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The difference between a plan and a deal…of the century

Just because you like the idea of turning straw into gold and tell the world you can do it doesn't mean you will actually pull it off
Jared Kushner, center, and Jason Greenblatt, left, attend the opening session of a Middle East peace conference in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images via JTA)
Jared Kushner, center, and Jason Greenblatt, left, attend the opening session of a Middle East peace conference in Warsaw, Poland, February 14, 2019. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images via JTA)

Israeli media have increasingly been referring to Donald Trump’s project for Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “plan of the century” — tokhnit ha-me’ah — rather than the “deal of the century” — isqat ha-me’ah — that he promised during his election campaign. The linguistic shift may have been coincidental or just plain sloppy, but there is a big difference between the two terms. Would Trump, the self-anointed grandmaster of the deal (never mind that many of his deals ended in bankruptcy) have agreed that his ghost-written bestseller be entitled The Art of the Plan?

Simply put, a deal is a plan that works, at least as far as a handshake between two sides. Anyone can dream up a plan to resolve any dispute on his or her preferred terms. Getting the other side — or, for an honest broker, both sides — on board is the tricky part. Nobel peace prizes have justly been awarded to the few in the Arab-Israeli arena who have swung such deals. Some — the Israeli-Egyptian (and Israeli-Jordanian) peace treaties — have lasted. Another — the Oslo Accords — was reached with high hopes, but was scuttled by extremists on both sides of the even more intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is sure he deserves to join those Nobel laureates, but he has thrown one of the two essential parties to his supposed deal overboard even before it was proposed, let alone consummated.

But is it so much as a plan? Even to qualify as a plan, an idea must have a plausible claim to feasibility. If you were a credit officer at a bank (such as Trump has faced unsuccessfully for years in the States, driving him into dependence on Russian finance) and a customer came to you for credit to underwrite a venture, you would ask to see his business plan, wouldn’t you? And if he explained that his plan to make millions was to turn lead into gold, would you OK the loan?

To make such an evaluation, I’d advise Benny Gantz to ask for an advance copy of the plan for whose unveiling he was reportedly just summoned to Washington (Netanyahu is already all in). The leaked (though yet unconfirmed) details are hardly promising — if one really wants a deal. For instance, Israel is to “apply Israeli law” (i.e., annex) all the existing, legal settlements in the West Bank. Of course, illegal outposts could be legalized by a stroke that Netanyahu will be glad to pen as an election-campaign play for the votes of the ultra-right faithful. That’s even more than he, or any other Israeli leader, has ever promised them. It would leave the Palestinians a scattering of uncontiguous patches reminiscent of the Bantustans in South Africa — at last providing some grounds for accusing Israel of apartheid.

On this basis, the Palestinians are to enter negotiations for a possible future state — b’kitzur, in short, pie in the sky, and only crumbs of it at that. They (not Hamas or worse, but the recognized Palestinian Authority) have — surprise! — already rejected this “plan” out of hand. So much for turning it into a deal, but the risk that it may exacerbate the situation rather than improve it even slightly is quite real: the PA is threatening to stop the security cooperation with Israel that Israeli defense officials credit in significant part for the decline of terrorist activity in and from the West Bank. As Trump once told African-Americans in a doomed bid for their votes, what would the Palestinians have left to lose? Under these conditions, good luck with getting MBS, Qatar, Emirates, etc. to help convince or buy them even covertly.

Any serious observer could foresee this outcome as soon as Trump entrusted “the deal of the century” to Jared Kushner, his Pooh-Bah (Lord-High-Everything-Else: thanks, Gilbert & Sullivan for the apt terminology!), who couldn’t even make it from Davos to Israel in bad weather this week. None of the myriad portfolios that Trump piled on Kushner has so far come to much, except those that benefited his or his wife Ivanka’s businesses. The “deal of the century” was always just around the corner, but awaiting an opportune moment; like the messiah, we were assured, it might tarry but would surely come in the fullness of time.

Meanwhile, Jared and his cohorts, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, busily set about making sure that it would never materialize and Israel would never be called upon to “pay the price” that Trump intimated in one of his innumerable, ephemeral whims. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights and the legality of settlements, and more, wiped out any prospect that Trump or his “deal” might get anywhere when it finally appeared. But was there ever a real plan at all, beyond momentary transactional opportunism, which is evidently the limit of Trump’s capacity? Over time, what emerged was either old, discredited ideas (like a confederation with Jordan, which Jordan had long since rejected) or new, crackpot ones: for example, that Israel would undertake the defense of a future Palestinian state — for pay, as Trump demands from US allies. No wonder no credit office worth its salt in the region approved it, except Netanyahu, whose short-term survival it served.

Another weird phenomenon of the Israeli media is convoluted analysis of Trump’s “strategy,” as though he has proved capability for formulating and implementing one (ask his advisers and lawyers). He is, for example, said to be fielding the “deal” to divert attention from the impeachment hearings in the Senate. If so, fat chance (see how much mileage it gets on American TV). Another theory casts this as a play for votes to reelect him. My assessment of the electoral effect, even in the unlikely case of success, is zero or very close to it – unless one counts the indirect effect of reassuring big-ticket donors like Sheldon Adelson. But for Adelson’s other protégé, Bibi, it might work. So is the tail wagging the dog?

At any rate, please remember that Trump promised a deal, not just a plan — and has yet to show even that.

Gideon Remez is an associate fellow of the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. This article reflects only his personal views and not the institute’s.

About the Author
Gideon Remez, formerly head of foreign news at Voice of Israel Radio, is an associate fellow of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University. The views expressed here are his own and not the Institute's.
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