WASHINGTON — In June 1990, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was a freshman Knesset member at the time, accompanied then-prime minister Yizhak Shamir to Washington. During the trip, US secretary of state James Baker famously rebuked the Israeli leader for his hardline positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There won’t be peace unless Jerusalem changes its approach, Baker said, warning that the US administration was ready to drop the whole issue and let Israel deal with the conflict by itself.
“I have to tell you that everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414,” Baker said. “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
Thirty years later, as President Donald Trump unveiled his much-anticipated blueprint for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, Netanyahu feels that the tables have turned 180 degrees.
“Now Trump is telling the Palestinians: if you’re serious about peace, call us,” the prime minister told reporters during a briefing held shortly after the “Deal of the Century” was unveiled in the White House’s East Room on Tuesday.
“I feel great. It’s a great moment. It’s really a historic moment,” he said. “No one knows how it’s going to develop. But it’s a change. We got used to being victims. We win wars, turned into a world power, and still act like we don’t have any rights. This is an archaic model. No longer.”
Indeed, the administration’s plan heavily favors the Israeli side, allowing it to keep almost all of Jerusalem and to immediately annex the Jordan Valley and all other settlements located in the West Bank. The Palestinians, on the other hand, are promised a state only if they fulfill a long list of demands that is, while reasonable from an Israeli perspective, frankly unrealistic.
Even if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were to agree to the territorial aspects of the deal, he has long vowed to refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to fully waive the so-called right of return.
And even if he were to change his mind on these issues, he couldn’t possibly fulfill some of the deal’s other requirements — such as disarming Hamas in Gaza — even if he wanted to. And these are just a few examples of the many demands made of the Palestinians.
But even in the impossible scenario that the Palestinians were to fulfill all the requirements stipulated by the deal, the State of Palestine would still not be a “state” in the regular sense. It would be completely demilitarized; the Israeli army would retain security control over its territory; and it would not have any control over border crossings. (No airport is planned for the Palestinian state, a senior Israeli official said Tuesday.)
In one of the prime minister’s first meetings with the president, Trump is said to have asked Netanyahu about his vision for peace. Netanyahu reportedly explained that any deal would have to provide for full Israeli security control over the West Bank and for the Palestinian state to be demilitarized.
“Bibi, this isn’t a state,” Trump is said to have retorted.
“Call it what you want,” Netanyahu responded.
The deal revealed on Tuesday refers to a “realistic two-state solution,” and Trump spoke of a “historic opportunity for the Palestinians to finally achieve an independent state of their very own.” (Nearly exactly three years ago, in the very same East Room, he had told a stunned Israeli premier that he was “looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” and that “both sides will have to make compromises.”)
Netanyahu doesn’t want to publicly contradict the president, but he told reporters that he prefers calling what the Palestinians could get “limited sovereignty.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what’s in the plan — because it won’t be implemented. The Palestinians rejected it even before it was published, and reiterated their staunch opposition to it Tuesday. Hence, the Palestinians will get neither an “independent state” nor one with “limited sovereignty” anytime soon.
That is not to say that the plan’s publication won’t have major repercussions. As Netanyahu stressed in his briefing, he intends to begin applying Israeli sovereignty over the parts the deal views as part of Israel as soon as next Sunday. Whether the caretaker government he leads has the right to do that seems unclear. Netanyahu has not asked the opinion of Attorney General Avichay Mandelblit on the matter, but does not expect him to stand in the way of an annexation, he said.
A unilateral Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank, without a realistic prospect of a Palestinian state could lead, down the road, to a one-state solution.
But Jerusalem is unfazed by such scenarios, a senior Israeli official in Netanyahu’s delegation said Tuesday. “The Palestinians have threatened this for years. I am not impressed,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The guests invited to Tuesday’s ceremony — a mix of Republican Congressmen, Jewish communal leaders and prominent Evangelicals — surprisingly also included ambassadors from three Gulf states: Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
“We haven’t seen the plan yet,” the Omani envoy, Hunaina al-Mughairy, told The Times of Israel immediately after the event ended, as Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” played over the speakers.
A few hours later, the governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, remarkably, issued statements supportive of the plan, which some Israelis here, especially supporters of the settlements, compared to the coming of the Messiah.
It is certainly noteworthy that these countries chose not to echo the Palestinians’ fury against a proposal that endorses Israel keeping all of Jerusalem and slices up the West Bank into enclaves. But this certainly does not signal that full normalization with Israel is just around the corner.
Rather, the Gulf states’ non-condemnation of the plan needs to be seen as a goodwill gesture toward Trump. Aware of his mercurial temper and dependent on the US to keep Iran in check, they opted not to publicly slam his Deal of the Century.
But if Netanyahu goes ahead with his plan to turn Israel into the Annexation Nation, the entire Arab world, including the Gulf states, can reasonably be expected to rain down condemnations on Israel.