On Tuesday earlier this week, US President Donald Trump announced the details of his “deal of the century” to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians. With a beaming Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu by his side, Mr Trump released the 180-page plan he has been touting ever since he entered the White House three years ago.
There was a carnival-like atmosphere at the launch. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and author of the plan, celebrated the occasion with members of Israel’s hardcore right-wing lobby in the US, all staunch supporters of Mr Netanyahu. A jubilant “Bibi” Netanyahu then described Mr Trump as “the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House”. Mr Trump called it the “ultimate deal”.
This triumphalism was fully justified — the plan meets every item on Israel’s wish list. Israel would have a united Jerusalem as its capital; it would annex 30 per cent of the West Bank, where 400,000 of its setters have been accommodated; it would also occupy the fertile Jordan Valley, which has a mere 12,000 settlers, but which gives Israel a “secure” border with Jordan. There would be no return of refugees; they would receive financial compensation from a special fund.
The Palestinians would have a limited claim to statehood — this state would be demilitarised; its territories would be non-contiguous enclaves, and, with the Jordan Valley a part of Israel, they would have no link with any Arab country. Its “capital” would be the village of Abu Dis, a couple of kilometres from East Jerusalem. Israel would maintain full “security control” over this “state”.
The realisation of this so-called state will be conditional; it will come into being after a four-year period, by which time Hamas should have been eliminated as a political and military entity and the Gaza Strip brought under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians will also recognise Israel as a Jewish state. For the Palestinians, this is the “new Balfour Declaration”, the harbinger of a new “naqba” (catastrophe).
What the Palestine “state” will seek to offer impoverished Palestinians is economic opportunity: modern infrastructure will be constructed, with a tunnel or a high-speed railway linking the West Bank with Gaza. It will have access to two Israeli ports, whose waters would remain under Israeli control. The infrastructure and economic zones will be financed by a $50 billion fund, mainly based on the Gulf sheikhdoms’ pledges at the economic conference in Bahrain in June last year.
Not surprisingly, Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, has called Mr Trump’s plan “the slap of the century”, and reminded the US President that Palestinian rights are “not for sale”. Palestinian observers have noted this plan has actually been under implementation since Mr Trump recognised united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and accepted as legitimate Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlements in November last year.
Given the ongoing political contentions in West Asia, Arab opinion is deeply divided. The ambassadors of Bahrain, the UAE and Oman attended the Trump announcement at the White House, but those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan stayed away.
Their opposition is perhaps lukewarm: in a telephonic conversation with Mahmoud Abbas, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz assured him of the kingdom’s continued support for the Palestinian cause. But the foreign office thanked the Trump administration for its efforts “in developing a comprehensive peace plan” that could initiate “direct peace negotiations under US sponsorship”.
Most observers see the plan as a non-starter. US diplomat Nicholas Burns believes it “forfeits any pretence of fairness” and condemns the Palestinians to live permanently as “stateless people”. US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has called it a “rubber stamp for annexation”. Aaron David Miller, a former US peace negotiator, feels the plan has harmed American “credibility and integrity”.
Clearly, the plan has little to do with peace and all to do with the immediate personal and political interests of both “Bibi” Netanyahu and Donald Trump.
The plan was announced a few hours after the Israeli attorney-general indicted Mr Netanyahu on corruption charges, compelling him to face trial within a few weeks. Over previous weeks, Mr Netanyahu is said to have been pressuring his friends in America, particularly Jared Kushner, to get Mr Trump to release the plan at a high-profile event in Washington a little before the Israeli elections on March 2.
This is to shift attention away from the charges against him and present him as the prime ministerial candidate most capable of swinging the best deals for Israel from the US, including the acceptance of claims that have not found favour with any previous US administration. This could allure to his Likud party those voters who had moved away in earlier elections, thus ensuring victory in a close campaign. In return, Mr Netanyahu will help consolidate Christian evangelist backing for President Trump, who is facing impeachment and possible removal for gross misconduct.
However, a Netanyahu victory is not assured. Some Israeli commentators view the Trump-Netanyahu orchestration of the peace plan announcement as “a crass and blatant intervention in Israel’s political process”. Another problem is that some right-wing elements in Israel find even the idea of a limited Palestinian “state” unacceptable and could blame Mr Netanyahu for this concession.
Whatever the calculations of the beleaguered US and Israeli leaders, Israel’s actions to implement the plan through annexations of occupied territories and creation of fresh realities on the ground will only make the Palestinians more frustrated and, perhaps, more desperate. This could lead to an escalation of violence which, in the already contentious regional scenario, could widen the conflict zone and bring in Hamas and Hezbollah, and possibly Iran. Thus, a region-wide confrontation cannot be ruled out.
The sense of isolation and abandonment among the Palestinians could also have the effect of bridging the gap between Hamas and Fatah and encourage national unity, a cherished goal that has eluded them over several decades. A united Palestinian front could pose an even greater threat to Israel.
The Trump plan is an opportunistic and cynical ploy by two desperate and discredited politicians for short-term electoral advantage, with little regard for its deleterious implications for regional or even Israeli security.
The writer, a retired diplomat, has served as India’s ambassador to several West Asian capitals