The dog ate my Mideast peace plan

As with Trump’s “better-than-Obamacare” health plan, which will only be revealed after the 2020 US election, his Arab-Israeli “deal of the century” is most likely too good – or too bad – to be true.

April 4, 2019 22:00
4 minute read.
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump adjusts his jacket as he welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump adjusts his jacket as he welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House last month. Trump has dispelled any vestige of Palestinian trust in American intentions. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)


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For the Trump administration, Israel’s April 2019 elections are both an excuse and an incentive. US President Donald Trump has formally recognized Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, delivering a major boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely three weeks ahead of this major Israeli vote. And yet, the Trump administration’s latest excuse for delaying its long-awaited “peace plan” has been Israel’s upcoming elections.

Although it likewise rewards Netanyahu politically and undermines any future peace efforts, there was also no hesitation in closing the US Consulate in Jerusalem and placing its Palestinian outreach function within the US Embassy to Israel – effectively pre-approving Israeli annexation of all or part of the West Bank. These two decisions alone – along with the elaborate White House ceremony – could be enough to secure the prime minister a convincing political victory.

The Embassy move and the Consulate downgrading make no sense if a peace plan is indeed imminent, or if current Israeli and US leaders are genuinely committed to anything resembling a “two-state solution” – now or in the future. Recognizing Israeli sovereignty – technically, the extension of Israeli law to the Golan Heights – signals that Trump could also approve future annexations.
As Gershom Gorenberg has pointed out, the US Golan decision negates United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, the premise for mutual recognition and for any potential peace efforts – including any conceivable US plan. Adopted unanimously in November 1967, 242 stipulates both “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and “acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area…” including Israel. Even Syria eventually accepted these terms.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser – Jared Kushner – has also explained that his peace plan won’t incorporate the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, which since 2002 has been the Arab League’s basis for a comprehensive regional peace. So there doesn’t seem to be much left to build on.

There are three possible explanations for the months of delay in releasing the closely guarded US peace plan. First, the plan may acknowledge the reality that there can be no sustainable peace without painful Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank, leading to eventual Palestinian sovereignty in the heart of biblical Eretz Yisrael. A second option would be to deny this reality and attempt some 1980s-style “autonomy-plus” for Palestinians, under perpetual Israeli regulation and supervision. Announcing this option risks shutting down Israel’s informal outreach to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who cannot risk formal ties without the Palestinians getting some real sovereignty, including at least part of Jerusalem.

The third possibility is that – realizing there’s no way to reconcile Evangelical eschatology and Likud doctrine with the Arab and Muslim imperative for an independent Palestinian state – there is no actual peace plan.

GIVEN THE Trump peace team’s thin policy credentials, such a smokescreen would make sense. Since the mid-1990s, the outlines of a final outcome have been fairly straightforward: Some hybrid sovereignty across the Temple Mount; Israel’s capital in west Jerusalem and the Palestinian capital in some part of the West Bank to be designated “east Jerusalem”; major Jewish settlement blocs incorporated into Israel, swapping enough Israeli land so “Palestine” gets the equivalent of the entire West Bank; a land corridor connecting West Bank and Gaza; US and international security presence in the Jordan valley; and major capital investment from the international community, especially the Arab states.

It takes no special genius to restate these well-known and widely accepted parameters, and certainly requires less than two years. The trick lies not in the blueprint but in the road-map, in the process, in generating the political will and the trust between the parties and between each of the parties and the United States. By moving the Embassy to Jerusalem (“taking Jerusalem off the table”), subordinating Palestinian outreach under the US Ambassador to Israel and halting humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority, President Trump has dispelled any vestige of Palestinian trust in American intentions.

Trump did say the Embassy move meant Israel “will have to pay a higher price” in any peace deal. But as a businessman, he knows you can’t negotiate on something you’ve already given away. As his Ambassador to Israel has reassured American Jewish leaders, Trump just meant Israel will need to “lean in a little bit”.

With Netanyahu running an early victory lap last month in Washington, his reelection looks very probable. If he chooses the more right-wing parties to join his next government, it’s very likely Israel will annex – and expand settlements into – enough of the West Bank as to preclude any contiguous Palestinian state. And then it will be too late for any US peace plan, unless it entails reprising the local “village leagues” fantasy that propelled Ariel Sharon to invade Lebanon and try eradicating the PLO in 1982.

In light of the steady deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian trust and – post-Embassy move – the outright hostility between US and Palestinian negotiators, any “peace plan” will either go nowhere or it will involve a wrenching reversal of Trump’s decisions on the Jerusalem Embassy and the Jerusalem Consulate.

As with Trump’s “better-than-Obamacare” health plan, which will only be revealed after the 2020 US election, his Arab-Israeli “deal of the century” is most likely too good – or too bad – to be true. Even an ambitious peace plan would only be a starting point, and meanwhile Jerusalem and the Golan are Israel’s to keep.

US Presidents have been trying to help their favorite Israeli politicians win elections for decades, and Israelis have sometimes reciprocated. The notion that Washington has delayed a ready peace plan while favoring Israel with lasting changes to the status quo – all to avoid somehow running afoul of Israel’s elections – is laughable.

Shai Franklin, a former executive with Jewish organizations, is a partner with Gotham Government Relations.

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