Over the past two years, I have regularly appeared as a guest on the TV news (often for an Arabic language channel). Repeatedly, I have been asked: “Do you think President Donald Trump is serious about presenting a Middle East peace plan?” To which, I consistently answer, “Yes”. I have routinely asserted that Trump has limited knowledge of world affairs. While his meager knowledge often leads to the wrong policy conclusions, the one thing Trump does have some idea about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I only met Trump once, when I was in charge of Israel’s 40th-anniversary celebration in New York, and Trump served as one of the grand marshals at the Israel Day Parade. You cannot be a New York Real Estate developer without interacting closely with individuals deeply involved with Israel. For that reason, I believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one dispute Trump believes he can resolve.
Despite my belief Trump genuinely wants to settle the Mid-East conflict, last week, when his plan was unveiled as a historic event, it was hard to separate the plan from the circumstances surrounding which it was announced — i.e., an Israeli Prime Minister formally indicted on charges of bribery, corruption, and breach of trust, standing next to the President of the United States, an hour before the resumption of his Senate impeachment trial, for abuse of the power of the Presidency. After Trump had waited two years to reveal his “Deal of the Century,” was it suddenly urgent to present the plan on the very day the Israeli Knesset was scheduled to vote on the process to remove Prime Minister Netanyahu’s parliamentary immunity?
Had I written this article in the minutes, or hours, after the Trump-Netanyahu press conference, it would have resulted in a scathing attack of the deal — as any plan released solely to help Netanyahu get reelected could not be good. This seemed to be the case, especially during the initial hours following the announcement, when all the talk was of Israel’s intention to unilaterally annex the settlements and Jordan Valley. Nevertheless, thanks to the perspective of a few days, and the Trump Administration having poured ice water on the notion Israel could immediately annex the Jordan Valley and settlements, my views on the Trump plan have evolved.
The Israeli government has accepted the Trump plan, although Prime Minister Netanyahu has tried to avoid using the words “Palestinian State,” while his right-wing allies have been clear they are happy to accept what they consider the positive aspects of the plan and ignore the parts they do not like. The Palestinian Authority, in contrast, has not only announced it rejects the plan but that it will no longer communicate with either the Israeli or American governments, claiming the plan was developed without consulting them.
I could enumerate a long list of historic opportunities the Palestinians missed because they said no — starting with the 1936 Peel Commission Plan, and most recently, the 2009 plan presented by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. However, this case most reminds me of 1947. That year, the United Nations appointed a special commission (UNSCOP) to determine what to do about Palestine. The Jews in the Mandate represented by the Zionist Executive met with UNSCOP and did their best to lobby them to agree to their position. The Arabs of Palestine boycotted the UNSCOP and refused to meet with them. UNSCOP issued its recommendations which called for partition of the land into a Jewish State and an Arab State — a plan the Jews embraced, and the Arabs opposed violently.
The Trump plan is far from perfect — first in foremost because it does not address one of the most toxic elements of the conflict, i.e., the refugees. It also calls for keeping 15 Israeli settlements in the middle of a future Palestinian State, clearly a recipe for future disaster. It calls for Israel to annex all of the Jordan Valley, in lieu of a 100-year agreement for Israel to maintain troops there. In addition, Trump’s plan has the absurd proposal of moving the border in the area known as “The Triangle,” a series of Arab Israeli towns where approximately 250,000 Israeli Arabs live. This is a nonstarter. Residents of “The Triangle” are not interested in going from being citizens of a first-world state, with an imperfect democracy, to living in a third-world state, with no real democracy, whatsoever. Finally, Trump’s plan for Jerusalem, one of the thorniest problems, is unimaginative.
In 2000, after the failed Camp David Summit, President Bill Clinton presented his Mid-East Peace plan. Clinton made it clear that his was a “take it or leave it” offer, and that if it was not accepted, it would not become the starting point of future negotiations. Not only did the Palestinians reject Clinton’s plan, they also launched the second Intifada, in which 1,137 Israelis were killed on buses, cafes, as well as, walking down the street. The bloodshed caused by the Intifada, together with the failure of the withdrawal from Gaza to bring peace to that border, convinced most Israelis that taking risks for peace was a fool’s errand. As a result, even discussion about peace has been shoved off the Israeli conscience for at least a decade. For the moment, Trump has reopened that conversation.
In 1953, when the French first considered selling arms to Israel, President Eisenhower told the French Premier he should not bother because Israel would never survive against 90 million Arabs. Since the Palestinians turned down the Clinton plan, Israel’s GDP has grown from $132 billion in 2000, to over $370 billion in 2018. During that time, almost every multinational corporation has opened an R&D center in Israel, and Israel’s technology is considered leading-edge in most fields. Israel has grown stronger and the Palestinians have failed to advance.
When President Trump announced he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinians declared they would have nothing more to do with the Trump Administration. At that time, I told the few Palestinians, officials, with whom I came into contact that they were making a big mistake. I cautioned, “You might not like him, but for the sake of your people, deal with him.” When the economic aspects of the Trump plan were disclosed, I was on air with Palestinian Authority spokesman, Omar Alghoul. I advocated they engage the Trump Administration on the plan. Alghoul responded that the Palestinians have their pride, and that is the one thing they will never give up. Thus, they would not engage the Trump Administration.
The initial Palestinian response to the Trump political plan has been the same. On Sunday, Jared Kushner said the plan could be changed if the Palestinians had counter suggestions. Israel’s right-wing is counting on Palestinian rejectionism to ensure there is never a Palestinian State. The rejectionist decisions of Palestinian political leaders have had disastrous consequences for the Palestinian people. My advice to the Palestinians is — amaze everyone. Embrace the plan as a starting point and begin negotiating. Try something new this time. While I doubt you will, surprise me, and surprise the world. Doing so is unlikely to bring about peace. But if you do not, there will be no chance at all to achieve peace, or for you to realize a state of your own.