President Trump recently unveiled his long-awaited plan for a Palestinian-Israeli peace, known as Peace to Prosperity. The 80-page document (with about 100 additional pages of added material) outlines the basis of a proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict that has roiled the Middle East since the founding of the modern Israeli state in 1948.
Most analysts, however, predicted that Trump’s plan would be dead on arrival, as it was quite clear from an early stage that the Palestinian leadership would reject the plan.
Why? After all, as President Trump said in his speech announcing the proposal, this is the most detailed plan ever formally proposed to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also warned that “this could be the last opportunity [the Palestinians] will ever have” to achieve their longstanding goal of an independent state, after decades of stop-and-go negotiations have yielded little progress. Besides, Peace to Prosperity includes the incentives of $50 billion in aid and the return of some land to Palestine, and several Gulf Arab states support the deal.
So why the Palestinian intransigence?
The Arab-Israeli conflict boils down to three fundamental and interrelated points of contention: the status of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory, and the question of Palestinian statehood. Of the three, Palestinian statehood is by far the most important issue.
The Holy City
Jerusalem is, of course, a critically important city in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While it is indisputably the holiest site in both Christianity and Judaism, it is the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.
Under the original UN Partition Plan of 1947, Jerusalem was to be an international zone overseen by the UN Trusteeship Council—in other words, it would not be held by either Israel or Palestine. For this reason, Tel Aviv, rather than Jerusalem, has been the historic, internationally-recognized capital of the modern Israeli state.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War split Jerusalem, with Israel controlling the western portion and Jordan controlling East Jerusalem. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israeli forces captured East Jerusalem, putting the entire city under Israeli control.
But this de facto Israeli control of Jerusalem failed to receive international recognition, because it violated the original UN Partition Plan.
Some Third World countries and the Netherlands had embassies stationed in Jerusalem until 1980, when the Israeli Knesset unilaterally declared Jerusalem to be the capital. The Jerusalem Law met with sweeping international condemnation, not least from the UN Security Council, which called for members of the UN to withdraw their embassies from Jerusalem. The relevant member states complied, though it took Costa Rica and El Salvador until 2006 to do so. Several countries, including the United States, maintained consulates—lower-level missions that do not necessarily signify diplomatic recognition—in Jerusalem, but by 2006, no country maintained an embassy there.
In 1995, Congress passed a law mandating the movement of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But no president acted on the law, instead repeatedly invoking its six-month presidential waiver to postpone the move out of concern for the implications of such an action, which could very well spark renewed violence and even precipitate a diplomatic crisis. Indeed, the law’s constitutionality was questionable at best, as it infringed on the president’s exclusive power over foreign policy. Hence, President Clinton refused to sign the bill into law, instead allowing it to pass back down to Congress and become law by default, since his veto likely would have been overturned. Other presidents consistently used the six-month presidential waiver so as to avoid generating further foreign policy complications in the Middle East, with the justification that Congress’ role in foreign policy is largely advisory (with the notable exceptions of war powers, finances, and treaties).
Presidential resistance to the embassy move changed when President Trump announced on December 6, 2017 that the US Embassy in Israel would be moving to Jerusalem, in compliance with the 1995 law, recently reaffirmed in a Senate resolution. After a delay, the US embassy was relocated to Jerusalem in May 2018.
Under President Trump’s plan, the Israelis get all of Jerusalem as their capital. The Palestinians, on the other hand, could, at most, establish their capital “in the section of East Jerusalem located in all areas east and north of the existing security border”—that is, outside of the actual city. As if this were not sufficiently insulting to the Palestinians’ intelligence, the plan provides that the capital “could be named Al Quds [Arabic for Jerusalem] or another name as determined by the State of Palestine.”
This would be the diplomatic equivalent of a participation trophy.
Therefore, the Trump Plan’s stance on Jerusalem fundamentally dismisses Palestinian interests. Not only does it give Israel the entirety of Jerusalem—in direct contravention of the original UN Partition Plan and scores of subsequent UN resolutions—but it also makes a mockery of the Palestinian desire to have their capital actually located in East Jerusalem, rather than outside of the barrier wall.
On the basis of the Jerusalem question alone, it should not be surprising that the Palestinian leadership finds the Trump Plan completely unacceptable. But there are other reasons they will not accept it.
The Occupied Territories
A second, related point of difference comes with the matter of Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab territory—the Gaza Strip, West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights—captured in the June 1967 war, thereby violating the UN’s repeated prohibitions of the acquisition of territory by force.
While the Golan Heights technically belong to Syria, the Palestinian state should, per international law, possess the Gaza Strip and West Bank, if not East Jerusalem (and if Palestine should not hold East Jerusalem, then Israel should not hold any of the Holy City either).
The Occupied Territories are held by a variety of means. In the case of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, Israel initiated a military occupation, effectively annexing it in December 1981, to international condemnation. No country (besides, obviously, Israel) had recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan until President Trump reversed longstanding US policy in late March 2019, when he formally recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel. While not Palestinian territory, the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights makes it even less probable that the Syrian government would urge the Palestinians to accept the Trump Plan.
Similarly, the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem have been under Israeli occupation since June 1967. The difference between these three territories is that while the West Bank and East Jerusalem remain under direct military occupation and have significant Israeli settlements and outposts, Gaza has not contained any Israeli settlements or troops since 2005. That said, Gaza is still considered “occupied” in international law because Israel clearly maintains control over the territory, despite Hamas’ nominal authority.
In a break with yet another longstanding American policy—and international law—the State Department announced in November that it would now recognize Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as legal. While the Reagan administration stopped referring to the settlements as illegal in 1981, it staunchly opposed their further expansion. While subsequent presidential administrations, regardless of party, declined to resume calling the settlements illegal, Trump’s decision to explicitly recognize their legality was a drastic policy reversal.
So what does the Trump Plan say about the Occupied Territories? While it does not discuss the Golan Heights, the plan makes it clear that the Israeli settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem will remain. Although the Palestinians would be compensated for the loss of about 30% of the West Bank, the territory they would receive in exchange is mostly desert. The only benefit the Palestinians receive in this scheme is the building of a high-speed rail system linking Gaza and the West Bank.
Thus, on the question of the Occupied Territories, the Trump Plan gives the Palestinians next to nothing. Unfortunately, neither does its stipulations for a Palestinian “state.”
The problem of Palestinian statehood, while inseparable from either the Jerusalem or occupation questions, is at the heart of the matter.
As noted above, the UN Partition Plan of 1947 called for two states: one Israeli, one Palestinian. The Palestinian state, however, has failed to materialize, due in large part to Israeli obstructionism.
The Trump Plan has been touted by the president and his advisors—especially Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the plan’s chief architect—as providing a two-state solution to the conflict. In the administration’s view, this is a “win-win,” and the best deal that the Palestinians can hope for; indeed, it has warned that this may be their last chance for peace. As Kushner put it in a recent interview, the Palestinians ought to “stop posturing and do what’s best.”
While the administration is correct in noting that Israel has never before accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, calling the Palestinian entity laid out in the peace plan a “state” is disingenuous and problematic for several reasons.
For starters, the proposed Palestinian “state” is more of what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously termed a “state-minus,” as it would be, per the Trump Plan, “a demilitarized Palestinian state” dominated by Israeli security.
But a state stripped of its military is not a state. It is a sitting duck.
The Palestinians know this. Even without German sociologist Max Weber’s famous conception of a state as a “human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” it is common sense.
A state’s sovereignty is dependent on other states in the international system acknowledging and respecting that sovereignty. To protect such sovereignty from violation by other state or nonstate actors, a state needs the capacity to defend itself. Otherwise, it can quickly become a colony or be subsumed into an aggressor.
President Trump and the Israelis know this well. After all, the president has consistently argued that the United States needs defensible borders in order to protect against undocumented immigration. When touting his border wall project, President Trump often cites the example of Israel’s security barriers. Indeed, without a proper military, Israel would not exist today, given its Arab neighbors’ animus toward it.
Thus, a state needs a military, meaning the proposed Palestinian entity would not be a state, but something closer to a colony without the benefits of having a good relationship with the metropole.
Additionally, the “state” is not promised, but would be contingent on the Palestinians meeting various security requirements, including dissolving the duly-elected Hamas government in Gaza. Not only is the dissolution of Hamas unacceptable to many Palestinians, but the idea of jumping through even more hurdles after seeing the Israelis historically renege on countless promises makes such a contingent agreement distinctly unattractive.
Thus, expecting the Palestinians to accept a “state-minus” is little more than wishful thinking, and demonstrates Trump’s utter misunderstanding of the true art of diplomatic negotiation. The Palestinians have lived without a state for a long time, and they stand to lose too much by accepting the deal to give it serious consideration.
The Failure of Dollar Diplomacy
As Ronald Reagan once wrote, “the Middle East is a complicated place—well not really a place, it’s more a state of mind. A disordered mind.”
While Reagan’s portrayal of the Middle East’s intricacy as pathological was problematic, he was right to acknowledge its extremely complicated nature. Even those of us who study the Middle East are often overwhelmed by its complexity.
But understanding the Middle East is not just the province of academic and government experts, nor should it be. While much of Middle Eastern politics is highly complex, some cases can be understood with relative ease by policymakers and the public.
Why the Trump Plan will fail is one such case. The Palestinians have rejected it because, among other things, it runs counter to their closely-held stances on Jerusalem, territorial integrity, and, above all, a sovereign Palestinian state. Additionally, the president is unlikely to get substantial Arab support beyond the Gulf states—which are practically American proxies and are peripheral to the Arab-Israeli conflict—because his proposal is neither in their best interest, nor that of the Palestinians.
Remarking on the Trump Plan’s release, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that Jerusalem and Palestinian rights were “not for sale,” clearly in reference to the $50 billion in American aid included in the proposal.
Abbas’ firm position indicates that this is one problem that President Trump cannot just throw money at. That may work in business, but it rarely ends well in diplomacy.