Who needs the deal of the century right now? Only two people

The West Bank has been atypically calm of late. The release of a US peace plan seen as unprecedentedly pro-Israel and at deep odds with Palestinian positions could change that

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
US President Donald Trump, left, welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

This coming week’s expected presentation of the Trump administration’s “Deal of the century” comes during one of the strangest periods that the West Bank / Judea and Samaria have known for decades.

The West Bank has been relatively tranquil — everything is always relative — on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides, with the level of friction and violence at something of a low.

This raises the question: Who benefits from the publication of the administration’s peace plan at precisely this moment?

The answer is clichéd and clear. Only two people really need this plan, at this time: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.

As for the Palestinians and the West Bank settlers, it’s doubtful that the plan will improve the situation on the ground. Quite the reverse.

Let’s look first at the Jewish side. Soon, maybe even this year, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) will reach 500,000. Not so many years ago, the notion of half a million settlers would have sounded like a pipe dream. Today, even the vision of a million settlers appears attainable. The settlements, large and small, including the major cities, are growing. The sense of security among residents is improving, even though there is always the danger of attacks and attempted attacks.

What of the Palestinian side? Here, there is of a mixture of public apathy and relative economic stability — what Palestinians have come to see as “normalized occupation.”

There are, for instance, no roadblocks within Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank. A resident of Jenin traveling to Hebron will not be stopped at a roadblock en route — something that until recently would have seemed like a distant fantasy. Ninety five percent of young Palestinians have smartphones. The groceries are full of produce. New hotels and restaurants are opening. Real estate has been on the rise for years.

Construction work in the Dagan neighborhood of the settlement of Efrat, in the West Bank on July 22, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The rate of unemployment in the West Bank is at some 18%, but this figure does not take into account the Palestinians who enter Israel to work illegally every day.

Some 70,000 to 80,000 workers cross into Israel legally, and another 30,000 work in the settlements. But 30,000 to 40,000 more cross into Israel illegally. Almost nobody is stopping them and they generally pass without problem from the West Bank into Israel via innumerable breaches in the security barrier. In the past, Israel did try to stop this phenomenon. But those efforts have largely ended over recent months. The security establishment is essentially facilitating the entry of the illegals.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, chairs a session of the weekly cabinet meeting, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 29, 2019.(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, Pool)

It’s a function of priorities and practicalities: In total, 130,000-150,000 Palestinian construction workers who would earn NIS 100 ($30) a day within the Palestinian Authority areas earn up to 400 shekels ($120) a day from their Israeli employers. And of course, the motivation of those workers and their families to jeopardize this by carrying out or attempting to carry out attacks is relatively low.

The role of the Palestinian Authority in maintaining the relative calm should also be noted. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is closing in on his 85th birthday, was elected president 15 years ago. Since then, the PA with its tens of thousands of employees has overseen impressive stability (relatively speaking, of course). Security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continues as usual, and Abbas’s security apparatuses arrest Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even Fatah activists every week who are planning to disrupt this calm.

All of this has created a reasonable economic climate, certainly much better than that which prevails in Gaza or in neighboring Arab states. There is no comparison between economic growth in the West Bank and economic growth within Israel, but again, from the perspective of many West Bankers, this is occupation that has become occupation deluxe.

Nonetheless, this reality is fragile. One factor that could change it relates to Abbas himself. What will happen on “the day after” Abbas? It’s very hard to predict, but there is certainly a possibility of some kind of popular uprising, Arab Spring-style, against the Palestinian Authority; the PA is not popular among West Bank Palestinians.

And then, of course, there is always the danger of some kind of dramatic, unexpected development in the diplomatic or the security realm that could radically destabilize the situation and set off snowballing violence: A major Palestinian terror attack. Jewish terror. An Israeli announcement annexing territory. An announcement by the Palestinian Authority that it was ceasing to function… Or indeed the announcement by what is regarded as a hostile American administration of a “peace plan.”

The announcement planned for a few days from now of a plan which is expected to be particularly supportive of Israel, and deeply at odds with the Palestinian stance, could produce an extreme response on the Palestinian side — reversing the prevailing trends on the Palestinian and the Israeli sides.

One wonders whether this has been taken into account by the administration. And if so, whether any such concerns were marginalized by comparison with a desire to boost Trump’s ally Netanyahu in the six weeks before Israel’s next elections. And indeed, to boost Trump with his base, too.

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