Trump's Israel-Palestine plan is all smoke and mirrors

Trump's Israel-Palestine plan is all smoke and mirrors
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE’s “ultimate deal” to resolve the protracted conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been secretly in the making for more than two years.

The economic portions of the plan will probably be presented at the U.S.-led conference on investment strategies in the Palestinian territories and Arab states, to be held Tuesday in Bahrain.

Whatever the concrete content of the plan, the gist of Trump’s policy for Israel and Palestine is already clear: Make the most controversial issues of the conflict disappear, magically, and to Israel’s advantage.

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The team in charge of formulating the abracadabra policy comprises two of Trump’s former personal lawyers, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, now the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, respectively.

Strong right-wing and pro-settlement positions seem to compensate their lack of previous experience with Middle East diplomacy. The leader of the team, Trump son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerCareer State official warned about Biden's son: report Buttigieg knocks Trump as a 'walking conflict of interest' Biden's weak response to Trump is a lesson for Democratic candidates MORE, is no less inexperienced, but his affinity with Israeli President Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and Saudi Arabia’s reckless Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is indicative of his preferences.

As for Trump himself, pleasing his evangelical base while bragging that he is doing what no other American president did before him are probably the two most important motivations for embracing the suggestions of his advisors. He may also have become convinced that the U.S. needs Israel to confront Iran (and not the other way around).  

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem last year was the first act of the magician's show. By recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city, Trump not only upended decades of U.S. policies in plain disregard of international law, but he also took one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the table.

The question of how to share sovereignty over the city that both sides claim as their capital is no longer an issue of negotiations — problem solved, according to the wizards’ logic.

Palestinian aspirations for an independent state with a congruent territory are also no longer on the agenda. The Trump administration never protested the constant increase of Israel’s settler population in the West Bank.

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In October 2018, the U.S. closed its consulate in Jerusalem that served the Palestinian population and merged it with the new embassy. This move stripped the Palestinians of their independent diplomatic status, turning Palestinian affairs into a purely domestic Israeli matter.

Last but not least, Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, the territory Israel conquered from Syria during the 1967 war, may well embolden the Israeli government to annex parts of the West Bank. During the last electoral campaign, Netanyahu promised to do exactly this. 

No less important are the attempts of the Trump administration to make the Palestinian refugee problem go away. This particularly thorny issue concerns the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who became refugees in the wars of 1948 and 1967 and who have not been allowed back.

The administration’s decision to massively cut funds to UNRWA, the U.N.’s agency for Palestinian refugees, could well do the trick. If the UNRWA becomes unable to provide education, health care and social services to about 5 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, the host countries may feel pressured to integrate and perhaps naturalize the refugees.

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas would equally be under pressure to provide for the refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip unless they want to risk serious social and political unrest.

What is more, a possible collapse of the UNRWA would render the refugee registration records it has been compiling since the early 1950s meaningless. It would also put an end to the agency’s controversial practice of granting refugee status to the patrilineal descendants of registered Palestinian refugees.

With a dwindling number of Palestinian refugees over time — either because they have received citizenship in their host countries or because there is no longer any agency that keeps track of them — the refugee problem becomes irrelevant and eventually disappears. Magic!

Could the “deal of the century” still pull a rabbit out of the hat? Recently there were rumors about U.S.-Israeli pressure on Egypt to cede a swath of land in the northern Sinai to be attached to the Gaza Strip.

With heavy financial injections from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf monarchies, that area would serve for the construction of a solar power station, a desalination plant, a seaport and an airport and the establishment of industrial areas where Gaza Palestinians and Egyptians could work.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian economic siege for over a decade now, and the U.N. predicted that it would become unlivable by 2020 if current conditions continued. The Sinai-Gaza plan could certainly help alleviate the dire economic and humanitarian situation there.

Israeli governments and Trump’s advisors may also hope that the Gaza and Sinai territory will eventually turn into a sort of a Palestinian statelet, under Egyptian control, thus driving the final nail into the coffin of any meaningful concept of Palestinian statehood. 

Trump’s peace plan is thus nothing but an attempt to both bribe and coerce the Palestinians into accepting a restyled, repackaged version of an oppressive and depressing reality. They would agree to:

  • enduring Israeli rule over the West Bank;
  • some limited Palestinian autonomy pertaining to people in small and fragmented areas;
  • severe restrictions of Palestinian movement;
  • no full control over external borders; and
  • no citizenship or civil rights for the Palestinians.

As the grand finale, the Palestinians may be offered the option of calling some outskirts of Jerusalem their capital and pretend that they have a state — somewhere in “greater Gaza.” 

Such a scenario may be the ultimate dream of Israel’s right-wing governments and their supporters, but it is not in Israel’s best interest either. Permanently ruling over another people, depriving them of their rights and making them feel miserable is hardly sustainable; nor is it compatible with the idea of democracy.

More importantly, the Palestinian and Arab populations are not likely to fall for these tricks. Post-Arab uprisings, Arab rulers cannot simply ignore popular sentiments. Trump’s promises to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are therefore just an illusion — an abracadabra of the most dangerous kind. 

Raffaella A. Del Sarto is an associate professor of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, SAIS Europe, and author of  "Israel under Siege: The Politics of Insecurity and the Rise of the Israeli Neo-Revisionist Right," (Georgetown University Press).