it resets “conventional wisdom” in a way that could lead to a future deal. I do have some issues with the approach, though.

A lot has been said about this “acknowledgment of reality concept.” Like I said, I agree with that. I do, however, think it’s important to acknowledge how that reality came to be. For example, the fact that an agreement would require significant Palestinian concessions on core issues (like Israeli enclaves in their future state) is at least partly a result of Israeli settlement policy. This “reality“ was not created in a vacuum, as some would have you believe.

The problem has never been that Israel wasn’t willing to make concessions. It has been Palestinian rejectionism. How does only communicating with the Israelis and largely ignoring the Palestinian demands solve the problem of getting the Palestinians to agree to a deal? Wouldn’t a better approach be to identify Palestinian needs and get the Israelis to compromise? 

The most significant reason why it will not succeed is that there isn’t anyone who can negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. Not only is Abbas 84 and in the 16th year of his 4-year term, he only controls the West Bank. Before any plan can succeed, there has to be Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah (Abbas’ party) in the West Bank. Until that happens, there will be nobody with a sufficient mandate to negotiate on behalf of the future Palestinian state.

I obviously don’t know how to solve the conflict. I don’t think anyone does. Until someone figures it out, I think the best approach would be to take measures to improve the quality of life for Palestinians and Israelis and avoid unilaterally resolving contested issues. In that sense, I support the parts of President Trump’s plan that make life easier for Palestinians and Israelis and open opportunities for cooperation between the two peoples. Nevertheless, the proposal is flawed and requires Palestinian input to have a chance at being successful.

Further reading: https://www.vox.com/2020/1/28/21083615/trump-peace-plan-map-netanyahu-israel-palestine (Vox)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/01/29/israel-won-israeli-palestinian-conflict-any-plan-has-reflect-that/ (WaPo)

https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-a-steep-uphill-climb-20200202-nrfamph5crgyhhrozhlalsqhsq-story.html (NY Daily News)

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/02/world/middleeast/israel-west-bank-annexation.html (NY Times

Please note that the sections titled “What do supporters say?” and “What do its opponents say?” are characterizations of the many arguments I have encountered on either side. They do not reflect any one person’s ideology.

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