by Mitchell Plitnick
In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced his intention to move the US embassy there. Condemnations abounded, with great hand-wringing and troubled emotions. The United States had to veto an otherwise unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the decision but could not block a similar UN General Assembly resolution, which passed overwhelmingly.
Palestinians took to the streets in protest, as did other people across the Middle East and around the world, including in the United States itself. There was some violence, but it was not very different from protests against past Israeli actions. Outside of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, those protests came and went in a matter of weeks.
Inside the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the US decision shattered the last shreds of credibility of the “peace process,” which was long used to keep the lid on Palestinians while settlements expanded. As a result, Donald Trump has become as much an enemy to Palestinians as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration
Trump destroyed the basis for a two-state solution and crippled the chances for a peaceful alternative to that solution in the short term. He also radically shifted the United States from being a biased interlocutor between its dear friend Israel and the barely tolerated Palestinians to a full-fledged partner with Israel in its attempt to destroy the very concept of Palestine as a nation with national rights. In response, the international community did nothing but mutter some complaints, wag a finger, and move on with business as usual.
It was this very outcome that I warned about when Trump was making his decision on Jerusalem. I wrote, “there’s also a distinct possibility that after a week or two of protests, and even some violence, by the beginning of 2018, US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has become the new normal,” and that if that happened, “It would also tell Israel, in no uncertain terms, that its view that its national and territorial desires completely trump Palestinian rights is correct.”
Israel has received that message loud and clear, and both Jerusalem and Washington are moving forward on that basis. Benjamin Netanyahu said today that “I can tell you that I’ve been talking about [annexing the settlements] with the Americans.” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely—Netanyahu himself holds the foreign minster’s portfolio—elaborated on this at a right wing conference in Jerusalem:
I have no doubt that with this current American administration, with the right cooperation and work, we can reach agreements on this topic — something that never existed on the past. There was never [before] a [US] administration that said settlements are not an obstacle to peace.
All of this comes amidst two other developments: the leaking of parts of the Trump administration’s plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the decision by the Israeli government to temporarily halt a bill that would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements.
Annexation of Settlements
Israel attributed its decision not to immediately move forward with the so-called “Annexation Bill” to concerns about the “security situation in the North,” which refers to the tensions with Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Syria that escalated this weekend after Israel conducted large-scale bombing raids in Syria and Syria downed an Israeli fighter jet. In fact, it was really done for two other reasons.
One reason is that Netanyahu, identifying the annexation of settlements correctly as a historic moment, said that “…it must be a government initiative rather than a private one.” The other is that Netanyahu wants to coordinate this move with the American “peace plan.”
Palestinian journalist Mohammed Othman describes the leaked details of the plan in Al-Monitor: “Palestinians will have their own ‘city of Jerusalem’ by building new villages and neighborhoods. This is combined with the establishment of a Palestinian state that includes over half of the West Bank area, all of the Gaza Strip and some neighborhoods in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem point repeats what has been proposed many times, that Abu Dis or another Jerusalem suburb be renamed “al-Quds,” the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Such a sham has never gained any traction at all among Palestinians, and it is hard to see how it ever could.
The plan, Othman reports, is being prepared without any Palestinian input. It
allows for the annexation of 10% of the West Bank area to Israel; allocation of parts of Ashdod and Haifa for Palestinian use, while Israel remains in charge of the security there; the establishment of a safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty; and granting Israel the upper hand in the demilitarized Palestinian state, which will have its own police force.
It’s obviously not a plan that the Palestinians will accept. But it is also a plan that the US and Israel can impose on them.
Implications of Netanyahu’s Statement
After Netanyahu made his statement about discussing annexation with the Americans, Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid tweeted that a US official told him that, “The U.S. hasn’t received or agreed to any proposals from Israel about annexation of the settlements in the West Bank.” Israeli officials quickly confirmed that this was so, as did the White House’s spokesperson. But Netanyahu’s actual claim of having discussed the matter with the US was not contradicted, merely clarified.
Despite the back and forth over statements, it is clear that Israel would be annexing the settlements under the US plan. Netanyahu is probably discussing with Washington precisely what land Israel would annex. Although one leak of the US plan has Israel annexing some 10% of the West Bank, another gives the Palestinians just over half of the territory. The 10% figure refers to the built-up areas of the settlements, but a final Trump plan, worked out to Israel’s approval, would likely give Israel considerably more land around the settlements. The regional councils that govern the settlements, along with the closed “military zones” that essentially bar Palestinians from even entering, make up some 42% of the West Bank. This “less than half” figure is what Israel could reasonably expect to get in a Trump plan.
Although the Palestinian leadership will protest and appeal and the Palestinian people will surely take to the streets in prolonged demonstrations, the US and Israel can impose this plan. Israel can declare sovereignty over its settlements and the US can recognize it. If the Palestinians do not choose to self-govern, Israel can wall them off. And the plan is thus imposed.
Failure of the International Community
And why shouldn’t Israel do so? The international community has done nothing in response to Trump’s “taking Jerusalem off the table,” which effectively decides the matter in favor of Israel. The plan would implicitly keep the actual city of Jerusalem “united” under Israeli rule, would extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, would establish permanent Israeli borders, and resolve the Palestinian refugee question by telling those refugees that they’re on their own.
That’s the “peace” Netanyahu and Trump envision. A third intifada of some kind would probably result, but Netanyahu likely believes that he can quell that by outlasting and out-brutalizing the Palestinians as Ariel Sharon did during the second such uprising. Protests elsewhere would come and go.
The international community has enabled this by its muted reaction to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Is it prepared to do more than author resolutions and issue statements? Is it ready to act against the United States and Israel in some meaningful way? If not, and it seems highly unlikely that it will, the Trump plan will go ahead.
I suspect that Netanyahu is underestimating the consequences. The reaction to such an imposed plan could be much wider than a third intifada. It could involve Iran. It could draw in other Arab states, as well as the United States in some fashion. And, like the Jerusalem decision, it will have long-term implications that are not immediately visible.
But Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition seem bent on this course, and it seems the Trump administration is all in. Only a concerted and unified effort by the international community can avert what, in the best-case scenario would be another, maybe even a bigger, catastrophe for the Palestinians and, in the worst case, could spark a regional war as well.
Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Hotovely (Wikimedia Commons).