Is there a practical roadmap for Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian plan?

Gilead Sher
Isaac and Mildred Brochstein Fellow in Middle East Peace and Security in Honor of Yitzhak Rabin

and

Daniel Cohen
Intern, Center for the Middle East

 

 

In search of constructive ways to render the two-state solution feasible

President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” does not live up to its name. It falls well short of an ultimate deal that will break the Israeli-Palestinian gridlock and equitably resolve the conflict. It is more accurately a continuation of previous interim agreements — essentially, an “Oslo C” — but with a significant departure from past negotiation understandings.[1] The distortion of internal balances previously established in other U.S. frameworks seems detrimental to promoting peace or regional security.

Though it is unfortunate for both sides, the Trump plan will shape the negotiation process for years to come, regardless of the results of the U.S. 2020 presidential elections. It will serve as a point of reference in future negotiations for those strongly in favor of it and those staunchly opposed.

The plan envisions Israeli control of the Palestinian state’s airspace, sea and electromagnetic spectrum, as well as all borders and crossing points. There are also no concessions for Palestinian sovereignty over any part of the Old City or the Temple Mount, eliciting further Palestinian scorn for the plan. Both stipulations disregard carefully crafted compromises from former negotiations — the Oslo process, Camp David and Annapolis — which offered detailed sovereignty-sharing proposals and special security arrangements. Even worse, while the Trump plan licenses Israel to initiate annexation without any preconditions, Palestinian statehood is conditioned upon unreasonable and impractical thresholds, all but assuring Palestinian failure.

Israeli control of Palestinian borders and airspace undermines the essence of Palestinian sovereignty, and offers Palestinians little more than they already have: autonomy and self-governance without ultimate jurisdiction. The Palestinian state would be fully encircled within the sovereign borders of Israel, which would also include the Jordan Valley, while complex roadways would connect to Jewish enclaves deep within Palestinian territory, compromising the security of Israel and the territorial contiguity of Palestine.

In previous negotiations, Israel has not asked for a sovereign border in the Jordan Valley, but merely a long-term security presence and complementary arrangements with Israeli intelligence capabilities.[2] Security experts agree that a gradual withdrawal from the Valley, perhaps with American or UN forces stationed as well, can provide Israel with the necessary intelligence and security to the east.[3]

Not only are the security benefits overstated, but the Trump plan actually creates a whole host of uncertainties for Israeli security.[4] The proposed map[5] adds 1,400 kilometers to Israel’s borders, accounting for the Jordan Valley borders to the east (with Jordan) and the west (with Palestine), as well as the Negev area offered to the Palestinians, which will create a narrow Israeli corridor between Egypt and Palestine.[6]

Israel must abandon the annexation project under the Trump plan and instead re-sequence the negotiations as a bilateral effort with the Palestinians. Annexation of Jewish settlements or the Jordan Valley would be a nearly irreversible action that could lead to international demonization and delegitimization, the collapse of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and deterioration of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, or dissolution of the PA altogether.[7],[8] It is detrimental to the fundamental vision of Israel as a Jewish, democratic and moral state and undermines Palestinian self-determination in a viable, peaceful state. Instead, the way forward requires gradual disengagement of Israelis and Palestinians within a framework that promotes a reality of two nation-states and regional prosperity.

By Palestinian calculations, any incremental improvements that could be made from negotiating under the auspices of the Trump administration will ultimately strip away from the core of the Palestinian vision. Yet as the Palestinians have continued to prioritize their ideal vision for statehood over incremental changes on the ground, Israel has engineered a process of gradual de facto annexation, which may soon become de jure. At this juncture, only Palestinian engagement can stave off the direst consequences of the Trump plan.

Palestinian involvement could take many forms, three of which are discussed herein. Instead of rejecting the Trump plan outright, the Palestinians could find benefits in saying “yes,” but yes, we want a negotiation process for two states, but we refuse to entertain the most outrageous proposals of this plan. Or, Palestinians could actively reject the Trump deal but publicly call for talks on how to advance a mutually beneficial peace process. They could endeavor to establish terms of reference and parameters for further negotiations while partnering those with clear redlines. Perhaps one step further, the Palestinians could put forth a new, alternative plan of their own, one that goes beyond the limited confines of the Arab Peace Initiative and offers a measured way forward. Palestinian leaders must propose a well-crafted response that can capture the support of Palestinians and moderate Israelis and avert the current political risks of Palestinian leadership associating with Israel and the U.S.

Even if Palestinians continue to demand that the “Peace to Prosperity” plan be scrapped in its entirety, this should not preclude the possibility of quiet, backchannel discussions with all parties concerned: Israel, the United States, the Europeans and Arab states. Secret talks are necessary to build the infrastructure for future negotiations, or at least to preserve the conditions for an eventual two-state-for-two-people outcome. Since a secret communication channel would be deniable, Palestinian leadership can avoid political blowback from their constituency, contain Israeli expansion on the ground, and offer a forceful rejoinder to Trump’s hollow political exploitation.

It is also critical to incorporate a track of Israeli negotiations with moderate Arab states. Proactive participation of Arab states can incentivize Israelis and Palestinians to contemplate the benefits of a viable negotiation track. Not only can Arab states provide important infrastructure to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but Israeli-Arab normalization is a key component of any roadmap to regional peace. Given numerous points of reference for negotiations, including the Camp David Summit, the Annapolis talks, the Arab Peace Initiative, and, of course, the Trump plan, Arab states can still encourage a negotiation process as a basis for reaching many stated objectives of the API. The international community, including the international quartet of the U.S., Russia, the EU and the UN, must encourage Arab participation in the process via a package of incentives, with the help of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed many foreign policy issues on hold as the world copes with the health crisis, and its economic and societal impacts. This will not erase the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor the problems of the Trump plan. Rather, once the pandemic has subsided, the geopolitical challenges facing the Middle East will resurface, amplified. Nevertheless, all parties involved must utilize the post-Covid-19 years to resolve, or at least subdue, issues critical to the resolution of the conflict.

 

Notes

[1] Gilead Sher, “Let’s Call Trump’s Plan What It Is: Oslo C,” Forward, January 29, 2020, https://forward.com/opinion/439134/lets-call-trumps-plan-what-it-is-oslo-c/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ilan Goldenberg, “A Security System for the Two-State Solution,”Center for a New American Security, May 31, 2016, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/advancing-the-dialogue-a-security-system-for-the-two-state-solution.

[4] Gideon Biger and Gilead Sher,”What the Trump Peace Plan Doesn’t Tell Us,” Ynet, February 15, 2020, https://www.ynetnews.com/article/Hk3Fmj11X8.

[5] White House, “Peace to Prosperity,”Appendix 2C (Washington, D.C: White House), January 2020,  https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Peace-to-Prosperity-0120.pdf.

[6] Biger and Sher, “What the Trump Peace Plan.”

[7] Gilead Sher and Daniel Cohen, The Repercussions of Partial or Full West Bank Annexation by Israel, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Houston, Texas, November 2019, https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/repercussions-partial-or-full-west-bank-annexation-israel/.

[8] Commanders for Israel’s Security, Ramifications of West Bank Annexation: Security and Beyond (Commanders for Israel’s Security and Israel Policy Forum, 2018), https://israelpolicyforum.org/annexation/.