U.S. President Donald Trump has unveiled his plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a vision that could see an independent Palestinian state created in four years’ time – though almost entirely on Israel’s long-standing terms.
Mr. Trump’s proposal was unveiled hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges and as Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial continued in the U.S. Senate. It was immediately hailed as “a great plan for Israel, a great plan for peace” by a jubilant Mr. Netanyahu, who stood beside Mr. Trump in the White House as the U.S. President read out a blueprint that strongly resembled the platform of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.
Moving swiftly to capitalize on the moment, Mr. Netanyahu said he would ask Israel’s cabinet to vote Sunday to annex the strategic Jordan Valley, as well as Jewish settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank since conquering the region in a 1967 war.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who was not invited to Washington, immediately denounced Mr. Trump’s ideas. “I say to Trump and Netanyahu: Jerusalem is not for sale, all our rights are not for sale and are not for bargain. And your deal, the conspiracy, will not pass,” he said in a televised address from the Palestinian Authority headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Israel deployed additional troops in the West Bank on Tuesday before the White House announcement, and the Palestinian Red Crescent aid organization said at least 10 people were injured – five by rubber bullets – in protests that erupted after Mr. Abbas spoke. Demonstrations also broke out in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Hamas movement, as well as in Palestinian refugee camps in neighbouring Lebanon.
The long-awaited unveiling of Mr. Trump’s blueprint took on the mood of a pep rally at times, with a room full of supporters cheering the leaders on. There were no Palestinian representatives present. Mr. Trump drew repeated applause by boasting of his pro-Israel policies, while Mr. Netanyahu drew excited parallels to the day in 1948 when the U.S. became the first country to recognize the Jewish state.
The timing of the announcement of Mr. Trump’s plan seemed designed to bolster the electoral hopes of Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing his third election in less than a year on March 2.
Under the White House’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, Israel would achieve its aims on every major outstanding issue that negotiators had stumbled over at the U.S.-brokered peace summits of the 1990s and early 2000s. In addition to annexing chunks of the West Bank, Israel would keep most of Palestinian-inhabited East Jerusalem – which was ruled by Jordan before 1967 – as part of what Mr. Trump called “Israel’s undivided capital.”
A future Palestinian state that Mr. Trump said would be created “when conditions are met” would be left to make its capital in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that lie on the other side of a cement wall that Israel started building in 2000 – during the height of the violence of the last Palestinian intifada, or uprising – around the parts of the city it wanted to keep.
Under Mr. Trump’s plan, the more than five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants scattered around the Middle East would be denied their United Nations-recognized “right of return” to the homes that they fled during the wars of 1948 and 1967. They would instead be settled either where they live now, or in the future Palestinian state. The theoretical Palestinian entity would also be demilitarized, with Israel retaining security control over the entire area.
That Palestinian state, Mr. Trump said, could only come to exist after the militant Hamas group was disbanded, and when the Palestinian Authority ceased “incitement” against Israel, including ending the practice of making payments to the families of those jailed or killed for violent acts against Israel.
In a rare concession, Israel agreed to freeze the construction of new settlements for the next four years to give the Palestinian Authority time to meet the criteria set by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump called his plan “a win-win opportunity for both sides, a realistic two-state solution that resolves the risk of Palestinian statehood to Israel’s security.” He called on Mr. Abbas to “choose the path to peace.”
But Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator, said Mr. Trump’s plan amounted to “repackaging the occupation as peace – but we know it’s not going to lead to peace.”
“This isn’t just about Palestine, this is about the legal system as we know it,” Ms. Buttu said in a telephone interview. “What we’re saying, in effect, is that international law can be ignored, and that might makes right.”
Rami Khouri, a veteran Middle East analyst, called Tuesday “a very dark moment for Palestinians.”
“There’s no pressure on the Israelis to do much different than they’re doing now,” said Mr. Khouri, who teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut. “I don’t think we should call it a peace plan. It’s not a plan and it has nothing to do with peace.”
The lure to get Palestinians to accept the proposal, which was drafted by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is a promise of US$50-billion in economic aid. The money – denounced by Palestinian leaders as a bribe as soon as Mr. Kushner announced that part of the plan last year – would come via a combination of loans, grants and investment in infrastructure projects.
The new Palestinian state would be allowed to construct a tunnel connecting the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians would also be given two patches of land in what is now desert along the Israeli-Egyptian border. In a map that Mr. Trump published on his Twitter account, one was labelled a “high-tech manufacturing industrial zone” and the other “residential and agricultural.”
Mr. Abbas reportedly refused to even speak to Mr. Trump by phone about the proposal this week. The Palestinian Authority cut off diplomatic contacts with Washington two years ago, after Mr. Trump broke with decades of American policy and announced he was moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a city that both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their capital.
Middle Eastern leaders fell into two camps in their reaction to Mr. Trump’s speech, with Turkey and Iran slamming it as a dangerous attempt to steal Palestinian land, while Israel’s neighbours Egypt and Jordan – which both receive billions in U.S. aid money – took a more wait-and-see approach.
“Jordan supports every genuine effort aimed at achieving just and comprehensive peace that people will accept,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, whose country is home to more than two million Palestinians, said in a statement. Mr. Safadi called for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and warned of the “dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures … that aim to impose new realities on the ground.”
Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah movement, which is supported by Tehran, said Mr. Trump had been encouraged by the “complicity and betrayal” of some Arab states.
The only Arab representatives in the White House on Tuesday were the ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates – who were lavishly praised for attending by both Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu. Saudi Arabia, which views Iran’s influence in the region as a bigger issue than the rights of the Palestinians, did not send a representative, but is believed to have quietly supported Mr. Kushner’s effort.
“It’s time for the Muslim world to fix the mistake it made in 1948 when it chose to attack, instead of recognize, the new state of Israel,” Mr. Trump said in his White House speech.
At a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday afternoon where he spoke about Canadians in areas of China affected by the coronavirus, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he hadn’t had time to review Mr. Trump’s plan, hours after it was released.
Mr. Trump also met Monday with Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s centrist Blue and White party, and Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival in the March 2 election. Mr. Trump said Mr. Gantz also supports the “Peace to Prosperity” plan.
But it was Mr. Netanyahu who got to stand beside Mr. Trump in the White House on Tuesday. Keen to keep the focus on his diplomatic achievements, rather than the criminal charges, Mr. Netanyahu was expected to fly Wednesday to Moscow to discuss the peace process with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem political analyst and onetime aide to Mr. Netanyahu, said the prospect of getting U.S. approval to annex the West Bank settlement blocs was certain to overshadow the Prime Minister’s legal troubles, and could help ensure Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election.
“For Israelis, Trump is a godsend. He’s basically adopted the Likud manifesto,” Mr. Barak said. “He’s a guy who is unequivocally on Israel’s side. You need to capitalize on that. It’s one reason Netanyahu is saying this is an historic opportunity.”
SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT
The Globe and Mail, January 28, 2020