Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu and his leading challenger in the March 2 Knesset election, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, were summoned to the White House for separate Oval Office meetings to secure the support of Israel’s next elected leader for President Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan. The details of the plan, which was developed by a team led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, special envoy Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, were publicly disclosed for the first time during a Tuesday noon meeting at the White House between Trump and Netanyahu.
Trump, released the plan before a pro-Israel audience at the White House with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing by his side. Trump acknowledged that he has done a lot for Israel, but also said he wanted the deal to be a “great deal for the Palestinians,” and called it a “historic opportunity” for Palestinians to achieve an independent state of their own.
Trump said the plan was a “win-win opportunity for both sides” which would enable a transition to a two-state solution without compromising Israeli security. Directly addressing PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump said, “I want you to know if you choose the path to peace, America and many other countries, we will be there, we will be there to help you in so many different ways.”
Netanyahu said that Israel was prepared to immediately engage in peace negotiations with the Palestinians on the details of the plan, which he praised for giving the Palestinian people new dignity and hope for the future.
WINS AND LOSSES
The plan more than doubles the West Bank territory currently under Palestinian control, but also recognizes Israeli sovereignty over its legal settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians rejected the proposal in advance, accusing Trump of being biased in favor of Israel and adopting policies that bolster Israel at their expense.
The plan calls for a four-year freeze in new Israeli settlement construction, during which time details of a comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians leading to the creation of a territorially continuous Palestinian state, with a unified, responsible government, would be negotiated. Statehood would also be contingent on the Palestinians meeting international governance criteria.
The 50-page White House peace plan released Tuesday goes further in concessions to the Palestinians than many Middle East analysts had believed was likely. For example, it preserves the option for the Palestinian to declare portions of East Yerushalayim, which would be placed under Palestinian control, to be the capital of the new Palestinian state, and foresees the creation of a road and tunnel bridge system securely connecting Gaza to the Arab-controlled portions of the West Bank.
The deal demands of the Palestinians to give up on Israel going back to pre-1967 borders, accepting permanent Israeli control over all the of the West Bank settlements, and rejecting the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees inside Israel. It also would require the Palestinians to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It builds on a 30-page, $50 billion economic plan for the West Bank and Gaza that was unveiled last June at an American-sponsored conference in Bahrain which the Palestinians have also rejected.
U.S. officials said they expected the Palestinians, as well as Turkey and Iran, to reject the new plan, but they did hope that it would be accepted by Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states which have peace treaties with Israel, and that the Gulf Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia of the United Arab Emirates, who have already joined in an informal alliance with Israel against the common threat from Iran, would quietly accept the new arrangement as well, in addition to providing the financing for the Palestinian economic development plan.
ISRAEL WILL BE ALLOWED TO ANNEX WEST BANK SETTLEMENTS
Initially, Israel would be allowed to annex 30% of West Bank land on which Israeli settlements currently stand, as well as the entire Jordan Valley, but Israel would not be permitted to expand the current boundaries of the settlements or to develop new areas of the West Bank. Israel would also be forced to give up 60 illegal outposts not recognized as legal by the Israeli government, and resettle their 3,000 current residents.
The final status of the remaining 40% of the West Bank in Area C, which is currently vacant, remains negotiable, depending upon whether the Palestinians agree to go along with the Trump peace proposal. If the Palestinians continue refusing to cooperate, they will forfeit at least some of that vacant part of Area C to Israel.
The American proposal would require Hamas to relinquish control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and the disarmament of all terrorist groups operating in Gaza.
All of Yerushalayim, including the Har Habayis, currently inside the Israeli security fence, would remain under Israeli sovereignty. The holy sites themselves would be under joint Israeli-Jordanian supervision. The PA would be given control over areas of Yerushalayim east of the security fence, such as Shuafat and Abu Dis.
A LIMITED PALESTINIAN STATE
The PA would be given control over Areas A and B, making up 40% of the West Bank, and possibly some of the vacant portions of Area C. It would be permitted to declare a Palestinian state with limited powers over those territories after the end of the transition period. The new state would be completely demilitarized and not permitted to form alliances with other countries. In addition, Israel would retain control over its airspace.
A report by KAN News added that the Palestinian Authority would be compensated by Israel with land in exchange for the portions of the West Bank that Israel would annex.
GANTZ AND NETANYAHU HOLD SEPARATE WHITE HOUSE MEETINGS
In their first meeting at the White House Monday, Trump and Netanyahu spoke optimistically about the proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which Trump described as a “suggestion” for both sides. Netanyahu said that his visit to the White House was “the opportunity of the century and we’re not going to pass it by.” Trump added that, “many of the Arab nations have agreed to it [the peace plan]. They like it, they think it’s great. They think it’s a big start.”
Trump predicted that there is “a very good chance” Palestinian leaders will “ultimately” come around and support his proposal. “They probably won’t want it initially. I think in the end they will,” the president said. “It’s very good for them. In fact, it’s overly good to them. So we’ll see what happens. Now without them, we don’t do the deal. And that’s okay. . . life goes on.”
Netanyahu, assuming he will continue to serve as prime minister, told Trump, “the list of your support for Israel, the things you’ve done for Israel since you you’ve become president, is very long. But the bottom line is short: You have made our alliance stronger than ever. And I look forward in the coming years to make it even stronger with a historic defense treaty that will anchor our alliance for generations.”
Gantz’s White House meeting with Trump later that afternoon was initially described by sources close to Gantz as “excellent.” It was also attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Friedman. In later comments to reporters at his Washington hotel, Gantz promised to implement Trump’s peace plan after being elected prime minister. He called it a “significant and historic milestone” that needs to be implemented in the context of a broader deal with Israel’s neighbors.
The contours of the plan’s proposed solution to competing territorial claims became clearer earlier last week, when both Gantz and Netanyahu made campaign promises that Israel would retain the strategic Jordan River Valley on its eastern border. Netanyahu then promised to annex all of the settlements in the West Bank. It seemed obvious that Netanyahu and Gantz would not make such bold public promises unless they knew they would be compatible with Trump’s peace proposal.
The unexpected invitation to Netanyahu to meet with Trump at the White House last week was delivered in person by Vice President Mike Pence, who was visiting Israel to represent the US at a Holocaust commemoration. Pence later gave Netanyahu credit for suggesting that Gantz be included in the invitation to meet with Trump at the White House, to give the occasion in the midst of an Israeli election campaign a non-partisan atmosphere.
Gantz, who entered politics last year after a successful career as an IDF general, was reluctant to share the spotlight with Netanyahu, but was also aware that he could not afford to snub an American president so popular in Israel. Gantz eventually agreed to accept an invitation for a separate meeting with Trump on Monday, but left the high-profile White House photo op reserved for Netanyahu.
Gantz was so eager to distance himself from Netanyahu that on Sunday, when the prime minister flew from Israel to New York non-stop, Gantz took an earlier flight, which required a stop in Zurich. Gantz returned to Israel immediately after his meeting with Trump on Monday, enabling him to participate in the Knesset debate on Tuesday over Netanyahu’s request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution on three separate criminal indictments for corruption filed against him by Israel’s attorney general.
After accepting the invitation, Gantz, speaking in heavily-accented English, called himself “the president’s full and committed partner,” who would be meeting with Trump “as the leader of the largest party in Israel.” He also praised Trump as “a true friend of the state of Israel, the citizens of Israel and the Jews of the United States,” who has “made the alliance between us deeper, stronger and more powerful than ever.”
NETANYAHU SAYS HE AND TRUMP WILL BE MAKING HISTORY
Before flying to New York, Netanyahu said, “I am going to Washington to face an American president who is bringing forward a plan that I believe will advance our most vital interests. During the last three years, I spoke countless times with Trump – who is a great friend of Israel – and his team about Israel’s security needs.”
He noted that five years ago, he was forced to fly to the US to lobby against US adoption of the Obama-supported Iran nuclear deal which threatened Israel’s existence. But “today,” Netanyahu said, “I am going to Washington to stand with an American president who is proposing a deal which I believe advances Israel’s most vital security interests. . . I am going to Washington with a great sense of purpose, great responsibility and a great chance, and I am hopeful we can make history.”
Gantz’s initial comments about Trump’s peace plan were relatively guarded. When he announced he would accept Trump’s invitation, Gantz said the peace proposal could be “a basis for progress” toward “an agreed-to arrangement” with the Palestinians, “in tandem with continued and deeper strategic partnership with Jordan, Egypt and other countries in the region.” He predicted that history would recognize the plan “as a significant milestone that defines the path down which the various parties to the conflict in the Middle East can walk to a regional and historic agreement,” but failed to promise that he would accept all of its provisions.
TRUMP RELYING ON HIS RESERVOIR OF ISRAELI GOODWILL
Trump first announced his intention to broker the “Deal of the Century” to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians during a meeting with Netanyahu in 2017. Such an accomplishment has defied the efforts of American presidents for more than 30 years. From the outset, Trump was forthright in declaring, “As with any successful negotiation, both sides will have to make compromises,” and forced Netanyahu to acknowledge that reality.
Since that time, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his goodwill towards Israel, by keeping the unfulfilled pledge of previous presidents to move the US embassy to Yerushalayim, staunchly defending Israel diplomatically at the United Nations, taking the United States out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, and ending the official State Department policy declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements to be illegal.
This has made Trump much more popular in Israel than he is in the United States, and will make it very difficult for any Israeli leader to resist Trump’s peace plan.
Israeli leaders have historically resisted attempts by previous US presidents to impose peace terms, preferring instead to have them serve as middlemen to help broker direct peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But with Trump, the reaction of Israeli leaders and people has been very different. They have learned to trust in Trump’s goodwill to a much greater extent than any previous president. Ambassador Friedman referred to that trust in a March 2019 speech in which, speaking a pro-Israeli audience about the ultimate fate of the West Bank, he asked “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?”
Trump’s plan is much more generous to Israel than any previous American peace proposal. However, it will incur opposition from the Israeli right by calling for the uprooting of 60 illegal settlements, and leaving an additional 15 legal settlements deep in the West Bank entirely surrounded by territory under Palestinian control. Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Gantz have agreed to support Trump’s peace proposal, even though it requires, as Trump had promised in 2017, significant Israeli concessions for the sake of peace.
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, expressed his approval for the general provisions of the Trump peace plan for recognizing the current realities on the ground, even though he recognized that it would have to overcome considerable Palestinian opposition.
THE HIGH COST OF PALESTINIAN REJECTION
Palestinian leaders have refused to meet with Kushner and his team, and rejected the American peace proposal in advance. Last week, after the White House invitation to Israeli leaders was announced, Palestinian officials threatened to withdraw from their compliance with key provisions of the 1995 Oslo II accords, and announced “Day of Rage” demonstrations on Tuesday to protest Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump at the White House. Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that the PLO reserves the right “to withdraw from the [Oslo] agreement,” and warned that the Trump initiative would turn Israel’s “temporary occupation [of Palestinian territory] into a permanent occupation.”
The PA cut off its diplomatic contacts with the White House in December 2017, after Trump recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and promised to move the US embassy there. Trump responded by slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid to the PA and to UNRWA, the agency dedicated to providing welfare services to the descendants of Palestinian refugees.
The State Department then shut down the diplomatic office of the PLO in Washington, and downgraded the American consulate in East Yerushalayim – which primarily served the Palestinians – and put it directly under the jurisdiction of Ambassador Friedman, who has a long history as a pro-settlement activist.
The PA has paid a heavy diplomatic and economic price for boycotting Trump’s peace process. But PA officials did not dare carry out their threats to retaliate by suspending security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, because they knew that the subsequent rise in terror attacks would threaten their own hold on power.
THE KUSHNER TEAM’S NEW APPROACH
Meanwhile, working under a highly effective veil of secrecy, Kushner and his team abandoned the approach of the Oslo Accords, which focused on bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and adopted a region-wide “outside-in” approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a larger agreement focusing on regional economic development.
For months, Kushner and Greenblatt traveled around the Middle East, meeting with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other Sunni Arab states in an effort to build a coalition of Arab support for the peace plan that would pressure the PA into accepting the Trump proposal. By early last year, they had completed a comprehensive proposal with pragmatic solutions to all the most difficult “final status” issues that had eluded the Oslo negotiators, including borders, security, refugees and the status of Yerushalayim.
The Trump administration had originally expected to announce its peace plan soon after Israel had elected a new government last April, but when two successive Knesset elections failed to result in the formation of a new government, the White House was forced to wait. Trump apparently decided to release the peace deal now because he wanted to add it to his recent string of diplomatic and security accomplishments upon which he intends to campaign for re-election. These include the assassination of Iran’s top terrorist, General Qassem Soleimani; the signing of a Phase One trade deal halting the tariff war with China; and the ratification of the USMCA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
THE ISRAELI POLITICAL CONTEXT
Many Israeli political analysts also believed that the timing of the high-profile White House visit was intended to give Netanyahu a political boost with Israeli voters going to the polls on March 2 for the third time in less than a year. Netanyahu’s suggestion that Gantz also receive an invitation was an effort to shield Trump from criticism that he was attempting to influence the outcome of the Israeli election.
Yisroel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, personally responsible for blocking Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government following the two previous Knesset elections, took to Facebook on Monday to criticize Trump’s invitation to Netanyahu. “Without reading the plan that President Trump will present, I have no doubt that it will have a true understanding of Israel’s interests in a future settlement with the Palestinians,” Lieberman wrote on Facebook. “For Netanyahu, it is clear that this is part of a survival plan and nothing else.”
Lieberman also criticized Gantz, referring to him as “Mr. Yes and No,” and claiming that the political novice “has not yet decided” how he feels about the peace deal, “just as he [Gantz] did not decide whether or not to favor Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and how to form a secular government with [Aryeh] Deri, [Yaakov] Litzman and [Moshe] Gafni…” Lieberman wrote.
Lieberman also wrote that “Gantz has not yet decided whether or not the three terror-supporting Arab political parties will be partners in his coalition. . . But that didn’t stop him from flying to Washington for a photo-op with President Trump and serving as a warm-up for the main show [Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu].”
Lieberman cynically suggested that “Netanyahu and Gantz busy themselves with all the [threats] Israel is facing, such as the Iranian nuclear bomb, the budget deficit, the crisis in the health care system, the surrender to terror, and the explosive balloons which have already reached Beit Shemesh and Sde Boker, instead of busying themselves with spins and PR.”
Members of the foreign relations establishment, including several former US diplomats who spent decades trying and failing to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, have been deeply skeptical of Trump’s new Middle East diplomatic approach.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who worked on the peace process as an official in the Obama State Department, called Trump’s plan “an instrument that facilitates an American blessing of an Israeli annexation” and questioned the politically fortuitous original timing of Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump at the White House this week. “It’s the very day that Netanyahu is facing the start of a Knesset proceeding that will decide if he has immunity in the face of three corruption indictments. That cannot be coincidental.”
A former State Department official who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations described the Trump peace plan to reporter Laura Kelly as a “political stunt. I just don’t see what they’re going to be able to talk about because the Palestinians have already dismissed it. It’s probably just going to be another effort to highlight and show how committed to Israeli security the administration is and how it’s going to shape its conception of a peace process that’s all about securing the state of Israel.”
Martin Indyk, who served as an intermediary in the failed Israeli-Palestinian 2014 peace talks initiated by President Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry, refuses to give any credence to Trump’s peace effort. “For him [Trump] to do this in the middle of an Israeli election, without any Palestinian participation and with no intention to follow up with any of the participants, shows this is not a peace plan at all… It is a farce from start to finish,” Indyk said.
A REALISTIC EVALUATION OF PALESTINIAN INTENTIONS
Indyk’s observation is correct in one respect – the Trump proposal rejects the underlying assumption of previous American peace plans that the Palestinians have been bargaining in good faith and want to reach a negotiated permanent peace agreement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian leaders initially cooperated with the peace process as a tactic to weaken Israel to the point that it could be successfully attacked, destroyed and removed from the Middle East. Yasser Arafat said a much to his followers, in Arabic, several times, while telling Western supporters of the Oslo process a very different story. His disciple and successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has been following the same strategy as PA chairman for more than 15 years, by fostering a culture that promotes Palestinian terrorism as heroic and patriotic, but he has been more careful about admitting his underlying strategy for Israel’s destruction than Arafat was.
Trump’s approach recognizes that the PA’s continued support for Palestinian terrorism is incompatible with the effort to create a lasting peace, and that the core of the conflict is the Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel’s presence in the Middle East, rather than the PA’s territorial claims in the West Bank.
Trump has also recognized that it is too late to turn back the clock, and that it is time to recognize realities on the ground that have been in place for more than half a century. These realities include Israel’s sovereignty over West Yerushalayim and its right to declare the city as its capital, as well as Israel’s claims to the Golan Heights and to areas of the West Bank and East Yerushalayim which are now the permanent home of more than 750,000 Jews.
Trump believes that if he is determined enough, he can convince other world leaders to accept his much more realistic view of the obstacles to peace in the region and accept his pragmatic but unconventional solutions to the most intractable problems.
CONVINCING THE ISRAELI PUBLIC
These are some of the reasons why former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, who has written several books and scholarly articles on Middle East history and politics, spoke optimistically about the Trump peace plan in a Fox News interview before this week’s White House meetings. “It’s a new day and this peace plan is aimed at really two customers, if you will: the Israeli public and the moderate Arab Sunni world, specially the Gulf states,” Oren said. “And so far, the reactions have been very good.”
Oren notes that, “in the Arab world, this president’s administration has a tremendous amount of street credit for its strong stance against Iran [and] pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal,” but that Trump’s impact has been greatest on Israeli voters. “We can’t lose track and lose sight of the big picture,” Oren emphasized. “You have a huge chunk of the Israeli public, even the radical right so far, saying that they’re very supportive of this peace initiative. That is unprecedented. Back in the 90s, during the Oslo years, during the Clinton years, this country [Israel] was divided bitterly over the peace process; now we’re united around this peace process and this is a historic moment.”
PALESTINIANS MISSING ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY
But Oren is skeptical that the Palestinians will eventually back down and agree to take Trump’s proposal seriously. He noted that, “Palestinians hold the world record for the people who have been offered peace, have been offered a two-state solution throughout history and every time have said ‘no.’ As a matter of fact, they don’t even have ‘yes’ in their vocabulary.”
This is not a new observation. After the failure of the Geneva Peace Process two months after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban famously said that Arabs “have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” That quote has been applied many times since to the faulty decisions of the leaders of the Palestinian Authority.
A LONG HISTORY OF ARAB REJECTION
The Arabs first rejected a proposal to set up a Jewish national home on 4% of the land in Palestine at the 1920 post-World War I San Remo peace conference. That conference gave Great Britain control over Mandatory Palestine, where growing tensions between the Arab residents and Zionist settlers, as well as members of the Old Yishuv, exploded into a series of bloody Arab riots in Yerushalayim and the 1929 massacre in Chevron. In 1936, the British government appointed the Peel Commission to find a way to end the recurring violence. It recommended a partition which would have given the Jewish residents control over only 17% of the land east of the Jordan River, and assigned the rest of the land to the Arabs. But Arab leaders rejected the proposal, leading to the effort led by the Haganah and Irgun militias to expel the British and establish an independent Jewish state.
In 1947, when Britain announced that it would be leaving Palestine in May of the following year, a UN commission was appointed to draft another partition proposal which assigned the Jews 56% of the land of Palestine, much of which consisted of the uninhabited Negev Desert, and the remaining 43% to the Arabs, while leaving Yerushalayim under international control. Once again, the Arabs rejected the proposal, and invaded Israel as soon as the British left, losing even more territory to the new Jewish state during the 1948 War of Independence. The defeated Arab states then refused to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, leaving the legal sovereignty of the remaining lands under Arab military control in Gaza, the West Bank and East Yerushalayim unresolved.
After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel conquered those areas, the Arab world again refused to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. They remained under Israeli control until secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO led to the 1995 Oslo II peace accords, which gave the PA limited autonomy in Arab populated areas of the West Bank. But the leaders of the PA allowed the negotiating timetable set up for further implementation of the Oslo accords to be disrupted by murderous terrorist attacks on Israel.
The next opportunity to negotiate a territorial settlement between the leaders of Israel and the PA came during the Camp David summit hosted by President Bill Clinton in August 2000. At Camp David, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat did not respond to a peace offer made by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, with Clinton’s support, which offered the Palestinians 90% of the West Bank and shared sovereignty over portions of Yerushalayim. Instead, Arafat walked away from the summit and started the Second Intifada a few weeks later.
PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas rejected an even more generous offer in 2008 from then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which would have given the new Palestinian state 95% of the West Bank, plus additional land from inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders to provide compensation for the West Bank settlements that Israel would annex.
Some months later, in an interview with a Jordanian newspaper, Saeb Erekat explained why Abbas refused to accept Olmert’s best offer. “[Prime Minister] Ehud Barak offered us 90% [of the West Bank] and Olmert offered us 100%. Why should we hurry?” Erekat asked.
The Palestinians expected that the next Israeli peace offer would be even more generous than Olmert’s. They never expected the next American president to support Israel’s territorial claims and offer the Palestinians a significantly smaller portion of the West Bank than Barak and Olmert did.
WHY TRUMP IS CONFIDENT OF SUCCESS
The PA’s leaders now face a tough political choice. Hamas and other Arab terrorist groups will undoubtedly condemn them for betraying the Palestinian cause if they do agree to the Trump offer, but if PA leaders continue to reject the plan, they and their people will face the prospect of harsh additional economic and territorial losses, especially if President Trump wins a second term this November.
Trump is confident that the Palestinians will eventually come around and support his proposal. He has already secured the support of the man who will emerge as Israel’s next prime minister, and a large majority of the Israeli people.