The U.S. Can Neither Ignore nor Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Washington Must Actively Manage a Dispute It Can’t End
You’ve got to hand it to the Middle East peace team of U.S. President Donald Trump. It has proposed a comprehensive and creative resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And even though Trump is quick to decry the failed efforts of past administrations, his team actually drew on the concepts, the principles, and even the wording of previous plans. Past U.S. mediators, however, tried to establish a basis for agreement by bridging the disparate positions of the two sides. The Trump team simply resolved the issues by sleight of hand: it decided each of the final status issues—borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and mutual recognition—in Israel’s favor before the negotiations even begin.
For instance, U.S. negotiators have always paid particular attention to securing the border between Jordan and a future Palestinian state, lest that frontier become a gateway for armies or terrorists crossing into the West Bank and thence into Israel. During the administration of former President Barack Obama, a team of U.S. security experts, in consultation with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, developed a plan by which Palestinian security forces could gradually assume control of the border; over a period of many years, the Palestinian forces would have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment and capabilities.
From that plan, the Trump team borrowed the concept of establishing security criteria and the metrics for measuring Palestinian progress—but applied them instead to internal security within the Palestinian state, with Israel being the ultimate judge of Palestinian performance. It resolved the matter of border security, meanwhile, by simply giving the entire Jordan Valley to Israel. The Trump plan would thereby surround the Palestinian state with Israeli territory, severing its contiguity with Jordan and turning Jericho into a Palestinian enclave and the Palestinian state into a Bantustan.
Similarly, previous negotiators struggled to reconcile the competing claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem, particularly in the Holy Basin that encompasses the Old City and the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holy sites therein. In the past, the negotiators sought to dissolve the sovereignty issue in favor of joint governance for the Old City. The Trump team instead resolved the matter by granting Israel sovereignty forever over the entire area, including the Christian and Muslim Quarters and the al Aqsa mosque.
For the last 52 years, Jews have been able to visit the site known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, but because of religious sensitivities, successive Israeli governments allowed only Muslims to pray there. That became part of the status quo governing the administration of the holy sites. The Trump plan commits to maintaining this status quo—but also provides for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, which would in fact be an inflammatory departure.
As compensation for renouncing their claim to sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, the Palestinians are offered a tourist center north of Jerusalem and Israeli-controlled access from there to the Muslim and Christian holy sites. This is the sort of offer that Yasir Arafat turned down at Camp David in July 2000, telling President Bill Clinton that if he accepted, he would not wait for his people to kill him; he would rather kill himself.
The Trump plan discards other painstakingly negotiated formulas in favor of manifestly unfair and unbalanced ones. Since the Clinton administration, for example, the equitable basis of all U.S. proposals for Jerusalem has been the stipulation that the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem should come under Palestinian sovereignty and the Jewish suburbs should come under Israeli sovereignty. The Trump plan, however, puts almost all of East Jerusalem’s Arab suburbs under Israeli sovereignty, leaving to the Palestinians one Arab suburb and a refugee camp on the eastern side of the wall that Israel abandoned during the second intifada. On that sliver of East Jerusalem, the Palestinians are now told they can build their capital, severed by the wall from both the al Aqsa mosque and the 300,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians can reasonably ask: what, then, is left to negotiate?
As to settlements, past Israeli and Palestinian negotiators considered having Israel annex the main settlement blocs situated along the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank, so long as the Palestinians received equivalent land from Israel to compensate. Under such an arrangement, 85 percent of the settlers on some 3 to 5 percent of West Bank land would be absorbed into Israel. The outlying settlements in the heart of the West Bank would be evacuated to allow for a contiguous Palestinian state. Trump’s peace team adopted the idea of land swaps—but the plan offers arid land on the Egyptian border to compensate for the incorporation of all the West Bank settlements into Israel, including the outlying ones. The result would be a Swiss cheese Palestinian state with no possibility of territorial contiguity. Instead, the Trump plan proposes “transportational” contiguity, through tunnels that would connect the islands of Palestinian sovereignty. Those tunnels, of course, would be under Israeli control.
Many well-meaning Israelis and Americans, and even some Gulf Arab leaders, agree with the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who argued recently that Palestinian “refusal today will almost inevitably lead to getting less tomorrow.” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, after all, took the truncated Jewish state the United Nations offered in 1947 and built on it. That offer did not include even a sliver of Jerusalem for Israel’s capital; the whole city was to be under international supervision. The Palestinians, the argument goes, should adopt a similar approach: they should take the truncated Palestinian state they are now offered and bargain for better terms. Indeed, Jared Kushner, the Trump plan’s principal architect, has said that if the Palestinians don’t like aspects of the plan, they can argue for changes.
But this argument overlooks the plan’s gross imbalance as a starting point for negotiations. And it ignores the fact that what little the Trump plan offers is highly conditional: in order to receive even this much, the Palestinian Authority first has to meet the standards of a Western democracy; then it has to take control of Gaza and disarm all the terrorist elements there, something which it has no means to do. And who gets to judge whether the Palestinian government has fulfilled these requirements? Israel.
Even worse, the Trump plan has been presented as a diktat. Trump’s team talks as though everything were already agreed between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and all that remains is for a U.S.-Israeli team—not an Israeli-Palestinian team—to demarcate the exact lines of the predetermined Trump map. That task, and the formation of a new Israeli government after the March 2 elections, are all that apparently stand in the way of Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and all the settlements, regardless of whether there are any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israel is owed such spoils, the Trump plan’s architects explain, in exchange for accepting the idea of a Palestinian state and relinquishing 30 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians can reasonably ask: what, then, is left to negotiate?
For years, Israeli governments have argued against an imposed solution, and U.S. administrations have solemnly committed to avoiding one. Now the Trump team—in close consultation with Netanyahu and with no consultation at all with Palestinian officials—has cooked up a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it seems intent on imposing on the Palestinians. Little wonder that when the Palestinians look at the Trump plan, they are unwilling to sit at a negotiating table that is not only tilted dramatically toward Israel but on which all of the high cards have already been dealt to the other side.
Yet the Palestinians cannot beat something with nothing. Their rejection of the Trump plan, which seems inevitable given the terms on offer, will provide Netanyahu the justification to go ahead with the annexation Trump has blessed. Instead, the Palestinian leadership should bypass the Trump plan and declare its willingness to enter direct negotiations with a new Israeli government after the March 2 elections. It should do so on the previously agreed basis of UN Security Council resolutions that provide for a two-state solution and a trade of territory for peace. Palestinian leaders could also invoke the Arab League Initiative, which would have 22 Arab states normalize relations with Israel once the Palestinian deal is done. Such a move might shore up shaky Arab support and generate backing from the international community. And—who knows?—a Palestinian counteroffer of direct talks with Israel might just force Trump to abandon his plan and get behind a more balanced and realistic approach to resolving the conflict of the century.