To start with a spoiler. Neville Teller does not think that the “Deal of the Century” will work, not in this century at least; even though he spends over 260 pages analyzing its etiology. Annoyingly, perhaps, he only hints at the main failure for any such deal to succeed.
The “Palestinians” are far from being a united people. Sociologically they are a mixed multitude, a many-headed hydra whose published aim as a collective is to wipe out every trace of Israel. It is hard to believe that this declaration encompasses every, or even most, Palestinians.
Most, perhaps the vast majority, know that it is unobtainable in the foreseeable future. But the insistence of their leaders that this is within their grasp has only frustrated any diplomatic or political solution that has been put forward.
Not that Israel showed an unalloyed desire to come to terms with the Palestinians. In fact, it showed increasing reluctance to part with any territory gained in the 1967 war, especially after it withdrew from Gaza only to witness the Palestinians destroy any trace of agriculture development that they had left behind to be exploited by the old-new residents. Slowly but relentlessly Israeli governments, left and right, began to put down settlements in the captured area in the West Bank, even though it knew that this was contrary to world legal opinion.
Teller, a modern historian by training, shows a commendable grasp of facts surrounding the deal of the century. He delves into the minutiae of events happening in the surrounding countries as well as within the Palestinian leadership, whether the PA or Hamas or any other group that claims to “represent” the Palestinians. He ties in all sorts of happenings that somehow impinge on the center piece of his analysis. This includes the so-called Arab Spring and its various political consequences, the Syrian civil war, the entry of Russia into the area as a key player, the rise of Turkey and Iran as local powers, and the continuing animosity between Hamas and the PA.
At the center of his discussions is, of course, the dealmaker himself – Donald Trump, an enigmatic figure, a comparatively new arrival in the world of politics. Could he succeed where generations of others had failed? Could his experience as a businessman triumph in the face of complex, historical and sociological facts? Did the world of wheeler-dealer merchants have any chance to impact an often tragic political scenario?
Early in the process – Teller begins his analysis in the year 2016 – there were signs that nothing is simple in the Middle East. He recalls an Egyptian resolution, drafted in December 2016, that was meant to be brought up to the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements as totally illegal. A few hours before it was due to be brought before the Council, the Egyptians withdrew it, causing the Egyptian diplomatic establishment “a complete embarrassment.” The reason was that Israel and Egypt were now collaborating against the terrorists in northern Sinai, and both rejected Obama’s Middle East policy alongside president-elect Donald Trump.
Teller also shows how the Israeli situation continuously has international ramifications. For example, in April 2017 President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, adding that “in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Since the Arab states did not have tantrums at this statement, the first of its kind from Russia, President Trump concluded that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem would not disrupt his peace efforts. So, in December 2017, he announced that the USA recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that as a result would move its embassy from Tel Aviv. What is interesting here is Teller’s speculation that Putin might well have tried to do the same and thus establish Russia as a major player in any future peace talks. Is that too fanciful a suggestion? Teller backs it up by noting that following UN Resolution 2334, Russia issued a statement reaffirming its “readiness to host a meeting of the leaders of Israel and Palestine in Moscow.”(page 119). In deadpan British style, Teller tells us that if this what Putin was planning then “he missed the bus.” The entrance of Erdogan’s Turkey into the fray, following Trump’s announcement regarding the embassy, seemed to presage a replay of the 2010 Mavi Marmara affair when Erdogan sent a flotilla of six vessels “nominally on a humanitarian mission to relieve what had been described as the siege of Gaza.” It ended tragically with the death of nine people on the ship, killed by the Israeli assault troops who were defending themselves against armed soldiers in what had been a supposedly peaceful aid convoy. Teller describes this murky affair as “a cynical anti-Israel plot planned with the connivance of Turkey’s ruling AKP party and possibly of Erdogan himself, its leader.” Erdogan manipulated the event into a rupture of Turkish-Israeli relations lasting six years, although Israeli-Turkish trade grew massively over this period. In May of 2017, a Turkish business delegation advocated “increasing trade over the following five years.” Nothing is predictable in this part of the world, except its unpredictability.
Another observation shows how history often reveals some ironic reverses. Thus in 1917 the British parliament was about to announce its support of a Jewish homeland, but among the most virulent opponents to such a declaration were leaders of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the representative body of Anglo-Jewry. They maintained that “there was no such thing as a Jewish nation and they saw absolutely no need for a separate state for Jews.” The Balfour Declaration, as it came to be known, could not be dispatched to an organization so equivocal about Zionism, and so it was addressed to Lord Rothschild a fervent supporter of the Zionist idea. The irony in this is that many in Israel today see no necessity for a separate Palestinian state for more or less the same reasons.
So were The Donald’s efforts – for whatever motives – a breakthrough? Here Teller is generous in giving the disgraced leader the benefit of the doubt. It was an enormous gamble. It shook up the area. It pointed in a different direction. It imagined a new reality. If only... Abbas and his cronies rejected the deal out of hand without ever reading it. The Israelis, or at least their obsessed prime minister, accepted the parts of the plan that they agreed with and ignored those that they didn’t like, particularly the bit that promised a state to the Palestinians depending on certain conditions being met.
Teller’s book is mainly about facts on the ground. It tells the story extremely well and gives the reader a clear picture of what is a messy corner of the world. Trump’s deal may go down as a failed effort to give the parties concerned a push in a new direction. But it was a brave effort and if it leaves us with a feeling of a lost opportunity, Teller’s book asks us why.Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020
263 pages; £12.99