In proposing a plan for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. President Donald J.Trump’s team announced that they wanted to think outside the box, come up with something new. In itself that was not a bad idea: Given that everything in the past has failed, why not look for something new? Unfortunately, however, ignoring all past negotiations also apparently meant ignoring all the issues and possible solutions as well. It would appear that the authors of the new plan knew very little of the demands each side has made in the past, the progress made (when there was progress) to date, the ground already covered, and proposals worth examining. That is putting it kindly. The likelihood is that they were not interested in past negotiations or proposals because, it would seem, they simply sat down with Israeli representatives and worked out a plan that suited them. While that was not entirely new-- at the first Camp David Summit between Israel and Egypt, the U.S. President Jimmy Carter did indeed test various ideas with the Israelis before putting them to Anwar Sadat; Clinton did the same at Camp David II. In these cases, the American mediators sought a possible common denominator that might be acceptable to both sides before putting an American proposal to the Arabs.
An American-Israeli plan
That was not the case with the Trump plan. There was no mediation. The Americans did not include the Palestinians in the process, as far as can be determined. They did not mediate a negotiation; there was no negotiation. The American plan unveiled on January 28, 2020 was actually an American-Israeli plan.
Thus, problems of process that afflicted previous negotiations, such as Israel’s ignoring the asymmetry between the Israelis and the Palestinians and demanding one-to-one compromises over the West Bank, were absent. Israel’s assumption of exclusive right to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) — part of which it might be “generous” enough to negotiate — did not present an obstacle to the Trump plan, since there was no negotiating process. The only negotiations, if there were any, were between the American and the Israeli representatives.
On substance, all past negotiations used the Green Line (pre-1967 lines) as a reference point, bargaining over what percentage of the OPT Israel would keep in order to avoid evacuating large numbers of settlers. Thus, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke of annexing 8-12%of the West Bank, with land swaps of 1:19 in favor of Israel. Ehud Olmert went furthest, speaking of annexing 6.3 or 6.5%, with 5.8 percent in land swaps. Moreover, Olmert offered good land for the swaps, rather than the desert area south of Gaza offered by both Barak and Trump. Still, in the past there was discussion of a border near, if not exactly on, the 1967 line.
With the Trump plan, by contrast, it is difficult to find a border since the border is not to be determined by the number of settlers to be moved or by any idea of contiguity for the Palestinian state (as assumed in previous negotiations). Rather, the settlers will stay where they are — but under Israeli sovereignty. As a result, any discernible border would weave in and out of the settlements, and the Palestinian state would be a number of enclaves surrounded this way and that by Israel. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Trump plan honored, in a way, an agreement reached in the pre-Camp David II talks: The border will ensure that the Palestinian state will consist of 100% of the land occupied in 1967, even if not exactly along the 1967 lines. This number can be reached — at least in theory — by counting the areas of the enclaves envisaged by the Trump plan, including the land to be given Palestine just south of Gaza, but the idea of contiguity has been totally forgotten, abandoned.
Security Taken Off the Table
This sort of weaving, amorphous border means that the matter of security — always a consideration when discussing borders — would be eliminated as an issue. Israel would simply be in charge of security for the whole area. Period. No need to discuss third-party guarantees, early warning stations, troop access, or other security matters. Such issues had in fact complicated past negotiations. Even the Clinton Parameters did not garner agreement on the “non-militarized” arrangements for the Palestinian state. But Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) did, finally, succeed in working out mutually agreed security arrangements, including early warning stations in Palestine and even one in Safed in northern Israel. And most importantly, they agreed to the deployment of a NATO force under the Americans’ aegis on the border between Palestine and Jordan. Trump’s team did not go into any of these troublesome matters. It determined instead that Israel would be in charge of everything related to security, including control of the airspace and the whole area west of the Jordan River, and that Palestine would be demilitarized, with the exception of requirements for a domestic police force.
While the border issue determined security matters in the past, the settlement issue was also a determining factor regarding the border. That, too, was easily resolved by Trump’s team; no need to discuss how much land Israel would keep to accommodate at least 80% of the settlers, as Barak had done so assiduously. All the settlers would simply stay in place, so the settler-related territorial issue was off the nonexistent table. Instead, Israel would just take what it wanted: 30% of the West Bank. And the location of this large percentage was no longer an issue. Unrelated to settler numbers or locations, Israel would simply take a chunk of land that would enable it to completely surround the so-called state of Palestine. Israeli annexation of the Jordan Rift Valley would complete the land control of Palestine.
Indeed, the Jordan Rift Valley had always been of interest to Israel, first as a potential point of entry for an army, presumably that of Iraq, via Jordan, thereby posing a threat to Israel 60 kilometers to the west (the Green Line). Later, in the age of missile warfare, the threat appeared to Israel to be more one of terrorist intrusions than a land attack by a third-party army. Therefore, Rabin and later Barak spoke of an Israeli presence in the Valley for a limited period of time (apparently 30 years according to Rabin; 10 years or even less according to Barak), and Barak considered a possible international guarantor. The Clinton Parameters allowed for Israel to cross Palestine to that border with Jordan in case of emergencies that were to be clearly defined in advance. Olmert and Abbas, as noted above, envisaged a NATO presence on the border with Jordan, (on the Jordanian side, with Jordan’s agreement) because, as Olmert explained, the changes in warfare no longer necessitated a continued Israeli physical presence.
Return of Refugees Not an Option
With borders and security issues, as well as the settlements, off the table, the issue of the refugees was also easily handled by Trump’s (and Netanyahu’s) planners. This issue, too, was removed from the nonexistent table. No refugee is to be allowed into Israel, and those seeking to enter the state of Palestine will be subject to Israeli approval based on so-called security considerations. No problem.
There had been several proposals in the past regarding the refugee issue. In pre-Camp David II talks, the negotiators were led to understand that the refugee issue might be resolved by Israel acknowledging its role in the creation of the problem and then negotiating over the number of refugees to be allowed to return. In fact, the issue was not discussed much at Camp David in 2000 because of this understanding. When it began to look as if Israel was abandoning agreed positions on the borders at Camp David, however, the Palestinians brought up the right of return.
Some progress was reportedly made later at the Taba talks, but it was the Clinton Parameters that laid out a formula, later adopted by the track-two Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative. It provided four options: Refugees would remain where they were, immigrate to third countries, move to the new Palestinian state or return to Israel. Numbers would be determined by the perspective hosts, but this solution was meant to settle the issue and be considered fulfillment of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 194 on the refugees.
The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 mentioned Resolution 194 but did not specify a solution. Instead, it added a new element to the Arab formula on the issue, specifying that there should be an “agreed solution.” The implication was that nothing could be forced on Israel, as explained by and then-Jordanian foreign minister and former ambassador to Israel Marwan Muasher, the author of the clause. When Olmert and Abbas negotiated, they did in fact discuss numbers. Olmert proposed accepting 15,000 refugees over a five-year period; Abbas is said to have spoken of 40,000, but Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat later wrote that the Palestinian demand was for 150,000 refugees to return. This issue was not finalized at that time, but the principle seemed to remain a matter of agreeing on numbers. The subsequent Israeli position under Prime Minister Binaymin Netanyahu has been that refugees may return only to the Palestinian state, if there were one. This is the position adopted by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 and now by Trump.
Israel Gets Jerusalem; the Palestinians Get the Suburbs
The remaining issue, Jerusalem, had already been taken off the table, according to Trump, when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the plan still has something to say about Jerusalem in relation to the Palestinians. Trump was not indifferent to the Palestinian demand, echoed by the Arab Peace Initiative, regarding a capital for Palestine. This capital simply would not be in East Jerusalem, since that area, according to Trump, now belongs to Israel. For Trump, and in contravention of international law and UN resolutions, there is no East and West Jerusalem; the city is one, and it is the capital of Israel. In fact, until Trump, even the United States had not recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. American presidents had continued the custom of most countries, abiding by the UN Partition Plan of 1947 that had excluded the city from either the Jewish or the Arab state that was to be created in Palestine at the time. Due to the importance of the city to the three major religions, all of Jerusalem had been declared a separate entity (corpus separatum) in the Partition Plan (UNGA Resolution 181). Thus, Ben-Gurion’s 1949 transfer of government buildings to West Jerusalem (held by Israel as a result of the 1948 war) and his declaration of that part of the city as Israel’s capital were ignored by the United States prior to the current administration. Similarly, Israel’s annexation in late June 1967 of East Jerusalem, conquered in 1948 by Jordan and annexed by it after the 1948 war, was not accepted by Washington. The embassy remained in Tel Aviv, and in official U.S. documents the city was simply Jerusalem — not belonging to any state. After 1967, East Jerusalem was considered occupied, in keeping with UN positions. When the UN condemned Israel’s 1980 Jerusalem Law declaring the city Israel’s eternal, united capital, the U.S. actually abstained.
Barak sought a compromise of sorts on the Jerusalem issue at Camp David II. He proposed relinquishing some of the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty. In fact, there were several proposals regarding Jerusalem, including some compromises in connection with the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Although Arafat underestimated and even ridiculed Israel’s claims to the Temple Mount, in the end it was the Jerusalem issue that finally stalemated the talks. Also, worth noting is the fact that Jordan’s special role in connection with the holy sites in East Jerusalem was ignored. The Clinton Parameters a few months later sought to resolve the Jerusalem issue by calling for the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem to be placed under Palestinian sovereignty and the Jewish neighborhoods (actually settlements built by Israel after the 1967 occupation and expansion of the municipal borders of the city into surrounding areas of the West Bank) to be placed under Israeli sovereignty.
The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative merely spoke of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, but Olmert and Abbas appeared to have agreed to a proposal similar to the Clinton Parameters regarding the division of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods into Palestinian and Israeli sovereignty. They could not agree on Har Homa, a settlement built by Israel in East Jerusalem in the 1990s, but it appears that Abbas was willing to concede all the other Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The holy sites were to remain under an international trusteeship of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Trump provided a different status for the holy sites: They would continue to be governed by Israeli regulations and current procedures since, according to the plan, Israel has done such a good job of protecting them, but there would be freedom of worship. In keeping with the present situation, the city would remain undivided, under Israel. The Palestinians could have a capital, to be called Al-Quds, in one of the suburbs of the city beyond the current Separation Wall — which would remain.
The Trump Plan Perpetuates the Conflict
This is how the Trump plan relates to previous negotiations and proposals: a deviation, and quite different, from anything proposed before. The principle of contiguity for the Palestinian state, as well as the idea of sovereignty, are both gone. Israel’s needs are the only ones considered and respected. The 1967 lines, which were an implicit and sometimes explicit guideline in previous talks and plans, disappear in the Trump plan. Even a heavily populated Arab area of Israel, known as the Triangle, is mentioned as an area that could be severed from Israel and placed under the new state of Palestine. This notion of a “transfer” was promoted by the Israeli right wing, particularly Avigdor Lieberman, head of the extreme right secular Israel Is Our Home’ party, and was designed to change the demographics inside Israel, perhaps also in order to ensure a kind of ethnic purity. Indeed, the Trump plan satisfies the Israeli right wing’s interest in maintaining a Jewish majority from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, while previous negotiations and plans, including the Clinton Parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative, sought agreement between the two sides on dividing the area into two sovereign states, the Trump plan views the whole area, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, as one entity under Israeli control. It envisages Israeli settlements and Palestinian enclaves — that is, two populations intermingled — with the Jewish enclaves under Israeli law and the others under Palestinian, but both under Israeli control. If the previous efforts were meant to end the conflict, the Trump plan appears to set the stage for still more friction and perpetuation of the conflict.