This isn’t a break with the status quo. It’s the natural culmination of decades of American policy.
On Tuesday, President Trump released his long-gestating plan for Middle East peace, the so-called “deal of the century.” It calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; for Jerusalem, including its Old City, to be the undivided capital of Israel; and for Israel to annex all settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley — which makes up nearly a fourth of the West Bank, including its eastern border with Jordan — creating a discontiguous Palestinian archipelago state, surrounded by a sea of Israeli territory. Mr. Trump announced that the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over all the territory the plan assigns to Israel, and shortly after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pledged to annex all settlements and the Jordan Valley beginning on Sunday.
Members of the Israeli right and other opponents of a two-state solution celebrated the deal as the definitive end of the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. The Israeli left, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and other supporters of a two-state solution condemned the plan for the very same reasons, calling it the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
So there was agreement among both supporters and detractors that the proposal marked a momentous break from decades of American and international policy. But is the plan truly the antithesis of the international community’s longstanding approach to the conflict? Or is it in fact that approach’s logical fulfillment?
For over a century, the West has supported Zionist aims in Palestine at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. In 1917, the British government promised to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, where Jews made up less than 8 percent of the population. Thirty years later, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine: The Jews, who made up less than a third of the population and owned less than 7 percent of the land, were given the majority of the territory. During the ensuing war, Israel conquered more than half the territory allotted to the Arab state; four-fifths of the Palestinians who had lived in what became the new boundaries of Israel were prevented from returning to their homes. The international community did not force Israel to return the territory that it had seized, or to permit the return of refugees.
After the 1967 War, when Israel conquered the remaining 22 percent of Palestine, as well as the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria, Israel illegally established settlements in the territories it occupied and created a regime with separate laws for different groups — Israelis and Palestinians — living in the same territory. In 1980, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem. As with Israel’s settlement activity, there was some international finger wagging and condemnation, but American financial and military backing for Israel only strengthened.
In 1993, the Oslo Accords granted limited autonomy to Palestinians in a scattering of disconnected islets. The accords did not demand the dismantling of Israeli settlements or even a halt to settlement growth. The first American plan for Palestinian statehood was presented by President Bill Clinton in 2000. It stated that large Israeli settlements would be annexed to Israel and that all Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem would also be annexed. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized and contain Israeli military installations as well as international forces in the Jordan Valley that could be withdrawn only with Israel’s consent. As with the “deal of the century,” this plan, which formed the basis of all subsequent ones, gave the Palestinians increased autonomy and called it a state.
There are now more Palestinians than Jews living in the territory under Israel’s control, according to the Israeli military. Whether in Mr. Trump’s vision or Mr. Clinton’s, American plans have confined most of the majority ethnic group into less than a quarter of the territory, with restrictions on Palestinian sovereignty so far-reaching that the outcome should more appropriately be called a one-and-a-half-state solution.
Mr. Trump’s plan has many severe faults: It prioritizes Jewish interests over Palestinian ones. It rewards and even incentivizes settlements and further dispossession of the Palestinians. But none of these qualities represent a fundamental break from the past. The Trump plan merely puts the finishing touches on a house that American lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, spent dozens of years helping to build. During the last several decades, as Israel slowly took over the West Bank, putting more than 600,000 settlers in occupied territory, the United States provided Israel with diplomatic backing, vetoes in the United Nations Security Council, pressure on international courts and investigative bodies not to pursue Israel, and billions of dollars in annual aid.
Some of the Democrats now running for president have spoken of their disapproval of Israeli annexation, even as they propose nothing to stop it. Thus a mainstream Democrat like Senator Amy Klobuchar could declare her opposition to annexation and sign a letter criticizing the Trump plan for its “disregard [of] international law,” when she had also co-sponsored a Senate resolution “expressing grave objection” to a 2016 United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded Israel halt illegal settlement activity. Other Democrats, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, say they would be unwilling to provide American financial support for Israeli annexation. But that is little more than a slick formulation that allows them to sound tough while threatening nothing, since American assistance to Israel would not, in any event, go directly toward the bureaucratic tasks involved, such as transferring the West Bank land registry from the military to the Israeli government.
Aside from vague references to using aid as a lever, no presidential candidate except Senator Bernie Sanders has put forth proposals that would begin to reduce American complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights. Declarations of opposition to annexation ring hollow when they are not accompanied by plans to prevent or reverse it: banning settlement products; reducing financial assistance to Israel by the amount it spends in the occupied territories; divesting federal and state pension funds from companies operating in illegal settlements; and suspending military aid until Israel ends the collective punishment of two million people confined in Gaza and provides Palestinians in the West Bank the same civil rights given to Jews living beside them.
The Trump plan, much like the decades-long peace process that it crowns, gives Israel cover to perpetuate what is known as the status quo: Israel as the sole sovereign controlling the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,
- depriving millions of stateless people of basic civil rights,
- restricting their movement, criminalizing speech that may harm “public order,”
- jailing them in indefinite “administrative detention” without trial or charge, and
- dispossessing them of their land —
all while congressional leaders, the European Union and much of the rest of the world applaud and encourage this charade, solemnly expressing their commitment to the resumption of “meaningful negotiations.”
Israel’s defenders like to say that Israel is being singled out, and they are right. Israel is the only state perpetuating a permanent military occupation, with discriminatory laws for separate groups living in the same territory, that self-identified liberals around the world go out of their way to justify, defend and even fund. In the absence of advocating policies with actual teeth, the Democratic critics of the Trump plan are not much better than the president. They are, not in words but in deeds, supporters of annexation and subjugation, too.
Patriacide. Nationcide. Whatever you want to call it, that is what Israel is doing with its settlement policy: it is killing itself. If ever greater numbers of Jewish settlers are installed on land regarded by Palestinians as the basis for a state of their own, the possibility of a two-state solution grows ever more remote. Yet the single state alternative, involving annexation of the West Bank, would result in a country where Arabs vastly outnumber Jews and then you won’t have a one-state or a two-state solution: you’ll have a no-state solution. For those who love Israel and wish to preserve a democratic Jewish homeland, as much as for those who hate it, the settlements must stop. That’s what many left-wing Israelis and their friends say. But defenders of the settlements see things very differently. The two-state solution has long been a dead letter in their view: why stop building settlements in the name of a peace plan that is frankly unattainable? Whatever the eventual solution — it could even be a West Bank jointly governed by Jordan and Israel — there is no good reason why both Israelis and Palestinians shouldn’t both expand their settlements in the interim before an eventual peace deal.
Mr. Netanyahu only confirmed an unspoken truth. And yet something has changed.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Last week, ahead of the parliamentary elections in Israel this Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that if re-elected, he would annex up to one-third of the occupied West Bank.
His announcement prompted widespread international condemnation. But for most Palestinians such declarations mean nothing. We’ve heard many statements of support over the years, and nothing ever changes. Cynicism is widespread; by now, many of us would prefer straight talk. As Gideon Levy, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote recently, referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s plan: “Let him turn the reality in this territory into a political reality, without hiding it any longer. The time has come for truth.”
Israel already is reaping all the benefits of annexation in the West Bank, and without having to bear any responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians living here.
Mr. Netanyahu made this promise, on the eve of an election, only to please his right-wing supporters. Formal annexation won’t bring about any real change or extra benefits for the Israelis who live in the occupied areas. For all intents and purposes, the Israeli government already treats them as though they were living in Israel proper (extending Israeli law to them), and gives them perks (cheap mortgages and tax relief).
That’s one reason that many Palestinians I know have come to believe in a one-state solution: After all, with so many Israeli settlements in the West Bank by now, a two-state solution would be impossible to implement. That’s not to say, however, that many Palestinians welcome Mr. Netanyahu’s formal annexation plan as a step forward toward that goal.
Israel has always wanted this land — without its people. And the territory Mr. Netanyahu is promising to annex is sparsely populated with Palestinians. Most Palestinians living in the areas slated for annexation have already lost their land and they would not get it back. They would simply be condemned to remaining laborers in the service of Israeli usurpers.
But Mr. Netanyahu’s move would, at least, have the virtue of being clarifying: If implemented, it would confirm the demise of the 1993 Oslo Accords — a development that many Palestinians would welcome because they have been disappointed by the agreement. Under the accords, the permanent status of the territories in the West Bank was to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; outright annexation, as Mr. Netanyahu is now proposing, would be a clear violation.
For a time, the agreement was expected to bring about a negotiated peace between the two sides and freedom for the Palestinians. Instead, over the years it has enabled Israel to keep exploiting Palestinians economically, control much of their resources and exercise total dominion over their borders.
Mr. Netanyahu was an avowed opponent of the Oslo Accords when he was in the political opposition, before 1996, the year he first became prime minister. By now, after his various stints as Israel’s leader, he can claim credit among his supporters for having shrewdly managed the occupation of the West Bank until the time he could fully annex the territory. He furthered this goal with his unfettered encouragement of more and more Jewish settlements being built in the West Bank.
Palestinians have little interest in the elections in Israel this week. I’m not sure if that’s the result of their experience of living under an occupation that has morphed into ravenous colonial rule or of the economic hardships they suffer. Either way, I think few Palestinians believe that it will make much difference to them who is elected. None of the candidates is expressing a clear position on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations; those simply are not on the campaign agenda. I wrote nearly the same thing half a year ago, before the previous election.
What does stand out is the ever-growing discrepancy in power between Israel and the Palestinians. When Mr. Netanyahu declares that he will annex about one-third of the West Bank, everyone knows he has the power to do so. When Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, declares that he will cancel the divisions of the West Bank created by the Oslo Accords — into so-called Areas A, B and C — which gave Israel power over more than 60 percent of the area, everyone knows he is powerless to implement that announcement.
Worse, it is possible that Mr. Netanyahu is shrewd enough to carry out his promise of annexation and then manage to weather all the criticism and the consequences. He would probably justify the measure as being necessary for the defense of his country: He recently said to his voters in a Facebook post that Arabs “want to annihilate us all — women, children and men.” (Facebook then temporarily suspended some features of the account, as a penalty for violating the company’s hate-speech policy.) This hardly augurs well for the prospect of peace between our two nations if Mr. Netanyahu is re-elected.
Then again, it’s not like his main opponent, Benny Gantz, a former military chief, is better disposed toward us Palestinians. Short of being a Saudi billionaire, Mr. Gantz said last week, “the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is in Israel” — as though Palestinians in Israel were treated like Israelis’ equals. “And the second-best place to be an Arab in the Middle East is the West Bank.” As though Palestinians — or anyone — could be happy living under foreign occupation for half a century. How deep can denial go?
Mr. Netanyahu is shameless. Mr. Gantz is blind. Palestinians see no prospect in this election. How could they?
Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on
- irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
- administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.
The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.
Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.
No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.
The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.
In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.
There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.
A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—
- closing the PLO office in Washington,
- withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
- cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.
While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of
- refugees and
- Palestinian statehood.
Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.
For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there
- inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
- marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
- subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.
The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.
Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.
So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. “Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”
The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.
Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.
Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.