Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (February 3, 2020) - The Trump Plan: the Immediate Aftermath

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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. How would you characterize international, Arab and Israeli reaction to the Trump “deal of the century” for Israelis and Palestinians that the US president presented last Tuesday in Washington?

A. The immediate reaction in nearly all quarters ranged from euphoric to polite or reserved. The peace plans’ official American and unofficial Israeli authors projected pride and optimism. Most of the Israeli public got excited about Trumps’ warm embrace of so many Jewish values and aspirations. The Arab response was cautious.

Within a few days, however, once the plan was studied and analyzed, the reaction on nearly all fronts took a negative turn and its principal author, Jared Kushner, became apologetic and defensive. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn a week later is that the Trump plan, like so many of Trump’s diplomatic and military initiatives, was amateurish and had failed to look ahead and anticipate the reaction of those whose future it pretends to chart.

Q. Start with the Israelis, who are supposed to be the plan’s main beneficiaries.

A. The Trump plan assigned to Israeli sovereignty all West Bank settlements and awarded it all of Greater Jerusalem. The veteran Gush Imunim settler leaders, with their messianic vision of the significance of settling every inch of the Land of Israel, were ecstatic about this affirmation of the settlements’ rationale--some to the extent of openly weeping in the course of media interviews. The non-messianic but equally determined settler leaders in the Jordan Valley were equally positive. The more pragmatic among the Gush Imunim settlers and their supporters, like popular TV analyst Amit Segal, advocated immediate annexation by Israel of the Jordan Valley and the 15 isolated settlements remaining deep inside the 70 percent of the West Bank allocated to a Palestinian state, in order to ‘create facts’ lest for some reason the plan is delayed.

PM Netanyahu, encouraged by this response and by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an avid settlement supporter, indeed declared his intention to ask Cabinet approval on Sunday or Monday of this week to annex, without clarifying exactly which parcel or parcels of West Bank land: the Jordan Valley, the 15 isolated settlements, or the remaining West Bank settlements destined to be in Israeli territory. He apparently thought that, with Trump’s backing, he could “get away” with a quicky land-grab reminiscent of Levy Eshkol’s annexation of East Jerusalem in June 1967 and Menachem Begin’s annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981--both unilateral Israeli acts rejected by the entire world but recently “recognized” by Trump.

This was not to be. Netanyahu quietly backed away from this idea when the Trump administration itself (see below) intervened and clarified that any action to be taken on the plan should wait at least until after Israel’s March 2 elections. Then too, Netanyahu had to contemplate the implications of asking Cabinet or Knesset approval (it was not immediately clear which body was legally empowered) for the “goodies” in Trump’s plan (annexation of territories and settlements) while thereby implying approval for the rest of the plan--a Palestinian state, which is rejected outright by the settler lobby represented in his coalition. Instead, Netanyahu departed on Monday for Uganda to demonstrate to voters, almost certainly in vain, his ongoing efforts to expand Israel’s Africa reach.

In stark contrast to the veteran settlers and Friedman, residents of communities hugging the Israel-Egypt border in the Negev expressed shock and outrage. No one--neither PM Netanyahu nor Kushner--had asked them whether they agreed to sacrifice part of their land and a lot of their security in order to establish two enclave extensions of the Gaza Strip in their midst. The settlers living in the 15 settlements destined to become enclaves in a Palestinian state were also disquieted by the security ramifications of Jared Kushner’s map. The Blue-White party played it cool and expressed support in principle for a plan that includes a Palestinian state. On the Zionist left, Meretz and Peace Now held a demonstration in Tel Aviv to condemn the plan.

Israeli protests, open or implied, multiplied. The IDF let it be known that no one had consulted it throughout the past three years of Netanyahu’s scheming with the Trump administration to adopt the ‘deal of the century’. Immediate annexation of 15 isolated settlements deep inside the West Bank would require a large force deployment to protect settlers from angry Palestinian neighbors. Creation of two additional mini-Gaza Strips in the Negev along the Egyptian border would require additional allocation of forces. Jordan might respond to annexation of the Jordan Valley by cancelling Israeli overflight rights along with a host of additional and vital security cooperation arrangements.

Recently drafted IDF priorities for 2020 emphasize the Iranian threat from Syria, not the need to keep the peace in an angry Palestinian sector that could now include the Negev. And not to worry about the fate of Israel’s strategic depth in Jordan.

And Israel’s election polls? As predicted earlier in these virtual pages, they have not been affected in the least by the Trump-Netanyahu grandiose presentation of the deal of the century in Washington. They still point to a dead heat a month from now between a Likud-led ultra-nationalist bloc and a Blue-White-led centrist bloc.

Q. The Arab response?

A. The Arab response to the Trump plan followed a similar increasingly souring trajectory. Initial reactions from some Arab states were cautious and encouraging, without delving into the details of the plan. Ambassadors from three Gulf states--Oman, the UAE and Bahrain--had attended the Trump-Netanyahu presentation of the plan last Tuesday. In the ensuing two days those countries, along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco, offered qualified and generalized support. Egypt’s foreign minister, for example, called on Israelis and Palestinians to study the US vision carefully. The UAE ambassador to Washington tweeted, “The UAE appreciates the continued efforts made by the United States to reach a Palestinian-Israeli agreement”. He added that “the Arab world has more important challenges to deal with than Palestinian statehood.”

These non-comital but relatively positive appraisals were clearly designed to keep their Arab advocates in the Trump administration’s good graces. They also reflected Gulf Arab sentiment that the Palestinians were always asking too much from a peace process and that the Iran threat was more important, including when it came to quietly cooperating in the security sphere with Israel.

But it took just two days for the Arab world to execute an about-face. Tunisia’s new President Kais Saied led off on Thursday, denouncing the plan as the “injustice of the century”. This was followed on Saturday, at the Arab League’s foreign ministers’ meeting in Cairo, by a total rejection of the plan as “unfair. . . . it does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people.” The Arab leaders, who had been asked in advance by the administration to tone down their response, now announced that they would “not . . . cooperate with the US administration to implement this plan.” They reaffirmed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which recognizes the 1967 lines, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, Palestinian refugee rights, etc.--all elements missing from the Trump plan.

The Arab leaders were responding to the vocal objections of Jordan and especially the PLO, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, threatened in Cairo to “out” his fellow Arab leaders for their complacency and hypocrisy toward Palestinians. “We will fight to prevent a situation in which the plan becomes a legitimate formula that is adopted by the international community,” Abbas stated in Cairo. He then added, extraordinarily, “We told Israel and the United States that we will not have any more ties with them, including on the security level.”

Jordan reacted more quietly. It informed the Trump administration that Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley would produce an angry Jordanian reaction, thereby helping to bring about a US request for Israel to delay unilateral action. It informed the IDF through bilateral channels (see above) that its reaction could include steps implying genuine strategic damage to the two countries’ relations.

On the other hand, initial indications from the West Bank itself seemed to reflect more bark than bite. As of Monday this week, Israeli-West Bank security coordination had not ceased as Abbas threatened in Cairo (Note: this is a frequent Abbas threat that until now has never been followed up on; the Palestinian Authority simply needs Israeli input for its own security against extremists). Nor have Palestinian masses on the West Bank taken to the streets in angry protests, reportedly much to Abbas’s chagrin. According to Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, “it doesn’t seem like the street is holding so much hope”. Veteran Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib, after defining the plan as primarily an election stunt for both Netanyahu and Trump, added in a tone of resignation rather than revolt, “We are an occupied people holding tight to our land.”

Only two groups of Palestinians have thus far staged calculated protests. Israeli Arab residents of the Triangle towns abutting the old green line have made it clear they will not countenance the proposal to move the line so as to place about 200,000 of them in Palestinian territory. And Hamas in Gaza has trumpeted its patriotic protest by launching a multitude of incendiary balloons and a few rockets at Israel’s Gaza periphery settlements. Yet at the same time, Hamas has carefully reassured Israel via Egypt that it is committed to ongoing ceasefire efforts in exchange for considerable new Israeli infrastructure aid. In other words, perversely, both Palestinian protests may be seen as pro-Israeli, albeit against the Trump plan.

Q. The rest of the world?

A. The rest of the world seems universally either indifferent or condemnatory, particularly after witnessing the Arab League response. High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell (Europe’s foreign minister) said on Sunday that the Trump plan “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” for ending the conflict. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that same day, “We see the reaction from the Palestinians [and] a wide range of Arab states. . . . This, obviously, makes one think about [the plan’s] feasibility."

Q. And the US response to all this?

A. The Trump administration is backing away too. After hearing Jordan’s protests about the Jordan Valley, deal of the century author Jared Kushner hastened to cool Netanyahu’s annexationist ardor and clarify that a lot of technical work on the plan still has to be done, Kushner told a Saudi TV channel on Sunday that the plan is not final. Chastened by the angry Arab reaction in Cairo, he emphasized that he wants to hear Arab criticism and commentary.

Additional revisionist themes in Kushner’s Arab interview: everything can still be negotiated; the general idea is to stop Israeli settlement expansion, not encourage it; the Palestinian leaders who are protesting have gotten rich from the occupation and have no desire to end it.

In other words--and not for the first time when it comes to the Trump administration--its corrective response was, in effect, “Oops! We didn’t think of that.”

Q. The bottom line?

A. First, it looks likely that any further action on the ‘deal of the century’ will wait until after Israel’s elections. At that point, depending on the outcome, all bets are off.

Second, most of the Israeli electorate is pleased with US support. Most of the Arab world, including Egypt, condemns the plan but remains relatively unaffected by it. The Palestinians remain angry but generally passive and cynical. But Jordan is in need of immediate reassurance from both Washington and Jerusalem. That means actions, not words, to the effect that Israel will maintain the security and political status quo in the Jordan Valley and that no steps will be taken that threaten a Palestinian exodus from the West Bank eastward.

Third, like the Trump recognition of united Israeli Jerusalem and the Golan Heights annexation, this plan gives satisfaction to anyone seeking US confirmation of Israel’s extended territorial rights, whether by dint of 53-year-old military conquest, current security considerations or biblical rights. It may garner Trump more Evangelical support. It doesn’t appear to help Netanyahu electorally. And it doesn’t really change anything on the ground, particularly insofar as from the Palestinian standpoint the plan is a non-starter.

Finally, contemplating the Trump-Netanyahu performance a week ago in the White House and anticipating elections in Israel in a month and in the US in November, I can only quote a relative of mine who is a very observant psychologist: “I wish narcissists and sociopaths were not so charismatic. It would keep them out of power . . . “

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