AnalysisDoes the administration have a backup strategy?

Trump’s ‘This is what you will be throwing away’ letter to the Palestinians

In theory, the Peace to Prosperity plan is hugely beneficial to the Palestinians. In practice, predictably, the PA has rejected it. What does the White House intend to do next?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Donald Trump (right) reaches to shake hands with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, May 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump (right) reaches to shake hands with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, May 3, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Jared Kushner was as good as his word. In a public interview last month, he expressed his wariness of the phrase “two states” to describe the intended resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If you say ‘two states’ to the Israelis it means one thing, and if you say ‘two states’ to the Palestinians it means another thing,” he explained. “So we said, ‘let’s just not say it.’ Let’s just work on the details of what this means.”

And indeed, the 40-page Peace to Prosperity economic plan, unveiled by the White House on Saturday ahead of this week’s Palestinian-focused economic workshop in Bahrain, is packed with proposals for unleashing the Palestinians’ potential. It comes with an accompanying 96-page “programs and projects” document that details the plan’s intended $50 billion regional economic overhaul down to the last dollar earmarked for everything from re-training programs to road repairs. But it makes no mention of a two-state solution. It does not speak of Palestinian statehood.

This will not have surprised the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which decided in December 2017, when US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that his was an administration so hopelessly biased against the Palestinians, so favorable to Israel, that the only appropriate course of action was to boycott it entirely. Trump had already infuriated Ramallah by appointing an ambassador to Israel who strongly supports the settlement enterprise and by becoming the first serving US president to visit the Western Wall under Israeli auspices. He has since further aggrieved the PA under its president, Mahmoud Abbas, by closing down the PLO’s mission in Washington and booting its representative, and by slashing US aid, most notably to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, which the administration concluded was perpetuating and deepening, rather than helping to alleviate, the Palestinian refugee problem.

No sooner had the US and Bahrain announced this week’s workshop than the PA was declaring it would not attend and imploring its allies to stay away too. Similarly, no sooner had Kushner and his team published their plan on Saturday than the Palestinians were rejecting it, denouncing it for ostensibly seeking to buy off their aspirations for statehood.

Looked at in isolation, the Peace to Prosperity program is, in theory, patently hugely beneficial for the Palestinians, promoting an end to victimhood and a route to empowerment. It sets out a framework for a revolutionary improvement in the daily lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including via investment in a physical link across Israel between those West Bank and Gaza entities. It also indicates empathy with Palestinian national aspirations. In fact, it suggests recognition of the Palestinian nation — Chapter Two of the main document is titled: “Empowering the Palestinian People: The Greatest Resource of Every Nation is its People.” And while not endorsing independent Palestinian statehood, neither does the plan negate it. Indeed, its authors have made clear that a mutually acceptable political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for this vision of economic revolution.

Of course, however, Peace to Prosperity does not exist in isolation. It appears 29 months into the Trump term, at a time when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could hardly be more thrilled with his relationship with the administration, and when the Palestinians could hardly be more unhappy. And therefore, it might be most sensible to read the Peace and Prosperity program, first, as the Trump White House’s “this is what you will be throwing away” letter to Abbas: You can work with us, and with other well-intentioned parties, the administration is saying, and culminate what the plan’s opening paragraph supportively describes as the Palestinian people’s “historic endeavor to build a better future for their children.” Or you can deny your people this unique opportunity. To which Abbas, the man who chose not to accept prime minister Ehud Olmert’s unsurpassable 2008 statehood offer, has already responded with a predictably resounding: Go to hell.

The question thus quickly becomes: What does the administration do next?

Armed with this vision of a better Palestinian future, and assisted by some of its wealthier regional allies, does the US seek to bypass the rejectionist PA and nurture an alternative Palestinian leadership? At this stage, that path seems highly implausible; credible Palestinians ready, willing and able to defy the PA are in short supply.

Does the administration have a backup strategy, therefore — a path forward that it has wisely developed in the certain knowledge that Abbas would not prove a willing partner? One would like to assume that the answer to this is yes, except it is devilishly hard to imagine what that path would look like.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk while walking to the West Wing of the White House for a meeting March 25, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Alternatively, then, will we sooner or later see the president lambaste the Abbas leadership, make a dramatic show of throwing up his hands, and allow Netanyahu to move ahead with his promised gradual annexation of settlements — already semi-endorsed by Ambassador David Friedman and Special Envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt?

If the latter, then the administration would not merely be eschewing the “two-state” formula. It could be setting a course for a one-state disaster in which Israel and the Palestinians are at once deeply at odds and inextricably intertwined, and Israel’s essential Jewish-democratic nature is imperiled.

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