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The problem with Trump’s Middle East peace plan

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The Trump administration cannot decide if its peace plan is an opening gambit to trigger a compromise or a fait accompli that precludes one. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in answering a question about Palestinian responses to the Plan said, “I hope they will then present a counteroffer if what’s presented isn’t acceptable.” Fair enough, except that David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, declared that Israel can unilaterally annex territories allotted in the plan once a bilateral U.S.-Israeli panel finishes its work on defining, precisely, Israel’s boundaries.

But if Israeli annexation is front-loaded and proceeds in the coming months, any Palestinian counter-offer would be pre-empted.

Perhaps this is simply the administration’s style in which it seeks to maximize the pressure on the Palestinians by indicating that their possibilities will shrink unless they make a counter-offer; however, if that is the case, what is the meaning of the borders the bilateral U.S.-Israeli committee is finalizing if the Palestinians can propose an alternative map?     

Both approaches cannot be true.

Moreover, to have any chance the plan must be taken seriously by someone other than the Israelis. Currently, the administration is taking comfort from the Palestinian inability to mobilize international support for their bitter rejection of the plan — two perfunctory statements by the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation pale in comparison to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, uncharacteristically, being unable to muster 9 votes on the UN Security Council to present a resolution condemning the U.S. plan.    

Still, the administration should have no illusions. Others may not be backing the Palestinians, but like European and other representatives at the UN, the general tendency is to point to the plan’s shortcomings. Worse, among Palestinians, polling shows that the public — and not just the leaders — overwhelmingly reject the plan. Palestinians may no longer believe their own leadership, but they see the Trump plan as a proposal not to produce a state but a humiliation. 

They cannot see past a map that leaves a truncated state, completely surrounded by Israel, and with its territory fragmented to accommodate 128 Israeli settlements, including all 77 settlements outside or east of the security barrier. With Israel being responsible for overall security and controlling who can enter and leave the Palestinian state, this does not look like a state to Palestinians. And, while Israel gets to front-load annexation and its security needs are understandably addressed, Palestinians don’t receive what Israel’s Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz calls the “broad autonomy” provided in the plan until the Palestinians have fulfilled all their obligations, including disarming Hamas in Gaza — something that even Israel has avoided.

Saying no to such a plan is easy, while acknowledging its merits is impossible for Arab leaders who feel they have nothing to point to. Thus, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Morocco, have largely avoided criticism or direct comment on the plan and instead called for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

The Arab posture reflects their growing fatigue with continual (and historic) Palestinian rejection as well as new realities in the region. Many Arab leaders see cooperation with Israel as necessary given the common threats they face and their belief that America is unable to deter those threats. They want to be able to work with Israel not in the shadows but in the daylight, and they are increasingly frustrated by a Palestinian leadership that is divided and incapable of making peace, much less offering serious counter-proposals.

The Trump administration is not wrong to seek to adjust Palestinian expectations. It is not wrong to signal the Palestinians that there is a cost to saying no.

It may even be right to signal that time is running out for the Palestinians if they want a state of their own, and it is better to seize the moment before even worse alternatives are the only ones available to them.

But the administration was wrong to think that its offer would be taken as a credible initial move. To be credible, its offer had to provide for a contiguous state in most of the West Bank and not one largely segmented in roughly two-thirds of the territory.  

It is ironic that President Trump referred to the map unveiled at the White House ceremony as Bibi’s map, which offers the Palestinians significantly less than what Netanyahu outlined to the Knesset in 2010. At that time, he privately told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he could envision the Palestinians getting around 90 percent of the West Bank. 

Another irony is that while time is not on the Palestinian’s side due to increasing frustration with rejection, time is also not Israel’s friend. Israel needs to be careful not to cross the tipping point in which it loses the ability to separate from Palestinians — and one state for two peoples becomes the only option. Precisely because no Palestinian or Arab can sell the Trump plan as a serious response to Palestinian national aspirations, a one state outcome is becoming more likely.

One last irony: If Trump were to stick to his own words and treat the plan as a “vision” that could be adjusted, not permit annexation for the four-year window he gave the Palestinians to negotiate it, and work with the Europeans and Arabs to jump-start his “vision’s” economic projects to show Palestinians something real is happening, he might rescue his plan. That may be the only way to stop the clock ticking towards one state — an outcome in which Israel loses either its Jewish or democratic identity and the Palestinians lose a state of their own.   

It may also be the only way to resolve the inherent contradiction in the Trump approach: Offer an opening gambit that elicits compromise and does not create an irreversible reality that makes compromise impossible.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Between 2013-2014 he served in the Office of the Secretary of State as a senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMakovsky.

Tags Dennis Ross Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Israel Israeli–Palestinian peace process Middle East Mike Pompeo Palestinians Trump peace plan West Bank

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