Should Trump’s “Vision” for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Be Taken Seriously?

Yes, of course it should. Donald Trump is the most powerful political actor in the most powerful state on earth, and even if every other country lines up against him, he can impact the future course of events like no other contemporary figure. His puerile tweets and reckless directives may be risible — even derisible — but he has a matchless capacity to bully and bribe and is not averse to using it.

No, of course it shouldn’t. Behind its silky sentiments and pretensions of balance, fairness and erudition, the over-long document is an exercise in sophistry, concocted by dyed-in-the-wool ideologues who have no real knowledge or understanding of the area or of the people who inhabit it and who view the issues through a warped, one-dimensional lens. It will fool only the easily duped.

Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” is a huge gift to the belligerent settlement movement and Israel’s ultranationalists. But the munificence will not serve the interests of most Israelis or their state, whose acceptance in the region and whose whole future rests primarily on the decades-old occupation coming to a swift and complete end.

Stripped of its camouflage, the plan is about entrenching Israeli rule over the Palestinians indefinitely. It will obliterate all Palestinian hope and breed endless strife. Israel will be cast as a pariah state, and its citizens will bear the consequences. Anti-Jewish sentiment will spread within and beyond the region. It is a lose-lose-lose scenario.

Trump’s construal of it as portending “win-win opportunities for both sides” is self-serving baloney. So is the deceitful claim by its leading authors that the plan reflects fresh thinking, when they know full well that it is a re-hash of age-old demands of the Israeli extreme right with which they have long been intimately associated.

For the Palestinians, the plan is an ultimatum to accept their lot as a vanquished people. Behind the rhetoric that it will “usher in a new era of prosperity for the Palestinian people” lurk the terms of their surrender. If they play ball, they will — or may, depending on their future behavior — be thrown some crumbs. But if they hold firm and continue to reject the plan, it will underline the truth of the calumny that they have a “perfect track record of blowing every opportunity they’ve had in the past,” a tired charge dug up by Middle East greenhorn Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a principal architect of the plan. This old/new specious claim attests to the unsuitability of the United States to play the role of honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians. Never has this been truer than now. Other parties must get involved, for this is a matter with global repercussions.

Trump's View of the Plan

To be fair, Trump and his aides have a completely different take on all this. While both sides, according to him, would gain immensely from his “vision,” Trump considered the greater beneficiaries of the plan itself to be the Palestinians. At its videoed launch ceremony on January 28, 2020, he explained: “As everyone knows, I have done a lot for Israel … therefore it is only reasonable that I have to do a lot for the Palestinians or it just wouldn’t be fair … I want this deal to be a great deal for the Palestinians.”

But before getting to his “great deal” for the Palestinians, he hastened to remind the audience of what he had previously done for the Israelis: “moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem; recognizing the Golan Heights and, frankly, perhaps most importantly, getting out of the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”

He was being uncharacteristically modest. He could have added the cutting of millions of dollars in aid to diverse Palestinian causes; closing the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, DC; opposing the decision of the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes; and the pledge that the U.S. would — unilaterally — no longer view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as inconsistent with international law.

To balance these immense concessions to Israel (or rather to the hard-line Israeli government), one could be forgiven for expecting the package he was about to offer the Palestinians, in the light of his explicit pledge, to be equally exceptional. But it turned out that he hadn’t yet finished with his gifts to the Israelis. His “vision” included the Jordan River becoming Israel’s official border and around 30% of the West Bank becoming Israel’s sovereign territory, incorporating the fertile Jordan Valley and nearly all Israeli settlements. “Jerusalem,” he declared, including the particularly sensitive matter of the holy sites of three world religions, “will remain Israel’s undivided capital” (theatrically emphasized and repeated). As is the way with emperors surveying the landscape, he clearly felt no inhibition about awarding to others priceless possessions that did not belong to him.

At one point, he referred to the “Holy Land of Israel” (the “Holy Land” is usually understood to be the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including parts of Jordan, southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria). If it wasn’t a Trump off-script improvisation, it may have been a nod to his fiercely pro-Zionist but ultimately deeply antisemitic evangelical Christian fundamentalist constituency to which Vice President Mike Pence is very close.

Referencing the “Al-Aqwa” Mosque in the same speech was presumably a slip of the tongue, but it’s not a slip that anyone clued in would make. Perhaps he momentarily confused a sacred Muslim place of worship — the third holiest site in Islam — with a water feature. Trump’s string of faux pas or deceptions (more of which below) attests to his “vision” being more of a stunt than a realistic peace plan that people should study carefully (unlike Trump himself) and take seriously.

Even more imperial gifts were to come: Israel would retain security control over the whole area west of the Jordan River, including airspace and territorial waters, and over who can enter and leave the fragmented Palestinian entity. Palestinian refugees would be denied any right of return to Israel, and the Israeli government would have an ultimate veto over the exercise of this right to the putative Palestinian state.

Finally, he got to the “great deal” he promised the Palestinians. To even things up, they would be permitted to retain internal responsibility for the main Palestinian population centers (which happens to strongly suit Israel’s interests and wishes), plus they would receive additional disconnected plots of land near Gaza, mostly carved out of Israel’s desert area bordering Egypt. The wholesale, and possibly enforced, transfer of selected Arab towns within Israel, which would require an adjustment to the border and to citizenship, may also be part of the land-swap arrangement. Gaza and the West Bank would potentially be linked by a high-speed rail tunnel or bridge. Other roads, bridges, and tunnels would connect the non-contiguous Palestinian enclaves.

If all goes according to plan, and with Israel’s consent, a Palestinian capital city could be located beyond Israel’s Separation Wall, in areas to the east and north of Jerusalem — what Trump erroneously called “Eastern Jerusalem … where America will proudly open an embassy.”

A further instance of casual misspeak was his assertion that “this map will more than double the Palestinian territory.” That would be news to the authors of his eponymous plan, who had written: “This vision … contemplates a Palestinian state that encompasses territory reasonably comparable in size to the territory of the West Bank and Gaza pre-1967.” This discrepancy, if a genuine (although inexcusable) mistake, might explain why Trump thought the plan was territorially a lot more generous to the Palestinians than it was.

The Palestinians would be free to call the assorted, demilitarized parcels of land, surrounded by Israel, a state if they wished to. Trump magnanimously blazed a path: “Today’s agreement is a historic opportunity for Palestinians to finally achieve an independent state of their very own,” within a vision of a “realistic two-state solution.” Here it is more difficult to give him the benefit of any doubt. By employing the two-state terminology, he was plainly trying to pass off the brutal annihilation of the international consensus for a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the very opposite: its optimal fruition.

Having given his political soulmate, the Israeli premier, everything he could possibly have wanted and a lot more besides, Trump praised, with no hint of irony, the “territorial compromises [Israel] is willing to make for the cause of peace in the Middle East,” audaciously adding “they’ve gone a long way.” He was effusive about his “vision” having been bravely accepted by the person who was principally behind it: “Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu informed me he is willing to endorse the vision as a basis for direct negotiations.” What a massive surprise that must have been! Perversely, he declared: “Today Israel has taken a giant step for peace.” Finally, he turned to a beaming Netanyahu and exclaimed: “Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for having the courage to take this bold step forward” (cue prolonged applause from the handpicked audience).

Two Innovations That Differ From Previous U.S. Plans

This was all unadulterated nonsense, of course. While some viewers of the ceremony doubtless found the proceedings exhilarating, others for sure found them nauseating. However, there are two creditable innovations in the Trump plan that distinguish it from previously proposed U.S. plans. The first is that it projects its ultimate vision at the outset rather than seeking to move forward incrementally through step-by-step bargaining without a clear notion of the destination, an approach which doomed previous processes from their inception. In this sense, the Trump plan has more in common with the approaches of earlier Arab initiatives — the Sadat initiative of 1977, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) “historical compromise” of 1988, and the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002. Commencing with a vision of the endgame was always the more promising approach in principle, provided it took fully on board the key interests and aspirations of all parties or incorporated a mechanism for doing so.1 On this score, the Trump plan fails abysmally.

The other laudable innovation is the attempt to spell out in detail the economic and other material benefits that could flow from the end of conflict. It is this aspect that Trump presumably had in mind when he spoke of “a great deal for the Palestinians.” Through a $50 billion commercial investment over 10 years, these putative benefits would include a projected doubling of Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP), the creation of more than a million new jobs, a reduction in unemployment to less than 10%, and a cut in the poverty rate by 50%. “Many countries want to partake” in this investment, declared Trump, without naming them.

But there was no solid basis to these figures. They could just as easily have been doubled or halved. Indeed, in his speech, Trump whimsically amended the plan’s projected “doubling” of Palestinian GDP to “doubling or trebling.” Besides, the whole “Economic Framework,” which occupies nearly a third of the 181 pages document, depends on the Palestinians accepting the basics of the Trump plan and fulfilling all their obligations under it. There is no chance of them doing this because it doesn’t come close to serving their fundamental interests, aspirations, or needs and, moreover, it is deeply humiliating. The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mohammad Shtayyeh, anticipated that it would be “buried very soon.” If Trump was serious, he would open his mind to what the Palestinians have to say rather than take his briefings solely from a narrow circle of like-minded Israeli chums.

One example, among many, of its insulting or impossible content is its stipulation that the Palestinian state shall “refrain from any attempt to join any international organization without the consent of the state of Israel.” Another is the requirement that Hamas be disarmed and dismantled — by a demilitarized state no less! — aims that the redoubtable Israeli army has been unable to achieve in 13 years. The Economic Framework, with its detailed maps and charts, is a transparently fraudulent wish list, designed to make the document look studious and serious.

As a strategy to firm up right-wing domestic support in an election year, both in the U.S. and in Israel, the Trump plan might make a lot of sense. As a strategy to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it makes no sense at all. There is every reason to suppose that this plan will go the same way as all its American predecessors. It will happen quickly if Trump is turfed out later this year by the U.S. electorate or more slowly and painfully if he is re-elected.

Need for a More Realistic and Achievable Plan

But it is not enough to oppose Trump’s sorry plan. It needs to be replaced by a more “realistic and achievable plan” (to borrow a phrase from the plan itself). Probably the most fitting existing model on which an end to conflict may be based is the dormant Arab Peace Initiative (API) — endorsed by the PLO and all Arab states — which, in essence, envisages comprehensive peace and full diplomatic relations between Israel and the whole Arab world based on the establishment of an authentic Palestinian state alongside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and what it has called a “just and agreed settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Far from being a diktat, as has disingenuously been suggested in the past, the API is a set of principles which once would have had Israelis dancing in the street. They are a framework for, not an alternative to, negotiations between the parties. More than a hundred retired Israeli generals have endorsed the API as a basis for talks, but so far Israeli governments have been quite dismissive of it. In the light of the steady, although tenuous, evolution of the political mood in the region toward accepting Israel, now would be a good time to revive and embrace it and build on it as necessary. It cannot be assumed that its provisions will stay on the table forever while Israel bit-by-bit continues to consume the whole cake, with or without the cover of the Trump plan.

The immediate danger is that the Israeli government will take Trump’s plan as licence to selectively pocket its proposals and proceed to implement them unilaterally, whatever the plan’s ultimate fate. A bullish Netanyahu campaigned in the recent Israeli election on a policy to annex the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements imminently, pulling his main rival for the top spot, Benny Gantz, a large part of the way with him. Prompt and decisive international pressure will be key to preventing this from happening.

If United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 was the progenitor of the two-state solution, a fatuous 181 pages document in 2020 may definitively seal its fate and be the progenitor of entrenched repression and endless conflict, the toxins of which are likely to have global overspill. To guard against this, there is an urgent need for a practical alternative plan, such as a rejuvenated API, around which most of the world could unite and campaign.

A useful start would be for other governments to affirm, openly and without delay, that they will not recognize any annexations and that there will be material consequences if an Israeli government proceeds with this intention. The official recognition by these governments of a Palestinian state alongside Israel with its capital in East Jerusalem could also be timely and impactful. For its part, civil society needs to consider what constructive role it could actively play in any common resistance. It may be an old cliché but, in all seriousness, there is no time to lose.


1 See the author’s Visions of the Endgame: a strategy to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swiftly to an end, published by the Fabian Society in association with the Oxford Research Group, May 2009.