Israelis, consensually, do not believe that we can make peace with the Palestinians, or even safely separate from them, any time soon.
Israelis well remember the Second Intifada, when the IDF’s withdrawal from major West Bank Palestinian cities under the Oslo Accords facilitated the unchecked growth of an infrastructure of Hamas and Fatah terrorism, dispatching a horrific years-long onslaught of suicide bombers into our malls, our stores, our buses, rendering our reality here almost untenable and costing hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli civilian lives.
Israelis continue to grapple with the violent consequences of our 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to the pre-1967 lines, which was followed by a Hamas takeover, three major rounds of conflict, relentless intermittent rocket fire and endless border violence — all accompanied by a soundtrack of international criticism of Israel for the crime of trying to protect ourselves against attacks from a territory to which we stake no claim.
Israelis recall that when prime minister Ehud Olmert desperately sought an accommodation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, essentially giving the Palestinians everything they ostensibly sought, Abbas hemmed and hawed and ultimately walked away. Since then, the relatively moderate (compared to his predecessor and likely successors) Abbas has presided over a Palestinian hierarchy that teaches and incites hostility to Israel, and has himself delivered a series of speeches deriding Israel’s legitimacy, notoriously branding the Jewish state “a colonial project that has nothing to do with Judaism.”
It is because our attempts in recent years both to negotiate an agreement and to unilaterally set safe borders have failed that the traditional advocates of “land for peace” efforts have been relegated to the margins of Israeli politics. Ahead of March 2’s elections, Labor (which has internalized the impossibility of substantive progress with the Palestinians today, but strives to keep open the option of a two-state solution in the future) and Meretz (the one Zionist party that still insists a viable accord is possible now) were compelled to join forces or risk disappearing from the Knesset beneath the 3.25% electoral threshold.
The only credible alternative to a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a party (Blue and White) helmed by an ex-IDF chief of staff (Benny Gantz) that principally opposes the prime minister not for his stance on the Palestinians, but over his insistence on trying to retain power while he is being prosecuted in three criminal cases.
That we are about to hold our third general elections within 12 months underlines that Israelis are not consensually sure they want the indefatigable Netanyahu as their prime minister any more. But the right and center dominance of Israeli politics confirms that we are consensually certain that relinquishing territory for a promise of peace is a nonstarter, now and in the foreseeable future.
So, the plan unveiled on Tuesday at the White House by US President Donald Trump should be wonderful news for the electorate, for an Israel so bleakly realistic about the current impossibility of peacemaking. Right?
Well, not necessarily.
The Trump deal places prime importance in any accord on Israel’s security needs, and envisions a Palestinian state with restricted sovereignty so that it cannot threaten Israel. It dismisses the outrageous Palestinian demand for both their own state and for millions of refugees and their descendants to flow into Israel and overwhelm ours. It calls out the Palestinian leadership for decades of intransigent rejectionism and hostility.
But it also contains two core components that threaten its declared best intentions for Israel, and that move it away from the Israeli consensus.
First, while the White House has indicated that the terms are not set in stone, and indeed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly encouraged the Palestinians to submit a “counter-offer,” key territorial elements at the heart of the “Vision” are manifestly nonnegotiable. The “conceptual maps” included in the plan allocate 30% of the West Bank to Israel, including all the settlements and the Jordan Valley area, with the assurance of American recognition if and when Israel annexes those territories.
In the short period since the deal was made public, confusion and contradiction has erupted over the timing of Israeli annexation — with US Ambassador David Friedman insisting Tuesday that Israel can go ahead and annex right now, and the president’s peace envoy Jared Kushner on Wednesday stating that the US would not back such a move until Israel has a fully functioning government, post-elections. But there has been no disputing the territorial division, and no walk-back from the US commitment to endorse Israel’s sovereignty in all the allocated areas.
This provision for unilateral Israeli annexation of 30% of the West Bank discredits the US assurance that the deal can serve as a basis for negotiation, standing at decisive odds with a statement from President Donald Trump himself only a day before he unveiled it. “Now, without them,” the president said of the Palestinians, “we don’t do the deal.”
And while the likelihood of the Palestinians under Abbas opting to re-engage with the Trump administration is precisely zero — “We say 1,000 times: No, no and no to the deal of the century,” was the PA chief’s predictably nuanced immediate response to the plan; he has now announced he is cutting all ties to the US and Israel, including security coordination — the danger is that unilateral annexation on this scale and in these areas means no future Palestinian leadership has any incentive to engage either.
Secondly, the plan provides for 15 isolated Israeli settlements — located in the heart of the territory potentially designated for the restricted Palestinian state — to remain in situ, as so-called “Israeli Enclave Communities.”
The concern is that leaving these “enclaves” inside quasi-Palestine will create a reality not unlike the Gaza of old, where 7-8,000 Jews lived in some 20 heavily protected settlements. As Jewish islands in a sea of Palestinian hostility, the intended West Bank “enclaves” — many of which have long been the targets of horrific acts of terrorism — will require extraordinary security protection.
Residents of these settlements, while appreciating the promise of American-backed Israeli annexation, are wary of their looming formal isolation, and not much comforted by the assurance that the Palestinian entity surrounding them will be demilitarized. The settler leadership is insisting that the enclaves will have to be expanded.
Meanwhile, their intended permanent presence further undermines the self-governing credibility of the envisioned Palestinian state, again reducing the likelihood of any future Palestinian leadership returning to the negotiating table.
However frequently described as central components of a “pro-Israel” package, these two core components will hardly fit that description if their consequence is the closing of the door on a negotiated accord far into the future. They will hardly fit that description if, too, their consequence is the fraying of Israel’s precious existing treaties and ties with the Arab world.
The provision for the enclaves matches Netanyahu’s pledge that no settlers will be uprooted, accords with Ambassador Friedman’s dedicated support of the settlement movement, and doubtless pleases Trump’s Evangelical supporters. But it marks quite a departure from the US president’s initial wariness of the enterprise. (Settlements are “not a good thing for peace… Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he told Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom three years ago, shortly after taking office.)
As for the stated readiness to support unilateral annexation, that seems tailored more to Netanyahu’s short-term political needs than Israel’s long-term interest in an eventual agreement. (Gantz, anxious not to say no to Trump but wary of the deal’s unilateral provisions, is desperately trying to square the circle — promising if he is elected next month to advance the plan, impossibly, “in full coordination with the governments of the US, Jordan, Egypt, others in the region and the Palestinians.”)
The issue here is not only the matter of growing international condemnation of what will be regarded as Israel’s ongoing rule over the Palestinians, especially if and when the American political spectrum swings again. It is also, most critically, about the gradual elimination of any prospect of a negotiated, viable two-state deal with the Palestinians — an accord that would enable Israel to separate from the Palestinians and thus maintain both its Jewish majority and its democratic character.
The dovish Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea described the Trump plan as “a Medea’s gift” that spells nothing less than “the end of Zionism.” The thoroughly mainstream Gen. (ret) Amos Gilad, who for years directed policy at the Defense Ministry, said the provisions of the plan mean the Palestinians “simply won’t talk to us… It is 100 percent certain that there will be no interaction with them, no discussions with them.” The plan’s provisions for annexation, meanwhile, he said, risk turning us “into a single state with two peoples, with far-reaching implications for the character of the State of Israel.”
Could it be, therefore, that this supposed unprecedentedly pro-Israel plan — this vision unveiled by a pro-Israel US president; opposed by all the usual Israel-haters, from Iran to Turkey’s President Erdogan to Hamas; castigated by all the familiar Trump-opposing Israel-bashers, from Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren to Jimmy Carter — actually adds up to the very opposite?
Abbas’s late and unlamented predecessor Yasser Arafat never recognized an imperative to come to terms with Israel and legitimize it as a Jewish state because he was confident that the Palestinians would prevail over Israel by sheer weight of numbers. Wait long enough, and don’t compromise on territorial demands, he determined, and eventually the Jews will constitute a minority between the river and sea.
Arafat, and Abbas after him, indeed proved resolutely unbending. And Israel, encouraging settlement expansion — even in mainly Palestinian-populated areas that, until this week, it consensually anticipated relinquishing under any future accord — deepened its entanglement with the Palestinians.
Now the US peace plan has ostensibly punished the Palestinians for their obduracy, and rewarded the Israelis by recognizing our rights to further portions of this biblically resonant territory.
But what if it is the Palestinians, having rejected decades of Israeli land-for-peace overtures, who actually emerge as the victors? And what if it is Israel — entrenched among those intransigent Palestinians in a single, friction-filled entity, its democracy compromised, its Jewish majority erased — that loses its very essence?