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Trump’s Peace Plan Is Palestinians’ Worst Nightmare
Arab states might accept Trump’s one-sided initiative, but an increasingly vocal new generation of Palestinians won’t allow regional leaders to sign away their right to a sovereign homeland.
ABU DIS, West Bank—If Jared Kushner gets his way, Abu Dis will be part of the capital of the future state of Palestine. What was once a sleepy village outside Jerusalem that offered picturesque views of the Dome of the Rock is now a decrepit, lawless enclave abutting Israel’s separation wall.
For years, rumors circulated that this would become the Palestinians’ future capital; in fact, it was supposed to house the Palestinian parliament. After the Oslo Accords were signed in the 1990s, the building was erected as an interim solution, but fears—which turned out to be substantiated—emerged among Palestinians that it would come to symbolize a relinquishing of the principle of a state whose capital is in Jerusalem proper, including its Old City. The building was mostly done but then quickly abandoned for fear that it would be an omen of events to come: a temporary solution which became permanent.
Since the start of the peace process, Palestinians have negotiated for East Jerusalem (the half of the city east of the “Green Line,” its internationally recognized boundary) to be the capital of a future state. Most of the international community views it as occupied land, and therefore common consensus was that its fate would be determined through final-status negotiations.
But what U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace, unveiled on Jan. 28, proposes is to let Israel’s separation wall (built on the pretext that it’s a temporary security precaution) be its eastern border, letting the Palestinian Authority (PA) take responsibility for areas east and north—including the largely ungoverned enclaves of Kufr Aqab, Shuafat refugee camp and Abu Dis—and name them al-Quds, or “The Holy One,” a designation that applies to the city of Jerusalem proper, not its outlying villages.
This would render the Green Line meaningless and push the border of East Jerusalem back beyond the actual city’s periphery, into its hinterland.
“It’s impossible for us to accept Abu Dis as a capital,” said Rula Hardal, who teaches political science at Al-Quds University. “Our official stance has long been that East Jerusalem is our capital.”
When Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016, Palestinians were cautiously optimistic that his ad hoc, bombastic style and untested foreign-policy record could bring about the unconventional shift they were looking for in negotiations. Instead, following a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2017, Trump declared he would be moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s “undivided” capital.
This followed a series of policies in Israel’s favor that pummeled the shocked PA: Trump deprived the U.N. Relief and Works Agency of the U.S. donations it depended on to continue providing services to Palestinian refugees, stopped aid to the PA itself, closed down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, and recognized Israel’s annexation of the occupied Golan Heights—unilaterally pulling some of the most fraught final-status issues off the table.
Last week, with much bravado, Trump unveiled his vaunted “deal of the century” to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. “I would now like to introduce the Prime Minister of Israel, who’s worked so hard on this,” said Trump as he let Netanyahu take the podium.
The plan basically consists of the most extreme right-wing Israeli negotiating positions discussed on each issue over the years—positions for which Netanyahu has long advocated. The Israeli premier said the day would be remembered as equally historic as when Israel was created in 1948. “Mr. President, I believe that down the decades, and perhaps down the centuries, we will also remember January 28th, 2020,” he said. The Palestinians were never consulted. In fact, they had not spoken to Washington in about two years.
For Palestinians, their worst fears were confirmed: plans for isolated Palestinian cantons adjoined by bridges and tunnels, with the assumption that all of Area C in the West Bank (the majority of its land and also where Israeli settlements are located) would be annexed to Israel, including the Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the West Bank.
Refugees would be resettled only in a future Palestinian state and if cleared by Israel, in third countries, or the states they currently reside in. Israel would maintain its control of all borders and overall security, robbing Palestinians of any meaningful attempt to exercise self-determination. Gaza would have no control of its territorial waters, would be linked with a tunnel to the southern West Bank, and would also get some barren tracts of desert land near the Egyptian border.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s response to the plan was swift: “a thousand noes” to a plan that would give Palestinians less than any other U.S. president had offered in the past. The “deal, the conspiracy, will not pass,” he proclaimed. It would end up in “the dustbin of history.”
Abbas leapt to his usual go-to plan: a summit with representatives of Arab states at an “emergency” meeting, this time in Cairo on Feb. 1, followed by meetings of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the African Union.
“The Cairo visit will be tough I believe,” said Nour Odeh, a political analyst and former PA government spokesperson. “The Arab countries that already took public positions in favor of Trump’s plan cannot walk these positions back.”
“But Abbas is going there to force them to either say that out loud, in Arabic, through the Arab League—which basically means the end of the Arab League—or they have to fall in line to a degree and come up with an acceptable ‘unified position,’” Odeh said. The institution itself, already teetering on the brink of irrelevance, could be kicked over the edge by this issue, as it has always been a controversial subject among members.
The Palestinian permanent observer at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, said that Abbas would also be speaking at the U.N. Security Council within two weeks and that he hoped the council would vote against Trump’s plan at that time.
“The U.N. is a different ballgame,” Odeh added. “That’s where Palestine can shine. Trump’s plan is an assault on the U.N. Charter, on the rules all members obey. They can’t simply say we’ll make an exception for Trump. The U.N. will not offer immediate relief, but it will realign the international conversation. Countries that may feel cornered and intimidated will have an easier time banding together.” However, the U.S. government is certain to veto any resolution critical of Israel, leaving it toothless, especially in the Security Council, where resolutions can be binding.
But other than attempting to shore up international support, the PA leadership doesn’t seem to have many options up its sleeve. It is plagued with internal divisions, and its cause seems to have taken a back seat to regional dynamics and priorities.
In several polls, Palestinians have voiced their support for cutting off security coordination with Israel and even for the PA to dismantle itself altogether. Abbas alluded to this in a speech he gave immediately after Trump’s plan was released, saying the “function” of the PA would change accordingly. When Foreign Policy approached his aides and other Palestinian leaders asking what he meant, they all resoundingly said they did not know.
“There are very few choices left aside from pronouncing Oslo null and void,” Hardal said. “That includes ceasing security coordination with Israel. … Yes, we run ministries and have municipalities, but in reality we are still under occupation.”
The Palestinian leadership has previously threatened, on several occasions, to discard the Oslo Accords, as well as to dismantle the PA, effectively leaving Israel with the pre-1990s task of managing the civil affairs of the West Bank and providing services to its current 2.5 million disenfranchised Palestinians. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that the Palestinian leadership would ever relinquish its power as the authority in charge, and even if it did, it is even more doubtful that Israel would once again take responsibility for the population living in the territory it occupies.
Since the Trump plan was announced, protests have erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. Jordanian King Abdullah II was clear in the days leading to the plan’s release that he would oppose any elements of it that impacted his country negatively. The Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said that only a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders would be acceptable for Palestinians and to ensure a lasting peace in the region.
During the unveiling, Trump did very little to reassure Jordan about its custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites. “Israel will work closely with a wonderful person, a wonderful man, the king of Jordan … to ensure that all Muslims who wish to visit peacefully and pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque will be able to do so,” Trump said. Palestinians were especially vexed to see that representatives of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain attended the plan’s unveiling in Washington.
Saudi Arabia was absent from the unveiling, but Riyadh called on Palestinians to examine the plan carefully and to start “direct peace negotiations.” Abbas is aware that there are limits to how much he can rely on the Saudis for support. In November 2017, when Abbas visited Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who is a confidant of Kushner, one of the plan’s key architects) reportedly spoke to him of a plan for a Palestinian state that is noncontiguous and has only limited sovereignty. He also spoke of Abu Dis as a capital for this disjointed state. Washington has long hoped—and prodded—Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, to pressure Abbas into submitting to such a plan.
“It also doesn’t help when some Arab states are complicit,” said Hardal. “As Palestinians, we are in a weak position on the leadership level and even on the popular level. We are paralyzed with political bankruptcy.”
Many Palestinians have long been skeptical about Washington’s role as a fair mediator, but without any choice but to proceed, they lumbered forward for the past 20 years, negotiating under less favorable terms with each subsequent administration.
Judging by what happens at the international level, Abbas may find himself isolated. He may try to weather the storm by waiting for the results of Israeli and U.S. elections. Or he may have no choice but to adhere to this charade of a two-state solution even as the current plan inches Palestinians and Israelis closer to a one-state reality together.
Israel is the single sovereign entity operating on the ground between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, controlling what and whom it lets in and out. The PA’s islands of administration in the West Bank are still subjected to constant night raids by Israel’s army, and the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip has effectively been under siege for about 12 years, suffering military assaults, electricity shortages, and a lack of potable water.
“The creation of the Palestinian Authority did not end the military occupation or the reality that Palestinians are first and foremost subjects of Israeli military courts,” said Nour Joudah, a Palestinian geographer. “The map released as a new vision forward is nothing more than an attempt to cement once and for all the facts on the ground that Israel has been working toward for over 70 years.”
Disillusioned with the status quo, especially following years of peace processing, Palestinians are increasingly voicing their rejection of the two-state paradigm in favor of a single state with equal rights for all. Such a new state would likely have a demographic balance skewed decidedly toward the Palestinians—a fact Israeli society at large may not be ready to stomach.
“That we still feel the need to declare the end of the two state solution is indicative of a state-centric obsession with peace,” said Joudah. “The two-state solution was dead on arrival. It’s time to move on and start (or go back to) asking difficult questions of ourselves that are not confined by the 1967 Green Line.”
“Trump is just a reflection of a pattern, which is the imperial control of our country,” said the Rev. Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor of Bethlehem and one of the most prominent Palestinian theologians. “Our youth have been engaged. … What you will find in Bethlehem, and in Palestine overall, is very promising small initiatives that have not yet grown on a national level.”
Indeed, the next decade will be defined by the actions of a new generation which distances itself from the PA and rejects its policies, using new and innovative models to resist what they see as an unjust plan to strip them of their rights and homeland. Regardless of what leaders in Israel, the United States, or the Arab world decide should be the Palestinians’ future, this generation seeks to chart its own course, fulfilling its destiny as it sees fit.