08/2019 | Reading time: 8 minutes
During his first official visit to Israel, Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to visit Jerusalem’s historical Old City, including the Western Wall. This symbolic gesture represented more than just a visit as it was followed by multiple pro-Israel decisions. Yet the Trump administration’s aspirations regarding the Israeli–Palestinian peace process have only began to take shape recently.
Since the Old City was taken from Jordan in the 1967 Six Days War, it has not been recognised internationally as a territory under the sovereignty of Israel. That is the reason why no sitting US president ever paid a visit to the area before, as they did not want to appear as accepting Israeli claims before a peace settlement. However, now, Donald Trump broke this pattern, and this event indicated that the Trump administration’s approach towards Israel would be much different from what the previous administrations had demonstrated. Later on, Jerusalem was formally recognised as the official capital of the State of Israel by the US President, and the American embassy was moved from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Recently, parts of the Golan Heights, which were captured from Syria by Israel in 1967, have also been recognised as sovereign Israeli territory. Decades of American foreign policy directives on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict seem to have changed.
The Trump administration’s intentions regarding the Israeli–Palestinian peace process had been unknown for long. However, President Trump announced that he will present the “Deal of the Century” to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The deal would consist of two parts: an economic and a political one. The economic part was revealed by White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law) during an economic workshop in Bahrain in June, which neither Israeli nor Palestinian official state delegates attended. Kushner offered a different approach to one of our world’s most crucial issues: economics would come before politics.
The economic plan named Peace to Prosperity was issued by the White House in a forty-page document. The suggested agenda is based on a USD 50 billion investment into the infrastructures of Gaza, the West Bank, and even some parts of Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, and aims to “to build a prosperous and vibrant Palestinian society.” The initiative would ensure the availability of electricity, water supply, telecommunication, and data services, while improving the education system and promoting good local governance. By ensuring the movement of Palestinian goods and people, the ambitious goal also promises to connect Palestinian trade with regional and global markets. Within ten years, the Palestinian GDP is expected to double, and one million jobs would be created in order to drop the unemployment rate which currently hovers at 30% according to IMF figures. Although Jared Kushner emphasised that the workshop was purely about economics, the question of lifting border restrictions in one of the world’s most regulated areas raises key points regarding security and peace which have not been addressed yet. Besides, political stability in the region heavily concerns potential investors who have expressed their criticism over the United States’ decision not to present a political vision before the economic peace plan.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde also highlighted the need for political stability before any economic solution. Claiming that the political aspirations of the Palestinian people would be trodden down by a capital injection from Arab countries, the Palestinian Authority has also dismissed the initiative. Although the Bahrain workshop’s main objective was to attract investors from all over the Arab world (as neither Israel nor the United States is going to fund these projects), based on cautious official reactions, it is unlikely that the region will see any major capital inflow until the political part of the peace plan is revealed. However, even the Trump administration sees this problem, as Greenblatt has recently stated that the economic initiative “will not move forward” until Palestinians and Israelis reach a political agreement, adding that “there is no political peace without making sure the Palestinian lives are improved economically.” However, the release of the peace plan is heavily influenced by Israeli domestic politics.
Israel faces an internal turmoil, as, after Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a government coalition following his party’s relative electoral success in April 2019, snap elections are going to be held in September this year. Benjamin Netanyahu’s success is a serious interest of the Trump administration. As the American administration’s proposal touches the most delicate issues, including the status of Jerusalem, as well as borders, security, and settlements in the West Bank, the release of a peace plan could affect the Israeli elections, and, in turn, the results of the elections could influence the content of a peace plan. Consequently, the US administration has deliberately postponed the disclosure of their peace plan’s political part until a government is formed in Israel. Furthermore, the 2020 US presidential race begins in November 2019. Since President Trump intends to be re-elected for a second term, his deal could influence his support, especially among pro-Israel evangelical Christian voters, who represent a major force in Trump’s electorate.
However, US envoy Jason Greenblatt told Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam that the administration was still hesitating whether to release the political part of the peace plan before or after the Israeli elections. The decision at the White House was announced to be made soon. Greenblatt also stated at a Washington D.C. conference that the peace process could not work without involving all stakeholders in the region, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) governing the areas of the West Bank and the Hamas’ military wing, which is the main authority in the Gaza Strip. In fact, the Hamas is recognised as a terrorist group by Israel as well as by the European Union’s highest court. Considering that the US Department of State also lists Hamas as a “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” its inclusion in the plan raises questions, as US administrations have committed themselves to follow a moral doctrine and not negotiate with terrorists. Yet Hamas is also a strong political entity in the Palestinian region. Inferring from Greenblatt’s statement, the White House’s position on the nature of Hamas is expected to change.
While Israeli–American relations have prospered constantly under the Trump administration, relations between the US and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) have declined. Following the move to relocate the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, PA President Mahmoud Abbas cut off political ties with the United States. Arguing that the PLO refuses to take efforts towards an Israeli–Palestinian peace process and due to Palestinians filing a suit against Israel in the International Court of Justice, the administration has closed the PLO’s de facto diplomatic mission in Washington D.C. However, in his interview to the Al-Ayyam, Greenblatt promisingly suggested that the US was willing to reopen the representation office once the PLO entered peace talks with Israel.
Although the political part of the peace plan is yet to be released, the Palestinian leadership vowed not to support the plan long before. Their main concern is that the US Government is not inherently against Israeli annexation of areas that have been captured in 1967 from Jordan. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, one of the peace plan’s key shapers besides Greenblatt and Kushner, said in a New York Times interview that “Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” Still, one of the most fragile and complex issues remains the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Under the Oslo II Accord, the West Bank has been divided into three different areas. Currently, around 70% of the West Bank is under full Israeli authority and security control (Area C). Despite parts of Area C were agreed to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority, the number of Israeli settlers has increased to more than 400,000 from less than 100,000 under the last twenty-five years. A part of the international community believes that Israeli settlements are a breach of international law as Article 49(6) of the Geneva Convention points out, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Israel argues that the intention of the article is to protect civilians from forced displacement, not to prohibit voluntary movement. Before Donald Trump took office, the United States had abstained a UN Security Council resolution labelling the settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace. No wonder the friendship and support from the Trump administration came as a relief for Prime Minister Netanyahu, as he described the abstention as “treachery” from President Obama.
Moreover, the US cut off economic aid for the West Bank and Gaza and ended US contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The agency, providing hereditary refugee status and social services ranging from education to healthcare for five million people, mostly with Palestinian background, was criticised by Trump advisor Jared Kushner for maintaining a status quo and blocking the peace process. By delegitimising the UNRWA, the US administration hopes to pressure Arab countries to host and integrate Palestinian refugees into their societies, and, thus, eliminate the question of refugees from possible Israeli–Palestinian negotiations.
Moreover, a possible peace plan would seek to eradicate the Palestinian refugees’ long-standing claim to return to their original homeland. Referred to as the “right of return” affirmed by UN conventions and resolutions, this claim is heavily opposed by Israel because of the demographic changes the reflux of Palestinian nationals would bring to the Jewish State. Thus, in line with the PLO’s policy, Arab governments have restrained Palestinians from opportunities that would help integrate them into other Near Eastern societies so as to preserve their Palestinian identity and their will to return to their homeland in the near future. Most recently, Iraq has announced that the around 7,000 Palestinian refugees there will receive the same rights as Iraqi citizens. Although the integration of Palestinians in other Arab countries might reduce their will to return to their original homeland, this decision was welcomed by the Palestinian leadership, matching both Israeli and American interests concerning the refugee problem. The question is: what this policy change will initiate in other Arab countries regarding the status of Palestinians, for example in Lebanon, where they have been barred from working in certain professions and owning land.
In the meantime, the principles of the deal are being outlined in more details each day by statements made by the three main authors of the peace plan (Kushner, Friedman, and Greenblatt). A possible deal would favour the recognition of the Israeli right to hold some territories of the West Bank, where Israeli law could be applied. Furthermore, one of the most pressing issues that remains is the question of the future status of the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution supported by previous American governments, the Arab League, and suggested by UN resolutions. Yet Jared Kushner has said that the term “two-state solution” was interpreted differently by both Palestinians and Israelis, and, therefore, it should not be used. Despite the US Senate’s passing a resolution endorsing the two-state solution to be included in Trump’s deal, Jason Greenblatt affirmed in an interview that it was not going to be part of the deal. Although it has been severely emphasised that the deal would include all actors in the region, seemingly, it would hardly align with the Palestinian aspiration of having their own state surrounded by their pre-1967 borders and with the refugees’ right to return. However, Greenblatt revealed that he conducted meetings with Palestinian officials behind closed doors. Thus, the question remains whether the Palestinian interest can be effectively represented in the possible peace process, or the PLO is going to accept the paradigm set by the Trump-administration.
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