Rejection of the Trump plan outright, denunciation of any steps towards its implementation, and adherence to the failed Oslo-era paradigm for peace – is certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict.
If we are to believe the common wisdom among those who had been engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts under previous administrations, the sad sound of the death knell of the two-state solution (2SS) can already be heard, and will grow more intense as Israel’s new coalition government proceeds to implement elements of Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”
Extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, we are being told, would finally bury all hopes of an agreed solution, based on a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This may have ever-widening repercussions for regional stability. Some still latch on to the expectation that the Israeli “Deep State” – the defense establishment, intelligence community and legal authorities – will stay Netanyahu’s hand. Or else, all is lost.
But is it? At the core of the underlying assumptions which give rise to these dire warnings is one simple, persistent but unfortunately perverse proposition. Namely, that only an agreement (or an imposed solution) based on the 1967 lines, with minor swaps, a partition of Jerusalem, some more-or-less symbolic concession on the Palestinian “right of return,” and other aspects of UNSCR 2334 – can offer any hope for the future. This may be called the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” (EKP) for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
And yet there must be a reason why all attempts to realize the EKP have failed, again and again. Hence the need to chart a new way forward. A case can be made for trying to do so based upon the strategic outline of Trump’s plan. It may even be the case that taking unilateral steps towards its implementation would not wreck the prospects of peace (which anyway have not been bright in recent years). but rather the opposite. The Trump plan could jolt a moribund process into life.
The intense peace processing efforts since Annapolis foundered not because Prime Minister Olmert, who offered so much to the Palestinians, was forced to leave office (and then convicted and jailed for corruption). Nor did peacemaking vanish because Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shifty naysayer. As Michael Herzog has described in a seminal essay (“Peace process lost: Notes on the Kerry legacy,” The American Interest, May/June 2017), those who saw the Prime Minister in action at the time can testify that for all his faults, and despite heavy pressure from the Israeli right-wing, he was still quite willing to proceed within the framework of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative in 2013-2014.
These efforts fell apart, at the end of the day, not because of some specific fault in Israeli policy, or because of a tactical miscalculation (though there were plenty of both), but because the sky-high Palestinian expectations were not met. As long as Palestinian leadership interprets “international legitimacy” in terms which cohere with their uncompromising demands, there will be no support for a peace deal among the broad majority of Israelis.
Too much has happened since 1993, in terms of the sheer physical security of Israelis, to leave them unconcerned about far-reaching territorial concessions and security risks. The acute sense of danger felt by Israelis at the personal level – and rendered even more poignant by the global rise in Islamist terror since 9/11 – is the enduring legacy of the wave of violence induced by Arafat in 2000-2004.
The lessons of what happened since the “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, and those which arise from the destabilization of the region since 2011, have added to the caution of Israelis against all who promise rosy visions of peace – as if it would be within reach if only Israel would concede key areas to Palestinian control, carve up the living city of Jerusalem, and rely on international security guarantees.
The two political parties which advocated a left-wing Zionist variation on this theme of the “Everybody Knows Paradigm” (as distinct from the Arab List’s outright support for Palestinian demands) did very poorly in the March 2020 elections. Labor (or the shadow of a party now left of it) is joining the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition. At the time of Oslo, Labor and Merez had 56 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. The combined representation of the Zionist left is now down to 4. This may well be called the mother-of-all-democratic verdicts on the underlying propositions which led – back in the 1990s – to the Oslo agreements, that came to be perceived by most Israelis as a tragic and very costly misadventure.
This does not mean, however, that the 2SS is dead – unless the Palestinians themselves, and their well-meaning advocates, end up burying it unnecessarily. There is reason to look upon the emerging situation as an opportunity to move beyond a hopeless impasse and to chart a way forward.
Once the detailed Trump Plan was put on the table, the most significant aspect of Israeli political life (beyond Netanyahu’s legal troubles, which have become the crux of partisan struggles in the last two years) seemed to go through a tectonic shift. Up to that point, Israel seemed to be split between the Right (nationalists) and Left (“peaceniks”). Likud hardliners still use this schematic, absurdly trying to paint the likes of Benny Gantz and Moshe Yaalon, or even Avigdor Liberman – indeed, any critic of Netanyahu’s persistence in power – as pro-Arab “leftists.”
This is not, however, a true depiction of the Israeli political landscape in terms of policy towards the Palestinians. In a significant way, the “Deal of the Century” has created a three-way split.
The hard Left derides the Trump plan as woefully insufficient in terms of the EKP, i.e., for its a failure to respond to Palestinian demands. Thus, the Left declares the plan “dead on arrival” and a hindrance to future peace efforts.
The hard right, even those who are careful not to offend Trump, reject out of hand the notion of any Palestinian state anywhere – let alone, on much of the present “C” areas in the West Bank (as well as on parts of the Negev to be annexed to Gaza). They would be glad to endorse parts of the plan that fit their purposes – and yet refuse to accept its basic underlying premise of a modified 2SS.
In between these two ideological camps there is now (and indeed, there has always been) a broad range of centrist sentiments, from elements within Labor on the left to well within Likud on the right, and with Gantz at the very center. This camp sees the Trump plan as a whole. It sees a Palestinian state (albeit not on Palestinian terms) as a viable proposition.
Opinion polls conducted in the days after the White House unveiled the Trump Plan showed a broad majority of Israelis supportive of the plan, with the naysayers on both sides a distinct minority. This is not to say that the specifics of the plan have become holy writ. But rather this indicates that there can be now a political base in Israel for a modified version of the 2SS.
In order to build upon this new political foundation, it may be necessary for the new coalition government – if it indeed comes together – to move first to establish its nationalist credentials within a framework agreed with the US administration. Such steps would be distinct from “unilateral” actions insofar as they will be (and need to be) firmly embedded within the context of some form of endorsement of the Trump plan as a whole.
Moreover, to mitigate the effect of such acts of implementation, it will be important for Israel and the US to coordinate actions on a range of issues which would serve to allay Palestinian and Arab fears that this is just a prelude to a full annexation of the territories and foreclosure of the prospect for Palestinian statehood. Firm language needs to be heard on the Trump plan in all its aspects.
In practical terms, while extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, some “C” areas can and should be ceded to full PA control (“A”) or to civilian control with an IDF presence (“B”). Funds should be allocated early on for roads and other infrastructure that would make a future Palestinian state “contiguous in terms of transportation,” i.e., with its citizens able to travel in comfort, not on dirt roads, free of the need to go through Israeli checkpoints. Cooperation over security and over the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic should be intensified. The rewards envisioned in the economic chapters of the Trump plan should begin to flow to Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians alike.
Above all, Israel and the US, with firm backing from like-minded Arab nations, should offer a horizon – even a timeline – for Palestinian statehood, including the option of UN membership, if and when the PA leadership makes up its mind to return to the table. Unlike Olmert’s position in the Annapolis process, and in line with Netanyahu’s stance in 2009-2010 and again in 2013-2104, this should be made dependent on developments in Gaza. Agreement can be reached and implemented, based on the Trump outline, vis-à-vis the PA leadership; even if for the time being, Gaza remains in Hamas’ grip. With distinct gains in their daily lives to point to, Palestinians in the West Bank will be able to demonstrate to their Gaza brethren the cost of continued hostilities.
Will all this lead to peace? It is hard to tell. The region has been treacherously unstable and volatile. But rejection of the Trump plan outright, denunciation of any steps towards its implementation, and adherence to the failed EKP – is certain to condemn all sides to continued conflict.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.