What happened: At a ceremony at the White House yesterday, US President Donald Trump published his vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plan, outlined in a 180 page report, calls for a two-state solution (Israel and a future Palestine) with Israel retaining all of its current West Bank settlements, all of Jerusalem including the holy sites, and security control over the entire West Bank.
- The capital of the Palestinian state will be in “eastern Jerusalem,” in neighbourhoods beyond Israel’s security barrier. The Palestinian state may eventually encompass some 70 per cent of the West Bank, with land swaps in Israel’s southern Negev region and inside the pre-1967 armistice lines. At least 15 Israeli settlements will remain as enclaves inside the future Palestinian state.
- The establishment of a Palestinian state within four years will be contingent on several conditions being met, including disarming Hamas, the Palestinian Authority taking control in Gaza, an end to incitement to violence and the policy of of payments to jailed terrorists and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state including in its expanded borders. The issue of Palestinian refugees was not addressed in detail but the plan said a compensation fund would be created.
- Both President Trump, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, indicated that the US would recognise the application of Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley – a move Netanyahu said would begin as soon as next week.
- Netanyahu hailed the agreement as an “historic opportunity,” while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “conspiracy” that he rejected outright. Ambassadors from Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates attended the event at the White House. UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba said in a statement: “The only way to guarantee a lasting solution is to reach an agreement between all concerned parties. The UAE believes that Palestinians and Israelis can achieve lasting peace and genuine coexistence with the support of the international community. The plan announced today offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.”
- The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also released a statement: “Appreciate the efforts of President Trump’s Administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinian and Israeli sides” and “encourages the start of direct peace negotiation between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the United States, and to resolve any disagreements with aspects of the plan through negotiations, in order to move forward the peace process to reach an agreement that achieves the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” Jordan rejected the plan but Egypt also called for fresh bilateral talks to achieve peace. ISIS called for attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in response to the plan.
- Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab welcomed the release of the US plan, calling it “a serious proposal, reflecting extensive time and effort” and encouraged both sides to give the plans “genuine and fair consideration, and explore whether they might prove a first step on the road back to negotiations.” The UK Government noted that: “Only the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian territories can determine whether these proposals can meet the needs and aspirations of the people they represent.”
- The European Union called for a return to “meaningful negotiations” between the two parties while reaffirming its “established position and…firm and united commitment to a negotiated and viable two-state solution that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
Context: The unveiling of the US plan was the culmination of three years of work by Jared Kushner’s White House team.
- The move comes five weeks before Israel’s 2 March election, and on the same day that Netanyahu withdrew his request for Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution from charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Israel’s attorney general officially filed the charges against the prime minister yesterday in the Jerusalem District Court.
- Blue and White leader Benny Gantz endorsed the plan, calling it a “strong, viable basis for advancing a peace accord with the Palestinians.” Yet Gantz also urged a delay on implementation until after the election, saying that: “In order for implementation to be possible, Israel must move forward toward a strong and stable government, led by an individual who can direct the fullness of his time and energy” to running the country.
- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last night, at an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership, threatened to downgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority and to begin implementation of past decisions taken by Palestinian political bodies, likely a reference to the suspension of security coordination with Israel. Hamas leaders offered to work with Abbas to oppose the plan.
- Crisis Group CEO Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller write in Politico that the US plan does two things: firstly it gives Israel everything it wants and tries to buy the Palestinians out with the promise of $50 billion in assistance; and secondly it is a manifestation of an ever-expanding and ever-more aggressive attempt of Trump to erase traditional rules and impose new ones.
- Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea described the US plan not as a peace plan but an annexation plan. In reference to the reports that the Security Cabinet will annex the Jordan Valley and all settlements this Sunday, Barnea wrote: “Nothing is going to happen on the ground—not immediately. The residents of the settlements live under Israeli law today as well. The facts will be established on the ground afterwards. They will necessarily create a reality of two legal systems for two populations in the same territory—one that rules and the other that is under occupation.”
- Boaz Bismuth, editor of Israel Hayom, offers a more positive defence of the plan. He says US President Donald Trump has succeeded where many experts, pundits, interpreters, politicians and diplomats have failed from understanding the reality of the Middle East. He added: “The Deal of the Century is approaching one of the most complex dilemmas in Israeli history with a clear eye, and it immediately recognised the urgent need to change the underlying paradigm. Its greatness is that it is connected to reality and is adapted to the conditions on the ground.”
Looking ahead: The immediate reaction on the ground by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be key. “Days of Rage” have been unofficially called, although the extent of demonstrations – and whether the PA will mobilise people to take to the streets – remains to be seen.
- Abbas will travel to Cairo on Saturday for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, where he hopes they will support Palestinian rejection of the US plan.
- Netanyahu’s move to apply Israeli sovereignty to Israeli settlements depends on legal decisions by the Attorney General and likely the Supreme Court; it is unclear if a transitional Government is legally permitted to take such consequential decisions so close to an election. Netanyahu may then put the issue to a Knesset vote in the hope that he galvanises right wing parties behind him and forces Benny Gantz and his party, anxious to win moderate right wing voters, to support the move.
- For Netanyahu the greatest benefit of the US plan is that it changed the conversation away from his corruption case to a debate about applying Israeli sovereignty to Israeli settlements. He is gambling this will win him support, although promises to that effect failed to win him votes in the last two elections and the US plan will be opposed by parties to the right of Likud.