Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (January 29, 2020) - The Trump Plan

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. On Tuesday, January 28, President Trump presented his ‘deal of the century’. PM Netanyahu was at his side. Historically, how should we characterize this plan?

A. This is the first new publicly presented plan for an Israeli-Palestinian end-of-conflict peace since the Clinton parameters of early 2001. (The Olmert proposals to Abbas in 2008 and the Kerry proposals of 2014 were never officially published.) This is also an innovative plan compared to its predecessors. If only for these two reasons, the Trump plan or ‘deal of the century’ is a major event in the annals of Arab-Israel peace.

Q. That’s very generous of you. But how would you describe the plan itself?

A. It can be described in a number of ways, none of which, in my view, is positive or complementary. At the end of the day, it offers a major boost toward the emergence of a very dangerous non-democratic one-state reality.

First, this is a proposal drafted by real estate developers who believe in economic peace (meaning economic incentives to the Palestinians in return for substantive concessions) and in Israel’s overwhelming right to any and all places of significance to Jews in the West Bank. I can imagine Mssrs. Kushner and Greenblatt, both veteran settlements supporters, mapping out the site of a new mall to be built in place of a messy old village: roads, bridges, tons of development money and economic incentives can sweep away or overcome the objections of the village natives. “Be forward looking”, Kushner tells them. “Abandon your problematic old narratives. We’ll make you rich.”

The pro-Netanyahu BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University sums up this approach as “based on facts on the ground as they have evolved over time. The US peace team appears to have jettisoned both the historical ‘blame game’ and the contradictory narratives of the Palestinians and the Israelis, which have combined to frustrate all prior peace initiatives.”

What does those phrases mean in Palestinian eyes, whether West Bank or Israeli Palestinians? A US president facing impeachment is collaborating with an Israeli prime minister facing trial and jail to create a “peace plan” that negates or denies every core Palestinian position: 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, refugee right of return, and full sovereignty and territorial contiguity. The PA has to stop funding terrorists and encouraging incitement and to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Accordingly, and irrespective of the territorial map offered by the plan, it is unacceptable to the Palestinians--the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, Hamas--as a basis for negotiations. The only question is how much violence this rejection will now engender.

This points to a third way to perceive the plan, that of PM Netanyahu and his supporters. The plan awards Israel 30 percent of the West Bank, comprising the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. It does not dismantle a single settlement. It gives Israel permanent security control of the West Bank and Gaza--the latter demilitarized after the dismantling of Hamas. Jerusalem remains Israel’s united capital, with a Palestinian capital somewhere beyond the Jerusalem security fence. And because the Palestinians reject the plan, Israel can begin implementing it and applying its laws to that 30 percent immediately. Netanyahu and his supporters are certain the plan is the greatest territorial bonanza Israel could ever expect from an American leader.

Netanyahu clearly intends to make unilateral realization of the plan, with Trump’s acquiescence, his election platform. He might “annex” the Jordan Valley next week, or apply Israeli sovereignty to some or all of the settlements as a first step. In the current interim Knesset he has the support of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, thereby giving him the majority vote that Liberman, himself a settler, denies Netanyahu when it comes to forming a coalition.

Within Israel, Netanyahu still faces opposition from the extreme ultra-nationalist messianic right. The extreme right rejects in principle the creation of a Palestinian state in 70 percent of the West Bank and is uneasy about leaving 15 settlements as enclaves inside territory designated for the Palestinian state, even if by next week the Netanyahu government will have “annexed” them.

This brings us to the position presented by Blue-White leader Benny Gantz. He met with Trump on Monday this week and approved the plan. But he wants discussion and implementation to be postponed until after elections. And most crucially, he believes implementation must be coordinated with Israel’s peace partners. He sees the Jordan Valley as Israel’s security border. He wants to discuss this with the Arab world.

If Gantz holds to this view consistently, Blue-White can hardly endorse Netanyahu’s interpretation. It would want to discuss the plan with the PLO and Jordan. Needless to say, Blue-White’s potential coalition partners on the Zionist left, Labor-Meretz, would take an even tougher view. It is fair to assume that Blue-White understands the plan is a non-starter and that Blue-White’s “endorsement” does not mean it would wish to annex any part of the West Bank in the near future. Meanwhile, Gantz will pay lip service to the plan as the only way to reconcile the hawks and the doves within his own very heterogeneous party and blunt Netanyahu’s drive to leverage the plan in Israel’s March 2 elections.

Finally, other than the Palestinians the Arab world is largely silent. Kushner and Greenblatt seem to believe the encouraging comments about the plan, which probably reflect mere obligatory politeness, that they heard in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi months ago and that were ritualistically repeated on Tuesday. They think they can buy the compliance of Egypt and Jordan and even Lebanon with additional billions of development funds, beyond the Palestinians’ $30 billion, helpfully forked out by the wealthy Gulf Arabs.

The Arab League is meeting in Cairo to discuss the plan this Saturday. Expect Palestinian leader Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II to denounce it. Abbas has already labeled Trump “kalb ibn kalb” (a dog, son of a dog). All the other Arabs have no specific territorial quarrel with the plan and are fed up with the PLO’s extreme demands on narrative issues like the right of return. Now the Gulf states will be torn between a desire to move on and together with Israel firm up the ranks against Iran on the one hand, and loyalty to the PLO, Jordan and the Arab cause on the other. Their response will be interesting: Silence? Obfuscation? In any case, without the PLO even enthusiastic Arab support means little for Israeli-Palestinian relations, though it could benefit Israeli bilateral relations with one or more Arab states.

Q. The plan, as noted, dismisses Palestinian narrative issues like right of return while endorsing Israel’s narrative demand for recognition as a Jewish state. Here the plan is unequivocally one-sided. But it offers some intriguing territorial twists. Can you comment?

A. Readers are encouraged to look at the map of final status offered by the plan. Just google “Trump peace plan map”. It is not all that different from the map discussed at Camp David in July 2000, offered by Olmert to Abbas in 2008 and presented by Kerry in 2014. All of those maps were rejected by the PLO even though they awarded it 90% to 95% of the West Bank and a capital in Jerusalem proper.

In other words, Mssrs. Kushner and Greenblatt did a lot of “cut and paste” to produce this new-old map. Still, it differs in the following ways.

First, it awards only 70 percent of the West Bank to a Palestinian state because the Jordan Valley remains permanently under Israeli control, with a few minor allowances for Palestinian transit and economic rights. Second, Palestinians will have no sovereign shore along the Dead Sea though they can set up an economic enterprise there. Third, 15 veteran Israeli settlements remain as sovereign Israeli enclaves inside Palestinian territory--a certain formula for friction and violence.

Fourth, the plan maintains a long-existing proposal for a tunnel or sovereign land passage linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Needless to say, under current circumstances Hamas and Islamic Jihad, backed by Iran, would use such a passage to infiltrate the West Bank. This means that even if the PLO accepts the plan, the land passage is a dead letter until and unless moderate Palestinians can take over the Gaza Strip and neutralize the Strip’s ruling Islamists.

Fifth, the plan offers the Palestinians territorial compensation in the form of two enclaves well south of the Gaza Strip along the Israel-Egypt border. One is optimistically labelled an industrial zone, the other an agricultural zone. The plan also allows for the highly unlikely possibility that Israeli Arab residents of the villages of the “Triangle” abutting the green line will opt to attach themselves to Palestine.

Taken as a whole, at the territorial level the Palestinian state sketched by Kushner resembles Swiss cheese. An optimistic spin was offered by TV Channel 12 commentator Amit Segal, a right-winger, when he compared the Kushner borders to those between Holland and Belgium, which have enclaves inside one another’s territory--a paradigm of peaceful European-style coexistence that does not exist anywhere in the Middle East. A pessimistic and more realistic take was offered by Yedioth Aharonot’s Nachum Barnea: “The independent Palestinian state that Trump is talking about is more wretched than Andora and more split and segmented than the Virgin Islands.”

Then too, there is the challenge to Israel of removing thousands of illegal outpost settlers, and possibly thousands more from those 15 settlements left within the Palestinian state. Another Gaza-type withdrawal will not be nearly as smooth or violence-free as the 2005 original. But it won’t happen unless the PLO accepts the plan. And when, after four years, the PLO definitively rejects the plan, Israel will be free to add to those 15 settlements.

Q. Why do you point to the need for, say, Blue-White to discuss the plan with Jordan? After all, Jordan is not on the “map” of the plan.

A. The Hashemite monarchy’s biggest fear regarding a plan like this is that, by undercutting Palestinian needs and expectations, it will sow fear and violence until, eventually, West Bankers will flee en masse to Jordan (the East Bank) and “Palestinize” it by giving Jordan an overwhelming Palestinian majority. The Hashemites are fully aware that influential Israeli extreme right-wingers seek precisely such a “solution”, giving Israel total demographic and geographic control between the river and the sea.

But Jordan is Israel’s steadiest ally--against Iran, against radical Arab states like Syria, and against ISIS, which has just for the first time declared it is targeting Israel. Hashemite Jordan is Israel’s strategic depth. Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria are Israel’s real security borders. Israeli right-wing prime ministers like Shamir and Sharon, upon taking office, quickly grasped this strategic reality and abandoned “Jordan is Palestine” in favor of Israel’s alliance with Jordan. A takeover of Jordan by Palestinians brings Arab and possibly, via Hamas, Iranian enmity directly to the Jordan River.

King Abdullah II wants an Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley to help control Palestinian irredentists in a two-state solution. But he does not want Israeli sovereignty there. Abdullah is bound by both honor and strategic common sense to insist on at least symbolic Palestinian sovereignty in close to 100% of the West Bank. His status as guardian of the Jerusalem Muslim and Christian holy places is dependent on a genuine two-state solution that honors and accommodates Palestinian, Arab and Muslim narratives.

Israel needs Abdullah and the Hashemites.

Q. Your bottom line?

A. First, the nexus of Trump’s plan--his impeachment, Netanyahu’s unfolding indictment (he just withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity since it had no chance to be approved), and Israel’s March 2 elections--promises lots of surprises in the month ahead. There are precedents. Remember PM Ehud Barak’s pathetic last-ditch peace effort with the Palestinians at Taba in January 2001, on the eve of elections he lost? And PM Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, while he was fighting corruption charges?

Second, an approach of abandoning the blame game and prior narratives might work if Israel as well as the Palestinians were asked to abandon its own narratives like demanding recognition of a Jewish state. It might work as an interim settlement that sticks only to real estate--more generously apportioned to the Palestinians--and does not demand of the Palestinians to accept “end of conflict, end of claims”. But that is not the case. Hence this plan can only be carried out unilaterally, with disastrous consequences, or simply shelved alongside its predecessors proposed by Clinton, Barak, Olmert, Kerry, etc.

Third, Israel already controls the Jordan Valley and, at the security level, the West Bank. The settlements are already subject to Israeli law. In other words, a declarative Israeli decision to annex any part of the West Bank--meaning, as with East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, to apply Israeli law—changes nothing de facto. On the other hand, at the de jure level, annexation pits Israel against the entire international community and international law, with the exception of the Trump administration. The European Union reaction could be particularly harsh and critical.

Who needs this headache? Only a beleaguered Netanyahu grasping at ways to please his electoral base, remain prime minister and stay out of jail. More reasonable Israeli strategic thinkers who propose, in view of Palestinian disunity and disarray, minor unilateral Israeli steps to back away from the one-state slippery slope have just been neutralized by Netanyahu and Trump for the foreseeable future.

Fourth, from the American standpoint this plan must be understood as a real estate deal. Sholem Aleichem captured the real spirit of the Trumps, Kushners and Greenblatts in “If I were Rothschild”: “At Passover you are more concerned with the matzo balls than with the Seder. ‘Territory’ is only a pretext. What you are after is something else--something you can get your hands on--money.”

Fifth, Palestinians take note: every time the world offers you a new plan for coexistence with Israel, you are awarded less territory and fewer rights, going all the way back to the Peel Commission plan of 1937. A smart, united and dynamic Palestinian leadership would offer Israel its own reasonable plan. But the Palestinian leadership--really leaderships, taking into account Hamas in Gaza--is neither smart, united, dynamic, nor reasonable.

Sixth, under these circumstances neither Netanyahu nor Gantz, with their legitimate worries about conflict with Iran and its allies to our north, should be interested in putting the international spotlight on the Palestinian issue. This is particularly so if and when, almost inevitably, this plan leads to violence. Yet that is precisely what Netanyahu and his political ally Trump are doing.

Seventh, Israelis and Israel’s supporters would do well to recall that Israel’s only successful peace gambits, with Egypt and Jordan, were hatched behind the back of the United States. without its interference and despite its objections, after which Israel and its Arab partner approached the US administration for support. This plan, in sharp and worrisome contrast, was cooked up by Netanyahu’s people and Trump’s people. From an historical perspective, that is hardly a formula for success.

Eighth and most significantly, this plan, implemented unilaterally by Israel, whether wholly or partially, is a giant step toward remaking Israel as a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Jewish agreement to a democratic binational Israeli-Palestinian state, one with an Arab majority that ceases to be Zionist and Jewish, is also most unlikely. Accordingly, if executed, the plan promises fairly quickly to deliver an apartheid entity wherein Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank function as virtual Bantustans, with all the concomitant violence that is inevitable when “peace” means erasing one side’s basic narratives. Ultimately, despairing of their own state, Palestinians will campaign for Israeli citizenship. That, by the way, also describes the direction of the status quo--only more slowly and with more options to reverse course.

When PM Netanyahu terms the Trump plan “a realistic path to a durable peace”, don’t believe him. There is here nothing realistic and no peace. Only, to quote Ben Gurion, “behia ledorot”: literally, weeping for generations; figuratively, endless trouble.


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