Trump’s Peace Plan Aims to Make Israeli Occupation Permanent

The administration's goal is not peace but the normalization of Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

One of the more insidious computer infections is known as a Trojan horse, which, like its historical namesake, can only carry out its nefarious task by tricking the user into accepting it. In the world of computers, a Trojan horse is malware designed to mislead users about its true intent. The same is true of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officially unveiled at the White House on Tuesday.

After nearly two years of delays and endless speculation, and with a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing by his side, Trump finally released his so-called “deal of the century” at an elaborate White House ceremony. Palestinian leaders, who had already rejected the plan sight unseen and have refused to deal with the Trump administration since its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, were not invited to the unveiling.

At first glance, the plan appears to have an air of reasonability. It talks of a “realistic two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pledges an unprecedented $50 billion in investment, and even mentions the words “Palestinian capital” and “Jerusalem” in the same sentence. Beyond the thin veneer of acceptability, however, is a far more insidious program that is designed to do away with a genuine two-state solution while normalizing permanent Israeli occupation and annexation within a de facto one-state reality.

With its glossy cover, talk of a two-state solution, and the promise of billions of dollars in investment, Trump’s peace plan is little more than a piece of political malware masquerading as a credible diplomatic initiative. The goal is not to bring about peace but to normalize the status quo, including Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians, and render it permanent.

Despite its talk of “compromises” on “both sides,” the plan satisfies a long list of right-wing Israeli demands on virtually all core issues in the conflict—from an undivided Jerusalem to annexing occupied territory to liquidating the rights of Palestinian refugees. Although the plan purports to be “realistic” and “fact-based,” it is mired in historical and political revisionism.

For starters, there is no single reference to Israel’s occupation. Indeed, in his White House speech, Netanyahu derided the notion of Israel as an occupying power—a matter of long-standing international consensus—as “the big lie.” The plan proposes mostly cosmetic modifications to the status quo while taking all of the issues that Palestinians care about most—Jerusalem, refugees, and genuine sovereignty—off the table. Jerusalem, perhaps the most sensitive and contentious of all permanent status issues, would remain undivided and under permanent Israeli sovereignty.

The centerpiece of the plan is the creation of a so-called Palestinian state in roughly 70 percent of the West Bank but one that is shorn of any meaningful sovereignty. The roughly 120 or so Israeli settlements, along with the 650,000 Israeli settlers now living throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank, would remain under permanent Israeli control, as would the entirety of the Jordan Valley—thus completely encircling the putative Palestinian state with annexed Israeli land. The Trump vision is in effect a recipe for indefinite Israeli occupation—a sort of Palestinian Bantustan surrounded by Israel and entirely at its mercy.

Palestine’s borders, airspace, territorial waters, and electromagnetic sphere would remain under Israel’s control, while its government would be stripped of the ability to enter into treaties. Territorial contiguity would be reserved for Israel and its settlements, while Palestinians would get only “transportation contiguity” through a “state-of-the-art” network of bridges, roads, and tunnels.

What’s more, the emergence of this encircled and disjointed Palestinian entity would itself be subject to numerous conditions, including an array of legal, political, fiscal, and security reforms, such as the disarming and pacification of Hamas in Gaza—with the ultimate decision on whether the conditions had been met left to Israel. One of the more disturbing elements of the Trump plan includes a proposal to swap areas of Israel proper that are currently heavily populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel to the so-called Palestinian state—an idea championed by racial purists on Israel’s far-right, who seek to reduce the number of non-Jews living in Israel.

Jerusalem, perhaps the most sensitive and contentious of all permanent status issues, would remain undivided and under permanent Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians would be allowed to set up a capital near (but notably not in) the city of Jerusalem, which “could be named Al-Quds or another name as determined by the State of Palestine.”

The plan also takes the issue of Palestinian refugees, including those who fled or were driven from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948 and their descendants, off the table. While previous peace negotiations—including the Clinton Parameters of 2000 and the Annapolis negotiations of 2007-2008—provided for at least a symbolic return of some refugees, the Trump plan states rather explicitly that there would be “no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel.” Instead, Palestinian refugees would choose integration in their current host countries, resettlement in third countries, or absorption in the newly created Palestinian entity.

The chances that Palestinians would agree to negotiate on the basis of the Trump vision are nil. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas angrily dismissed the plan as a “conspiracy” that would eventually be relegated to the “the dustbin of history” while threatening to take the matter to the International Court of Justice.

The plan may well have been designed to elicit a Palestinian “no,” which could then be used as pretext for Israeli annexation. Indeed, within hours of the plan’s unveiling, Netanyahu announced that the process of extending Israeli sovereignty to areas not allocated to the Palestinian entity would be taken up by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, within a matter of days. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was quick to offer unqualified support for any such annexation.

This is certainly not the first U.S.-sponsored initiative to be heavily weighted in Israel’s favor—though perhaps none in the past has been biased quite as brazenly as this one. However, previous administrations had at least paid lip service to basic international norms and principles, namely by calling for an end to Israel’s occupation and insisting on at least a theoretical right to self-determination for Palestinians.

By contrast, Trump has systematically and explicitly done away with all of the basic principles that have undergirded the peace process for more than half a century and that have been the primary incentive for Palestinians to engage in a diplomatic process with its far more powerful adversary, Israel.

This discarding of precedents and principles began with the December 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, overturning 70 years of U.S. policy and defying a long-standing international consensus, followed by a decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and finally U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that Israeli settlements would effectively no longer be considered illegal.

Whether the Trump plan gains traction will depend on how it is received by key political actors internationally and at home. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, eager to please the Trump administration, have already made positive statements about the plan, as has U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other world leaders, though it remains unclear whether Arab and European leaders will be prepared to go beyond diplomatic pleasantries and actively embrace the Trump vision. Already, several congressional Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates, as well as various pro-peace groups, have publicly called out the Trump plan as a farce.

Some observers will find it tempting to seize on the plan’s apparent advocacy of a two-state solution or argue that regional leaders should give the plan a chance or at least try to build on some of its positive elements. But to do so, whether out of naivete, indifference, or fecklessness, would only allow the virus of Trump’s plan to infect the region’s diplomatic ecosystem while crashing any prospect of peace based on a genuine two-state solution.

The real threat to peace is not whether the Trump plan will fail but whether it will succeed. As with a Trojan horse virus, the surest way to avoid infection is to never accept the program in the first place.

Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the author of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.   Twitter: @elgindy_