The farce of a US president whose impeachment trial has just taken an unexpected turn against him (with the Bolton revelations) unveiling a radical peace plan to an Israeli prime minister on the day that he failed to secure immunity from three criminal indictments would seem to give free rein to all manner of cynics and sceptics commenting on the hopelessness of it all.
On the contrary, the Trump peace plan is an opportunity for Palestinians and their supporters, Israelis and their supporters, and self-appointed foreign policy experts of all kinds to ask themselves difficult questions.
The Palestinians – and the broader pro-Palestinian community of diplomats, activists, academics, and others – owe themselves and the beleaguered people whose cause they claim to champion a firm reckoning with two decades of rejectionism.
There’s nothing special about an Israeli like me pointing out what a terrible mistake it was to turn down Ehud Barak’s offer in 2000 or Ehud Olmert’s in 2008. What is maddening is how few Palestinian voices seem to want to say the same. Maybe it was hard to see in real time, but two decades have passed. Is it even a question that an independent Palestinian state comprising all of Gaza and 95 percent of the West Bank with a position in Jerusalem and no separation fence would be better than what the Palestinians have today?
And if Israeli offers were so inadequate, that still doesn’t absolve the Palestinian leadership or Palestinian public opinion or pro-Palestinian diplomats and NGO’s from responsibility for rejecting American mediation proposals like the Clinton Parameters in 2001 or the Kerry bridging proposal from 2014. The Trump plan is much worse than what the Palestinians could have had only six years ago. Surely, there must be a lesson here. Is there any sign of it being learned?
The Israelis, especially the Israeli right, are celebrating the Trump plan as a giveaway to Israeli interests. Let’s set aside the plausibility problem for a moment. Is this plan genuinely good for Israel?
There are important concessions to Israeli interests here to be sure, most notably on security and on Jerusalem. Israel should endeavour to pocket these gains the same way the Palestinians pocketed shifting American policies on statehood and borders under the three previous administrations. But the proposed Israeli sovereignty over even isolated settlements, while certainly satisfying to a narrow constituency in Israel’s domestic politics, cannot possibly be an Israeli strategic interest.
What good does it do for Israel to have sovereignty of even a dozen isolated enclaves in the territory of a hostile and (likely) failing state? What will the military situation look like the day after an inevitable terrorist attack? How far is this really from the nightmare scenario of a one-state solution, with the denial of voting rights to the Arab minority (and possibly soon majority) only a short-term pause on the way to a unitary Muslim-majority state?
Israelis would be rightfully horrified at a pro-Arab US president trying to ram a one-state solution down our throats; we should be equally wary of the same proposal in friendlier wrapping. Something which broadens the smiles of the messianic post-Zionist settler movement is not necessarily something which suits any Israeli national interest. In fact, usually the opposite is the case.
The foreign policy commentariat also needs to ask itself some difficult questions about its role in a conflict talked about so much yet understood so little.
A break with previous policy by a US president on this issue is not unprecedented. Pious talk about norms being broken tends to be reserved only for when the shifts favour Israel, not the other way. President Obama inherited from President Bush a set of commitments to Israel on the outlines of a final status agreement. He entered office refusing to confirm their continued validity and left office eight years later having allowed an extremely one-sided UN Security Council resolution to impose new parameters on future talks that were decidedly not in keeping with previous US policy. President Bush himself inherited from President Clinton a cautious ambiguity about final status issues such as Palestinian statehood and borders, but he nevertheless made a Palestinian state an explicit goal of US policy without securing any parallel concession from the Palestinians. And President Clinton inherited a US insistence on negotiating with Palestinian representatives from the territories, not the PLO. The shifts they made were just as dramatic as Trump’s, without the pious protestations.
The former administration officials clogging the pipes with tweets about decades of international consensus being upended don’t like to be reminded of how they have been wrong at nearly every turn in the peace process. Autonomy was supposed to moderate the Palestinians (“give them something to lose”); it led to an unprecedented wave of suicide terrorism. Elections were supposed to weaken Hamas; they took power. Settlement freezes were supposed to make negotiations easier. Military force to crush the second intifada was supposed to be doomed to fail. The West Bank separation barrier could never work. Assassination of Hamas leaders was supposed to increase suicide bombing rather than eliminate it for nearly a decade so far. Erdogan was supposed to be a model of democratic Islamism that Israel should support as an example. The Jerusalem recognition was supposed to cause the Middle East to erupt.
There is of course much to criticise in today’s proposal. The timing is suspect, the politics are gross and the motives are impure to say the least. The odds of success are tiny, but that’s no different than previous forays. It doesn’t mean that the “experts” get a free pass. And it doesn’t mean that the Israelis and Palestinians can just curl up in their respective narratives of righteousness and victimisation.
- By Dr Shany Mor, a research fellow at the Chaikin Institute for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa who previously served on Israel’s National Security Council