The Trump administration has begun unveiling its plan for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, announcing an economic conference in June in Bahrain. With characteristic hype, President Donald Trump has hailed the plan as the “deal of the century”, promising to reset the peacemaking paradigm.
The plan remains secret, and will likely be rolled out in a staggered manner, but we have had hints. Its authors, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have said that the traditional “two-state solution” has failed. Instead, the plan, he suggests, puts aside the discussion on Palestinian statehood in favour of steps to improve the economic lot of the Palestinians. These steps, we are told, include significant investment in the Palestinian Authority — mostly from the Arab world — and a loosening of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian economic activity.
In return, the Palestinians are to give up their claim for a state in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, and accept that key areas, particularly around Jerusalem, will become part of Israel. The Palestinians will likely receive a quasi-independent entity, greater prosperity and a degree of self-rule but under Israeli control.
It is unlikely that the plan will be so blunt. The door to Palestinian sovereignty will not be fully closed, but will be kicked far down the road to an undefined future, in return for economic concessions.
The plan has been coordinated with Israel. It has also been discussed with other Arab nations— notably Saudi Arabia — which the US hopes will pay for it and pressure the Palestinians to accept it. It is likely that the economic promises will unfold over the years and only if the Palestinians are judged by Israel and the US to have held their end of the bargain, while the Palestinians will be required to forego claims to statehood right away.
There may well be some difficult pills for Israel to swallow as well, in the form of concessions to Palestinian economic activity, the dismantling of some peripheral settlements and perhaps a bit more land for the Palestinian entity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely make much of his country’s willingness to make ‘concessions’, after some theatrical hemming and hawing about the heavy ‘price’ Israel is being asked to pay for peace.
It seems clear that the Palestinian Authority, and the people, will not accept the plan. Their aspirations for an independent state will be permanently weakened, while the economic promises are just that — promises which may, or may not, be realised. The notion that the Palestinian people will put aside their multi-generational aspiration for a state in return for money smacks of an attitude that the Palestinians are not a ‘people’ in the sense of a coherent national group who deserves a state, and can be bought off. In effect, it reduces their national aspirations to a real-estate transaction — a fitting approach for a president and a son-in-law who are real-estate moghuls.
It seems likely that the Palestinians will reject Trump’s plan, while Israel will make a show of its willingness to make ‘painful’ concessions to accept it. This plays well into the Israeli narrative that there is no Palestinian ‘partner’ for peace, and allows Trump to do what he really wants, which is to support Israel unreservedly.
It would, therefore, behoove the Palestinians to not reject the plan but to make a show of considering it. They could signal willingness to discuss the parts they like, the economic assistance, while saying that other parts need work and they are willing to enter talks for that purpose. Such a strategy would deny Israel, and Trump an obdurate Palestinian Authority which is unwilling to even consider new ideas for peace. The Palestinians can then wait out Trump in the hope that his successor would revert to the traditional two-state policy.
But, the politics of the moment make such a Palestinian response unlikely. The Palestinian people will be enraged and will look to their leaders to soundly condemn the plan. In doing so, they will walk into a trap and set their aspiration for statehood back yet again.
However, the plan, though music to the ears of the right-wing, does Israel no long-term favours either. The simple fact is that demographics will ultimately decide this conflict, though it will take several decades to play out fully. Whatever schemes may be concocted in the short term to allow Israel to maintain control over the territories it occupies, Palestinians will ultimately be a growing majority in the combined area of Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Over time, Israel will have to resort to increasingly draconian measures to deny Palestinians their rights, if this area is to be entirely controlled by a Jewish minority.
In short, Israel faces a choice. It can accept an independent Palestinians homeland, however difficult that may be for some Israelis to accept, and, thereby, maintain a geographically smaller Israel, which is a Jewish-majority democracy. Or, it can hang on to the Occupied Territories, and, thereby, guarantee that Jews will become a minority in a ‘larger Israel,’ resorting to increasingly anti-democratic tactics to systematically disenfranchise the Palestinians.
The “deal of the century,” if the hints are true, is an attempt at the latter course. However much it may dress up continued Israeli sovereignty over the Palestinians in the cloak of economic promises, the deal ensures that they remain under Israeli control and without full democratic rights.
The Western world has supported Israel for many reasons since its inception, but one of them is that it is a democracy. Over time, if Israel ceases to be one, it remains to be seen what will happen to the support it depends on.
(Peter Jones is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a former civil servant)