By Neville Teller
May 5, 2019
Following Israel’s general election and the confirmation of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister for the fourth time, Washington announced that the Trump peace plan – dubbed by the President as “the deal of the century” – would not be unveiled until after Ramadan, which in 2019 concludes on 4 June. In short, there is little more than a month to go before the big reveal.
Meanwhile the Palestinian leadership is redoubling its efforts to build Arab opposition to the plan, none of whose details have yet been revealed. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has toured Arab capitals seeking a consensus to oppose it, whatever it contains and whenever it is revealed.
While in Cairo in April 2019, Abbas attended a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and urged them to support Palestinian opposition to the deal. Abbas’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, appointed after a recent PA government reshuffle, met a visiting Democrat US Senator in April. Their reported exchange revealed the extent of the fears generated within the PA about what the secret plan might actually contain. Simply on the basis of speculation the Palestinian leadership is pretty certain that it is going to endorse Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, thus destroying the two-state solution and any chance of establishing an independent Palestinian state on pre-1967 lines.
At about the same time a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip announced the formation of a new body called “The Higher National Commission for Resisting the Deal of the Century”. The official said that the body consisted of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as from Arab and Islamic states, who would discuss mechanisms for strangling the not-yet-born peace plan at birth. He urged all Palestinian factions to resort to “armed and popular resistance” to the Trump deal.
Meanwhile, on 23 April Jared Kushner gave an interview at Time Magazine’s 100 Summit, an annual gathering of the world’s most influential people. For the first time, in discussing the peace plan that he has been heading for the Trump administration for the past two years, he gave some insight into its construction. His peace team had studied all the different past efforts, said Kushner, and analysed how and why they had failed.
“We’ve taken, I think, an unconventional approach,” he said. “Normally they start with a process and then hope that the process leads to a resolution … What we’ve done is the opposite. We’ve done very extensive research and a lot of talking to a lot of the people. We’re not trying to impose our will.”
He called the Arab peace initiative of 2002 a very good attempt, but if it had been workable, “we would have made peace a long time ago.” His peace team had decided on a bottom-up focus. “How do you make the lives of the Palestinian people better? What can you resolve to allow these areas to become more investable? We deal with all the core status issues because you have to do it, but we’ve also built a robust business plan for the whole region.”
Avoiding a question about the two-state solution he said: “I think that the document you’ll see, which is a very detailed proposal, is a … comprehensive vision for what can be if people are willing to make some hard decisions … There’ll be tough compromises for both [sides].”
Kushner said he was hopeful that when Israel and the Palestinians examined the proposal they would recognize that “this is really a framework that can allow us to make our lives all materially better. And we’ll see if the leadership on both sides has the courage to take the lead to try to go forward.”
Taking his lead from Kushner, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman was also prepared to indicate the direction of travel the peace team had taken. He told the media that the plan was an effort “to think out of the box and capture the imagination and hopes of both sides for a better life.”
Asked about the rationale of unveiling the plan if the Palestinians had already rejected it, Friedman drew a distinction between the Palestinian people and its leadership.
“The Palestinian people deserve the opportunity to consider a meaningful alternative to the status quo,” he said, “as does Israel. We see value in presenting that vision, even if the initial Palestinian leadership reaction is negative.”
Finally in an interview with CNN in mid-April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out the strategic objectives of the peace initiative. He described it as “a vision that has ideas that are new, that are different, that are unique, that tries to reframe and reshape what’s been an intractable problem. We hope that we can get to a better place. Everyone wants this conflict resolved. We want a better life for the Israelis without this conflict, and we certainly want a better life for the Palestinian people.”
Both Trump and his peace team have indicated in the past that their initiative is indeed not so much a plan as a deal, a give-and-take proposal in which both sides would be expected to compromise. Until the details are revealed, it would be impossible for either Israel or the Palestinians to predict whether the benefits on offer would justify the sacrifices demanded.
The main obstacle to its favourable reception is that the PA leadership is scarcely in a compromising mood. They have rejected Trump as an honest broker following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his recent declaration in support of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. What can Trump put on the scales to outweigh that?