Trump’s Middle East ‘Deal of the Century’ Coming Into Focus
Donald Trump’s promise of “a deal of the century” to end the conflict between Israel and the Arabs is getting legs. After a year of discussions led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the main elements of the president’s design are coming into view. But it’s not exactly what the Palestinians want to see.
It would be an exaggeration to call the ideas and suggestions raised by Trump’s intimates a bona fide plan. In the first case, the assembly of government experts and intimates thinking about the issue this past year have yet to demonstrate an ability to conceptualize an agreed upon and coherent view of a successful diplomatic engagement worthy of the definition. And second, there is no evidence to suggest that the Trump team is capable of successfully translating such a plan, if it exists, into a successful diplomatic engagement.
Nevertheless, Trump’s decision in December to accede to Congress’s long-standing demand that the U.S. recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s eternal, undivided capital set the diplomatic ball rolling and gave concrete expression, whether consciously or not, to a set of assumptions supporting the maximalist and unilateralist agenda of the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Palestinians, meanwhile, find themselves the passive, rather than actively engaged agents of this process. Before Christmas, top PLO official Saeb Erekat formally presented the PLO leadership with a wide-ranging summary of the hostile diplomatic landscape in Washington. The report was meant to support the decision of PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas to shun the American effort after Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration. If even a fraction of it is a true reflection of the way things are going, Palestinians have more than enough reason to back Abbas and be very, very wary of the American role here.
“The relationship with the United States,” noted Erekat’s report, “can only be sustained by the cancellation of the decision to consider Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to cancel the decision to consider the PLO as an organization of terror.
“President Trump’s administration will not do either of these two things, so [the PLO] must stick to the suspension of all contacts with President Trump’s administration about the peace process, while refusing to regard it as mediator or sponsor of the peace process in any way.”
There is evidence enough to support the PLO’s view of Washington’s hostility. Trump himself declares—albeit to no one’s applause but Israel’s—that his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital takes Jerusalem “off the table” in regards to future peace negotiations.
Erekat’s report of almost 100 pages, compiled as a result of numerous informal conversations he held with government officials in Washington last fall, is mostly diplomatic fluff. But the importance of the document is the appearance for the first time an assembly of the main elements of “the deal of the century.” More specifically, the centrality of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem to the broader set of White House preferences favoring Israel.
Having granted recognition to Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, Trump, according to Erekat, will support the “invention” of a Palestinian capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem. During the 1990s, a building meant to house the Palestinian parliament was in fact constructed in the village of Abu Dis, within site of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. But it was never used, except as a spacious roost for herds of pigeons.
The territorial division of the West Bank between Israel and a Palestinian state is at the heart of the diplomatic stalemate. Israel’s policy of creating settlement facts on the ground—more than 200 settlements housing more than one-half million settlers—is meant to unilaterally claim contested territory. Past diplomatic efforts centered around stillborn discussions in which Israel claimed close to 10 percent of the West Bank. The PLO, in turn,” was prepared to concede to Israel less than 2 percent.
Erekat’s report notes that “within two or three months at the latest,” Trump will approve an Israeli declaration to annex blocks West Bank settlement. “Netanyahu proposes [to annex] 15%, while Trump proposes 10%,” Erekat reported.
Neither the Israeli numbers nor the American ones include East Jerusalem or the Jordan Valley—comprising about 25 percent of the West Bank. In language reminiscent of Israeli demands unsuccessfully put forward during the Obama administration, Trump appears prepared to cede “overriding security control” over this expanse exclusively and permanently to Israel, whose troops will control the Jordan Valley border separating the West Bank/Israel from Jordan as well as the hilltops running down the central West Bank.
Under this “joint security concept” the state of Palestine will be demilitarized except for a “strong police force”—a concept first enshrined in the stillborn autonomy talks during the Carter administration.
The American security plan appears to be based on the “Allon plan,” first put forward in 1970, the central feature of which was Israel’s annexation/control of the border with Jordan westward to include the central hilltops.
Erekat’s report is notable for the absence of any mention of Gaza. There’s no reference to reporting in The American Conservative on Saudi support for a Gaza-first plan, the accuracy of which has been confirmed by additional diplomatic sources since publication.
Safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip between the West Bank and Gaza was a central issue during the Clinton years (and went nowhere even when the “peace process” was strong). The Trump formulation outlined to the PLO surrenders to Israel total control and sovereignty of this passageway whose prospects of realization are at best dubious.
Trump proposes recognizing Israel as the Jewish state and Palestine as the Palestinian state—the formulation mooted during the Obama years in response to Israeli demands. Trump’s framing of the issue of five million Palestinian refugees as an exclusively Palestinian responsibility appears reasonably consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative, which called for a mutually agreed upon resolution. The Trump formulation however requires the PLO to surrender what has been the touchstone of the Palestinian diaspora for almost a century—the right of return to homes in Palestine from which they were exiled over the years.
So, according to Erekat, Trump proposes the eventual establishment of Palestinian sovereignty in Areas A and B of the West Bank—that is, only 40 percent of the West Bank and the current limit of the autonomy regime established by the Oslo accords in 1995. Trump’s ideas express no clear timetable for the creation of a nominal Palestinian state in this limited area, in contrast to support for Israel’s proposed annexation of 10-15 percent of West Bank territory later this year. Nor is there a schedule for further additions to Palestine of West Bank territory not annexed outright by Israel.
When Israel’s permanent control of East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley is included, Israel is effectively awarded upwards of 60 percent of the West Bank. These terms will enable Israel to annex every one of its existing settlements throughout the West Bank and enable every settler to remain in place under Israeli sovereignty. The leavings will comprise a rump Palestinian territory unable to exercise true sovereignty anywhere.
“These are the milestones of the historic deal that President Trump’s administration will seek to impose on the sides,” concludes Erekat.
“The features and content of this rhetorical transaction preserve the status quo. The term ‘preserve the status quo’ means one state two systems, through an Eternal Self Rule.”
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.