As US appears to back West Bank annexations, is its peace plan dead on arrival?

Analysts say Pompeo’s support for PM’s vow to apply sovereignty to all settlements contradicts declared US goal of brokering a deal; some expect Trump to shelve plan indefinitely

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

The odds were always slim. Few people outside the White House believed US President Donald Trump stood a realistic chance of clinching the “deal of the century.”

But if in some quarters there remained a sliver of hope that this most unconventional of presidents, who upended international norms and did things no one thought would ever be done, could also clinch Israeli-Palestinian peace, recent statements by top American and Israeli officials have experts more convinced than ever that the administration’s effort in this regard is doomed to fail.

Indeed, the prospects have grown so dim in recent days that Trump may end up shelving his long-anticipated peace plan altogether, some analysts surmised this week. Others suggested that he knows the Palestinians will reject the blueprint but will opt to release it anyway, and one member of the Israeli government said that Trump still believes in a deal — and will ultimately ask Jerusalem to make painful concessions.

The latest nadir in trust in the peace process was caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow last week to apply Israeli sovereignty to all West Bank settlements. Because he made the dramatic announcement in an interview three days before Israelis went to the polls, many dismissed it as an empty election promise intended to persuade hard-right voters to support his Likud party.

The US administration, which had previously declared settlement expansions to be unhelpful and urged Israel to limit construction over the Green Line — Trump himself just last year warned Israel that the settlement enterprise “very much complicates and always [has] complicated making peace” — initially was mum on Netanyahu’s settlement-sovereignty vow.

But on Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, indicated that Washington has no problem with the prime minister’s plan.

In his question, Tapper inaccurately implied that Netanyahu said he wanted to annex the entire West Bank (the prime minister explicitly said he would not seek to do that, but rather apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, which together make up a small percentage of the territory). Yet, stunningly, when asked if the prime minister’s intended action “might hurt the pursuit of peace,” Pompeo replied: “I don’t.”

The peace plan that the White House is expected to roll out in the coming weeks will “represent a significant change from the model that’s been used,” he added.

A new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Naale, January 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In other words: According to America’s top diplomat, who dismisses previous models of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts, an Israeli annexation of parts, or even all, of the West Bank apparently does not contradict the administration’s peace plan.

“Pompeo’s remarks are the latest signal that the Trump peace plan, if it’s ever presented, will bear no resemblance to previous models of a two-state solution. Instead, the plan seems designed to perpetuate isolated areas of limited Palestinian autonomy under overall Israeli control, including annexed settlements,” said Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and currently a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“The Palestinians will of course reject such a plan. No Arab state will endorse it. Few others in the international community can support it. And Democratic candidates seeking to replace Trump as president will likely also distance itself from it.”

You can have one or the other — unilateral annexation or negotiated resolution — but not both

Even before Netanyahu’s sovereignty vow there were indications that the so-called deal of the century may adopt far-reaching concessions to Israel that would make it untenable for the Palestinians.

In a March 26 speech, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman indicated that no other administration, former or future, would better understand the “need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and a permanent defense position in the Jordan valley.”

While the Palestinians agree for their future state to be demilitarized, they have  steadfastly resisted Israel’s insistence that it must retain overall security control in the West Bank and a strong military presence in the valley.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the annual AIPAC conference in Washington on March 26, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

“It is hard to know what to make of it without knowing what is in the plan,” Dennis Ross, a former US diplomat who has worked on Israeli-Palestinian issues for decades, said about Pompeo’s apparent support for Netanyahu’s annexation announcement.

Allowing Israel to apply sovereignty over some settlements does not automatically rule out Palestinian statehood, as some have argued, Ross said.

“For example, what if the plan provides for Israeli absorption of the settlement blocs? Since 2000, we have talked of settlement blocs and swaps,” he added. “Of course this would need to come through a negotiation and agreement and not done unilaterally.”

Former Middle East ambassador and Obama adviser Dennis Ross at an event at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem earlier this year (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

From the little that is known about the Trump plan, one of its two major components is a sizable financial incentive package for the Palestinians, paid for by the Sunni Arab states.

“The economic plan… is a very important part of the overall equation,” a US official told the Washington Post this week.

But Arab leaders could never publicly approve of a scheme that includes a unilateral Israeli annexation rejected by the Palestinians, Ross said.

“The bigger danger of annexation, once begun, is that it will continue and lead to a point where Israel will no longer be able to separate from Palestinians,” he added. “That will lead to one state for two peoples — and Palestinians will have a mantra of one person, one vote.”

Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that it is difficult to reconcile unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank territory with a negotiated peace accord.

“You can have one or the other — unilateral annexation or negotiated resolution — but not both,” he told The Times of Israel on Monday.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“In terms of the model of peacemaking, reading the tea leaves, there seems to be a strong component of ‘quality of life’ enhancements in the US plan, which is important and useful but should, in my view, have constituted the preparatory work of a peace proposal, not the proposal itself,” Satloff went on.

It is questionable whether efforts to improve Palestinians’ standard of living with cash from the Arab world can substitute for progress on the territorial arguments, he said. “And if that is the idea, the administration would be wiser to shelve the plan rather than elicit a resounding rejection that could undermine broader US interests.”

Chances for the peace plan to be released have actually increased in recent days, “although it is not yet certain,” said Shapiro.

“If they do [release it], and if it is the plan suggested by Pompeo’s remarks, they must know it’s dead on arrival with the Palestinians and the Arab states,” he said. “There is no Venn diagram that describes any overlap on a plan that both the likely Israeli government and the Arab states can accept.”

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro attends at a fare-well session at the Knesset ahead of his departure from the role on January 17, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Cognizant of the plan’s inevitable failure, the administration may choose to publish it but not try to implement it, Shapiro speculated. “Rather, they will place the blame on the parties that rejected it, and tell Israel it can proceed as it wishes.”

That outcome would of course be ideal for Netanyahu, who could take credit for yet another historic US decision bolstering Israeli claims.

But not everyone agrees that it’s going to be so easy.

“I do think that Trump wants a deal,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a deputy minister in the outgoing government.

It’s poignantly refreshing that someone is trying to change the paradigm. Because the old paradigm simply doesn’t work

There are no free lunches in Trumpland, Oren has repeatedly warned over the last few weeks, expecting the president to eventually ask for something in return for his many pro-Israel moves.

Cutting Palestinian aid, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights were all steps geared toward making the Palestinians more amenable negotiation partners, Oren said.

For decades, the Palestinians turned down various peace offers but were rewarded by the international community — a formula Trump is intent to turn on its head — according to the US-born historian-turned-politician.

“It’s poignantly refreshing that someone is trying to change the paradigm, because the old paradigm simply doesn’t work, because it gave veto power to a Palestinian leadership that is both unwilling and incapable of saying yes to a peace deal,” Oren said. “And that is the definition of insanity.”

In this context, refraining from publicly opposing Netanyahu’s sovereignty at the settlements announcements can be seen as “another lever to pressure the Palestinians,” he surmised. “He’s showing the Palestinians that time is not on their side anymore. Whether it’s going to work, I don’t know, but that’s the approach.”

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