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How the Trump Administration’s Israel-Palestine Peace Plan Will Change the Middle East

11 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

Over the last two days, I received an exclusive early look at President Donald Trump’s proposed plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The effort was led by the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner. The administration’s peace plan tears up the playbook of prior presidents who have tried and failed to make real progress on peace in the region. The Trump “ultimate deal” is unabashed power politics. It recognizes Israeli power on the ground and recent dramatic shifts in the region’s geopolitics. On top of it all, it’s a deal that carries domestic political upside for the president in the midst of an impeachment hearing.

This proposal will not lead to peace in the coming weeks or months or maybe ever—and it may lead to an immediate outbreak of violence in the Palestinian territories. But, I think by recognizing the harsh realities on the ground and leveraging the unique position of the U.S. in the Middle East, it might open a process that will reduce tension in the region. Based on my early assessment of the plan, it is an effort worth taking.

At the core of the new plan, the Trump administration has declared support for an independent, sovereign State of Palestine with a capital on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. It’s a startling turnabout for an administration that controversially moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 and recognized Israeli control over the Golan Heights. Trump has also gotten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz on board. Netanyahu today called the Trump plan a realistic path to peace. Gantz told me, “I applaud President Trump for his leadership and will do everything in my power to translate his plan into reality following the elections in Israel.” Both Netanyahu and Gantz expressed support for recognizing a State of Palestine. In addition, once the plan is formally implemented by the Israeli government, Israel would freeze settlement construction or expansion in areas that, according to the plan, would become the future State of Palestine, for up to four years.

The starting point of the Trump team’s view is that more geopolitical honesty might change the game. Previous U.S. governments presented themselves as neutral arbiters between Israelis and Palestinians; neither side ever took that claim seriously. The Trump administration has never hidden its pro-Israel bias and, as expected, its peace plan is the most pro-Israel proposal ever to be put forward by Washington. It aims to contain, not roll back, Israeli settlements, giving Palestinians a smaller plot of land for their state, about 70% of the West Bank. It also rejects the long-standing Palestinian claim to control over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and it will remain under Jordanian custodianship.

But this is just the plan laid out by the Trump team and supported by Israel’s leadership. To be clear as of my writing, the Palestinian leadership hasn’t agreed to any of this. For two years, they’ve publicly refused to meet with Trump officials. In addition to anger over the Jerusalem embassy move and the recognition of the Golan Heights, Palestinian leaders are furious about a series of Trump administration moves targeted at their political and economic standing, including the U.S. decision to cut off funding for Palestinian refugee programs and to shutter the Palestinian office in Washington. Importantly, however, the plan is not final. Senior administration officials told me that there is still “meat on the bone” if the Palestinians decide to start talking. They will face pressure from across the region to do so. As a senior Arab diplomat involved in the negotiations told me, “We strongly encourage the two parties to sit down and engage directly with American leadership.”

Taken within the context of the rest of Trump’s foreign policy, this deal is an outlier. The plan is detailed and thoughtful, unlike the agreement announced with North Korea. It emphasizes diplomatic engagement, unlike the administration’s Iran policy. Most surprising, one of the most unilaterally-oriented of administrations takes a multilateral approach to resolving one of the world’s thorniest conflicts. The administration has worked with European and Arab diplomats to craft this plan, a fact that will become apparent as prominent Arab states likely release supportive statements in coming days. The U.S. may not be an honest broker between Israel and Palestine, but it’s proving to be an honest broker between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Geopolitically, it’s worth considering which is more important.

The Trump plan has embraced several blunt realities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, with a vast expansion in settlement activity over the past two decades, Israelis are winning the territorial war for the West Bank. While a majority of settlers live near Israel proper, small numbers of committed, well-armed settlers are establishing outposts in strategic areas in the West Bank designed to break up a future Palestinian state. The Trump plan offers Palestinians a way to stem that territorial bleeding.

Second, the plan also underscores the reality that Palestinian leaders have lost the active support of much of the Arab world, where leaders worry much more about Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, ISIS and domestic economic development. That’s a development over more than a decade, but Trump has seized on this reality in ways his predecessors haven’t. As Kushner told me: “The United States is now energy independent. Our national interest in the Middle East is less focused on oil than countering extremism, empowering allies, and fostering long term stability.”

This is where the economic component comes in. The Trump administration has pledged to drum up $28 billion over 10 years to support Palestine, with $22 billion of additional funding going to Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. This aid comes in the form of investment. The money would go toward infrastructure and transportation links, raising standards of living, and enabling broader regional trade. Funding would also be devoted to improving education, healthcare, and workforce development. Only small amounts of money were pledged at the Bahrain conference last year. But the U.S. has pledged that they’re not going to let the process die for lack of cash.

Yet, many Palestinians—and especially their leaders—will likely not accept anything that smells like a payoff. Despite dire long-term economic prospects in the West Bank and Gaza, many Palestinian and other critics will seize on four highly sensitive elements of the plan to dismiss it.

First, the plan crucially includes a poison pill that may stop the deal from advancing very far. Before Palestine can unlock any benefit, the Hamas government in Gaza must be removed from power and replaced with the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas wants to remain in power, the group must renounce violence, fully disarm, and accept the existence of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. That’s a non-starter. Hamas faces political and economic pressure, but a capitulation of its ideology or its power is unlikely. The plan also requires the new State of Palestine to safeguard freedom of speech and religion and promote financial and government transparency.

Second, the Trump plan would allow the State of Palestine to build a capital in the outskirts of East Jerusalem, but only in areas east of the existing separation barrier. Senior U.S. officials consider the village of Abu Dis or the Shuafat refugee camp as potential sites for a future capital; this stands in contrast to previous proposals, which envisioned that the core of East Jerusalem would serve as the Palestinian capital. Further, the State of Palestine would not exercise sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which would remain under Jordanian custodianship, as it is today.

Third, the State of Palestine would control just 70% of the West Bank, in contrast to the 94-96% proposed by Bill Clinton in 2000. Trump has proposed allocating chunks of territory along the Israeli border with Egypt to Palestine as industrial and agricultural areas, in order to boost the overall square mileage for the new state and provide new economic opportunities. That will be little consolation for Palestinians who’ve seen their land seized by Israeli settlers.

Finally, the administration’s position on the Palestinian “right of return” is a serious infringement on Palestinian sovereignty. No Palestinian refugees will be admitted to Israel under the plan, and Israel will have the power to restrict the Palestinian refugees permitted to enter Palestine—limiting Palestinian “right of return” even to their own state.

The Palestinians this week rejected the plan, based on early reports, and their leaders will make their anger clear in the coming days. The plan does not rely on Palestinian agreement to advance. Instead, once the Israeli government approves all or part of the document and extends sovereignty over West Bank settlements, the U.S. will immediately recognize the move. In all, 97% of Israelis who currently live in the West Bank would be under control of the State of Israel.

Senior administration officials have already told Israeli and Arab leaders that territory is specifically open for negotiation. The deck is certainly tilted toward Israel, in part because the Palestinians have refused to talk with the Trump administration for more than two years. International and domestic pressure is likely build on the government of Mahmoud Abbas to either get with the program or leave power. Trump is using to his advantage the massive power asymmetries between the US and the Palestinians. Tony Blair commented to me that, “This is one of the toughest things I have seen any Administration try. The first time anyone has put down a map. It is a comprehensive plan. It will provoke as much as it pleases but it will force everyone to face up to the real challenges and choices.”

This plan isn’t just about Israeli-Palestine. It’s central to the administration’s Middle East strategy. For decades, the international consensus has been that peace cannot blossom in the region unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed first. But as the conflict becomes more marginal to the interests of key actors, and the U.S. has generally become less interested, that’s no longer true. Arab-Israeli normalization is only a matter of time, and the Palestinians are at risk of missing that train.

This peace plan is directly connected to the current political situation in both Israel and the U.S. Although U.S. officials insist they’re not taking sides in the Israeli elections slated for March 2, the timing of the plan’s release is useful for Netanyahu, who was indicted today on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust. Given Netanyahu’s troubles (and the likely prospect that he’s not Prime Minister for much longer), the administration was committed to bringing Gantz on board with the plan as well. Kushner told me: “It’s good to see how two competitors in the Israel elections can put aside their differences to promote the interests of their country ahead of their political interests.” That wasn’t the Gantz’s initial position—he first publicly objected to the release of the plan before the election; after weeks of diplomacy he reversed his position and expressed support. Meanwhile, while Netanyahu will receive receive a temporary boost, he will have trouble guarding his right flank. The far-right parties on which he relies for political survival will decry his endorsement of a Palestinian state, whatever else the plan says.

Meanwhile, from the US side, the Middle East peace plan will further energize Trump’s base. Already this year, Trump has secured a “Phase One” trade deal with China, killed a prominent Iranian general, and proposed a fix to one of the most intractable political problems in history with the full support of Israeli leaders. Tomorrow, he will sign a trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. This is significant counter-programming to the Democratic Party’s Iowa Caucus and the impeachment hearings in the Senate.

We should consider the release of this plan the end of the beginning of the Trump peace plan. The administration told me they consider it an opening bid. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger told me that he thought the plan was “a responsible first stage and broader approach to the world’s most intractable geopolitical issue.” Whether this bid draws a constructive counter-offer and longer bargaining process plan will depends on a new set of factors in the region, ultimately determining whether (and which) Palestinians will engage. The ball’s heading to their court, whether they want it or not.


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