Insult of the Century: Assessing the Trump Administration’s Peace Plan

The Trump peace plan may finally be revealed after months—or even years—of speculation. The leaks have increased in recent months and officials have pointed to June as the time when they would put it forward. The timing was based on the expectation that by then the Israelis would be done with their elections and would have formed a new governing coalition. This timing may again be complicated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure in this regard, but a conference planned in Bahrain suggests a plan is moving forward in the short term. It is shaping up to be a well-organized effort at humiliating the Palestinians.

Deal Expected Soon …. or Not

Despite promising an American peace plan at the outset of his administration, President Donald Trump, now two and a half years into his term, seems close to finally putting something forward. Evidently, Washington was waiting for the domestic political picture in Israel to come into focus after Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which fell apart last year, led the country into elections this spring. While the results of that election seemed to be a victory for Netanyahu and his right-wing partners, the Israeli prime minister was unable to form a coalition government before the deadline. Had this government been inaugurated in time, Trump’s peace plan may well have been released shortly thereafter, i.e., in early June.

Since this administration seems to have an appreciation for anniversaries––having announced moving the US embassy to Israel to Jerusalem on the 100th year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and then scheduling the opening ceremony on Nakba day the following year––it would not be out of step with Trump to put forward something around the beginning of June, commemorating the June 1967 war. But this could be delayed again because of Netanyahu’s inability to form the government following disputes with his potential partners. Even though right-wing parties won a majority of seats in the elections, there are some issues on which they disagree strongly such as the feud over the exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from military service, an exemption opposed by secular parties. Currently this is holding up a government deal. In fact, the Israeli Knesset voted to dissolve itself and new elections are to be held on September 17.

Leaks

During the two years since President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was put in charge of the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, there has been a steady stream of leaks of information about the plan. Some leaks have included bits of the plan. Others have included far more details. Of course none of these leaks has been confirmed by the White House and, in fact, the White House has been quick to shoot down rumors, saying that no one outside of the Kushner-led team has seen the plan. One recent leak, however, stood out and might be worth taking more seriously. Not only was it the most detailed of the leaks thus far, but it also was published in the Israeli tabloid Israel Hayom. This is significant for a few reasons. The tabloid—having a reputation as a Netanyahu mouthpiece—is distributed free in Israel and is funded by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who is perhaps the most prominent backer of both Netanyahu and Trump.  The leak of the plan to Israel Hayom1 also reportedly originated as a document from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Trump’s envoy, however, has also specifically called this report inaccurate.

The leak of the plan to Israel Hayom also reportedly originated as a document from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Trump’s envoy, however, has also specifically called this report inaccurate.

Nonetheless, the report is expansive and seems to fit with many of the statements on the record that Trump officials have been willing to make.

The Israel Hayom report says the plan will call for the recognition of a Palestinian “state” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called New Palestine. This does not include the settlements and the Jordan Valley, otherwise known as Area C from the Oslo Accords, which makes up about 60 percent of the territory of the West Bank.

Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control but serve as the capital of both states, even though the Arab areas in Jerusalem would remain under the control of the municipality. Gaza would be dealt with by land leased from Egypt where facilities to serve the besieged strip, including an airport and other industrial assets, would be developed. None of these plans would be implemented before Hamas and all other factions handed over all their weapons. A financing scheme that involves various state parties, primarily the oil-producing nations of the Gulf, would underwrite the costs.

Additionally, the leaked plan has provisions for “penalizing” Israel and/or the Palestinians if they decide to reject it. The administration also committed itself to help Israel in punishing Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad if they reject the deal.

What are we to make of this leak? Is it any more revealing than any of the others? The common thread between this most recent and most significant leak of the Trump plan and all of the others are twofold: first, whatever is being proposed falls far short of sovereignty and freedom for Palestinians; and second, the plan is going to involve various regional players in ways and at stages not before seen or considered.

Putting the Deal in Context

It is easy to dismiss the Trump plan as a non-starter; indeed, the representatives of the PLO have done so already. As we can ascertain from what has been leaked, the deal clearly does not afford Palestinians an independent, sovereign, and contiguous Palestinian state on 22 percent of Palestine, the stated minimum of the PLO and the position supported by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. But in truth, no previous American proposal or position met the PLO’s minimum. Instead, what sets Trump’s plan apart is not the actual positions in the proposal but, rather, how his team is going about attempting to advance it.

What sets Trump’s plan apart is not the actual positions in the proposal but, rather, how his team is going about attempting to advance it.

While the George W. Bush Administration welcomed the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and the Obama Administration recognized the importance of the initiative when it worked to modify it to include land swaps, the Trump Administration is ignoring it completely. In doing so, the Trump team is upending the formula of achieving the PLO’s minimum before moving toward Arab-Israeli normalization of ties. It is in this way that the Trump plan could be the most impactful. If the Trump Administration is able to split the Arab states from the Palestinians, particularly the leading Gulf states with whom it has developed very strong ties, it can then try to impose on the Palestinians a new minimum with the help of some Arab states. Will the Arabs go along?

Buy-off in Bahrain

The relationship the Trump Administration has been able to develop with key Gulf states has been well documented. Central to these relationships is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, who is also leading the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. Kushner has cultivated deep ties with the leadership in Saudi Arabia, particularly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and with the United Arab Emirates. In a post-Arab Spring Middle East, the Saudis and Emiratis are enjoying greater leverage over other Arab states than ever before.

The Trump Administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and MBS has been unprecedented. Trump signaled support as MBS ascended in a power struggle and then again when he effectively purged political opponents in the royal family or those who were closely affiliated with the family. The White House further backed the crown prince throughout the Khashoggi affair even as much of the world was horrified at the gruesome murder of a well-known journalist. More recently, Trump used his veto power, for only the second time in his presidency, to stymie a congressional effort to stop US support for the Saudi war on Yemen. The Saudis have shown some flexibility around oil output, at times seeming to respond to Trump’s request, but the ledger still shows a balance due for all the support Trump has given Riyadh—and MBS in particular. Backing his plan for Israel-Palestine, and recruiting regional support for it, would be a likely request.

An opportunity to see just what sort of Arab support there will be for the Trump plan comes in late June in Bahrain where, the White House announced, it will host an international conference to build support for the economic development of Palestine, a key component of its plan.

An opportunity to see just what sort of Arab support there will be for the Trump plan comes in late June in Bahrain where, the White House announced, it will host an international conference to build support for the economic development of Palestine, a key component of its plan. Bahrain is a key Saudi ally and it has been at the forefront of normalization efforts with Israel. The PLO has already made clear it will not attend the conference and reports indicate they will not be the only important players to boycott. Russia and China are apparently joining them in boycott. Riyadh will surely try to use its leverage to bring various regional players to the conference but without Palestinians participating, it becomes even harder to pretend that the effort is in good faith.

Washington has been laying the groundwork for blaming Palestinian leaders aggressively since the fall of 2017 when it moved toward announcing the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In recent months, the language and rhetoric from American representatives, including Kushner and particularly special envoy Jason Greenblatt, suggests they are looking to circumvent the PLO entirely and hoping to connect with other Palestinians instead. So far, they have found one person. Other Palestinian businessmen who have been invited to the workshop have refused to participate.

The Bigger Picture

The bigger problem with the Bahrain workshop is not who will attend but rather what the convening tells us about the Trump approach. From the outset, Trump officials have been talking about improving the quality of life for Palestinians, economic prosperity, and so on. What they have not talked about is sovereignty, ending the occupation, and brokering a just peace based on rights. The suspicion that has grown is that the Trump plan is merely a different iteration of the “economic peace” model preferred by Netanyahu. After “taking Jerusalem off the table” by recognizing it as Israel’s capital and then launching an economic war on Palestinians by strangling aid agencies, cutting off funding, and effectively breaking relations by closing the Washington, DC office of the PLO delegation, it became clear that the Trump Administration was only interested in pressuring the Palestinians. In fact, the United States has moved from a more traditional role of a mediator with a pro-Israel disposition to an overtly right-wing Zionist participant alongside Israel in its effort to erase the Palestinian cause.

The United States has moved from a more traditional role of a mediator with a pro-Israel disposition to an overtly right-wing Zionist participant alongside Israel in its effort to erase the Palestinian cause.

So what is the point of punishing the Palestinians and cutting off funds to them, directly and indirectly, only to host a donor conference to develop the Palestinian economy? The point is simple: the Trump Administration understands the need for a financial model to accompany a political plan. But it wants to get rid of the old financial model and create a new one that supports an entirely different political plan, one that liquidates the rights of Palestinians instead of merely maintaining the status quo. It all adds up to an offer to pay off Palestinians to forgo their freedom. This is the insult of the century.

It is possible that regional players will participate in the Bahrain conference out of courtesy to the White House and then tread carefully based on the political plan that Kushner and his team unveil at that point and shortly thereafter. However, the fact that Arab states, including the most prominent at the moment, may be willing to go along with such an effort as signified by their participation in the Bahrain conference is precisely the stuff of Benjamin Netanyahu’s wildest dreams. Driving a wedge between the Arab states and the Palestinian position so that he can normalize a paradigm shift has always been Netanyahu’s fantasy. Now he has collaborators in the White House looking to help him make it a reality.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Hebrew.