US President Donald Trump’s recognition this week of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights has mega-important implications for Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy of the future.
The landmark decision asserts the law of diminishing returns: Arabs who refuse to make peace with Israel lose rights and assets as time goes forward. Mahmoud Abbas: Take notice.
Papa Hafez Assad and Baby Bashar Assad had opportunity after opportunity over 50 years to cut a peace deal with Israel that would have secured Syrian sovereignty over the Golan. Even after Israel formally annexed the territory in 1981, and even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in 1996, the Assads could have struck a deal. But they backed away each time. Then the Alawite regime crumbled in bloody civil war and the Iranians moved in. And now, relinquishing the Golan would be an insane Israeli move.
All along, it was doubtful that the French-colonialist construct called Syria had any greater claim to the Golan Heights than Israel did – historically, culturally or in geopolitical terms. But there was a formula called “land for peace” which gained international currency, and which might have worked in favor of the Assad regime – had it been willing to make peace. But the Assads preferred cold war; the “land for peace” construct grew moldy, and it eventually became irrelevant.
To Trump’s everlasting credit, he has now effectively jettisoned the “land for peace” construct, and instead applied raw political logic: Having forfeited many opportunities for peace and having lost any moral legitimacy as a state actor, Syria deserves nothing. Conversely, Israel deserves security and diplomatic justice. Israel deserves the Golan.
The usual gang of American Mideast experts have been quick to criticize Trump. The Golan move “signs the death warrant for Jared Kushner’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan,” barked Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution. “This jeopardizes the administration’s own peace plan,” warned Richard Haas of the Council of Foreign Relations, and Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute.
These experts have it exactly backwards! Trump’s bold Golan declaration enormously improves the chances for eventual Palestinian-Israeli peace because it puts Abbas on notice: Deal or lose.
You see, for more than two decades since the advent of the Oslo process, a dangerous dynamic has been in place. The Palestinians walked away from the negotiating table again and again, and somehow the cost to Israel of a deal went up and up. The Palestinian Authority paid no price for its rejectionism, while Israel was expected to pay an ever-steeper price for engaging and satisfying the Palestinians.
This was the case in every round of negotiation: Oslo I, Oslo II, Wye, Camp David, Taba, Annapolis and the Kerry rounds. Each time, Israel was expected to concede more and more. Washington pressured Israel to constantly reward Abbas for coming to, and staying at, the negotiating table. This fed Palestinian appetites, and allowed Abbas to continually blackmail the US and Israel for “sweeteners” (like the release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails) and concessions (40%, then 80%, then 92%, then 95%, then 97% of the West Bank land mass, etc.).
Each time, the Palestinians pocketed Israeli concessions without willingness on their part to compromise on concrete issues, then crashed the talks or used Hamas to doom the talks while running to international institutions to blame Israel, and then broke almost every previous commitment of their own.
As such, Palestinian demands haven’t moderated over the years; they have hardened and radicalized, fed by a steady diet of expectations inflated by the Clinton and Obama administrations and the European Union. Backed by the sacred “land for peace” principle, the diplomatic dynamic always worked against Israel.
NOW, SAYS the Trump administration, we’re going to approach Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy differently, applying new rules and a healthier dynamic.
First, America no longer worships at the altar of the 50-year-old “land for peace” recipe. Peace and prosperity are their own rewards. As for land, well, let’s look at what arrangements are fair, realistic and sustainable in the current situation. There is nothing holy about the 1949 armistice line (the “Green Line”).
Second, America will reasonably apply the law of diminishing returns, meaning that those who aren’t willing to compromise will lose. If Abbas doesn’t engage on Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” and thinks that he can hold out for a better deal imposed on Israel by a more pro-Palestinian American administration in the future... think again!
Time won’t stand still. Like Assad’s regime, Abbas’s “Authority” risks losing all moral and political legitimacy as a semi-state actor if it persists with horrible policies like “pay-for-slay” (incentivizing terrorism against Israel), attempts to criminalize Israel in international institutions, or refusing to engage in negotiations toward a levelheaded compromise with Israel.
As a result, the Trump administration is liable to apply the Golan precedent to the West Bank. It could recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria (say, the broad Jerusalem to Jericho envelope and the Jordan Valley, or most of Area C) – or it may dial-back from support for Palestinian independence altogether and instead re-invest Jordan with tutelage over parts of the West Bank.
In short, the aspects of Palestinian sovereignty in some parts of Judea and Samaria that might be available now to the Palestinian Authority in a deal with Israel won’t necessarily be obtainable in several years’ time. Abbas better hurry up and pony up, or he will encounter the very painful cost of missed opportunity.
The Trump administration’s reversing of the long-deleterious global political dynamic regarding Israel and the Palestinians is supremely valuable. It transforms the Mideast diplomatic playing field. It creates pressure for forward momentum and real progress by intimating that time works against Palestinian interests.
I am hoping that Trump’s peace plan goes one step further. Whatever ideas are presented in the plan regarding borders, I think it is imperative that America push back against Palestinian denial of Jewish history in Jerusalem, as well as the Wakf Islamic religious trust’s violent and outrageous shenanigans on the Temple Mount.
The plan should insist on Jewish prayer rights on Har Habayit, (the Temple Mount). This will do justice to the Jewish people, and willy-nilly force Palestinian recognition of the Jewish people’s ancient ties to the holy site and to the Holy Land.
Jewish prayer on the site of the First and Second Temples (and not just beneath the ruins of those temples, outside the Mount’s external retaining barrier known as the Western Wall) can be facilitated without disrespecting Islam.
One possibility is a time-sharing agreement at the site, like the prayer arrangements that apply in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. Alternatively, a modest synagogue could be established on the fringes of the vast and mostly unused Temple Mount plaza in a way that doesn’t overshadow the two large Islamic structures on the Mount or undermine the several gargantuan Muslim prayer vaults underground.
Call this a law of increasing returns: Fueling reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians by tackling unalterable truths and facing the inevitable.
The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.