What to Watch for as Trump Unveils Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan

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Donald Trump speaking at a rally
Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

By Ron Kampeas / JTA

Three years after he asked his adviser son-in-law Jared Kushner to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, President Donald Trump is ready to launch his “ultimate deal.”

Except don’t call it that. Since Trump made that promise in 2017, the Arab and Israeli media have been waiting for what they call “the deal of the century.” But with time and diminishing expectations, Kushner now prefers to call it a “peace vision.” His father-in-law, with his preference for straight talk, calls it a “plan.”

Whatever it’s called, the deal, plan or vision is sure to reverberate across the Jewish world and beyond — even if it faces long odds. Here are some of the questions we’ll be trying to answer.

1. What’s actually in the plan? Rumors have been flying since 2017 about the content of the plan. Netanyahu’s bullishness on the deal and his hints that his government may annex the Jordan Valley suggest that the plan will give him leeway to do just that. On the other hand, U.S. officials have told Netanyahu to lay off the annexation talk, a senior Trump administration official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week. U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who has helped shape the plan, suggested last year that annexation was a possibility. But in a more recent speech Friedman spoke of “independence” for the Palestinians.

If the Trump administration comes out in support of either Israeli annexation or Palestinian independence, it would be a big deal. No previous U.S. administration has supported Israeli annexation of the West Bank. And so far, the Trump administration has been cagey on its vision for the Palestinian future.

But does “independence” mean Palestinian statehood? That isn’t clear. It is possible that Trump’s team could propose that the Palestinians retain limited autonomy but remain under Israeli control and without a contiguous territory. Kushner has avoided any mention of a “two-state solution,” a phrase that would imply an independent Palestinian state, saying he does not want to be bound by terminology.

It’s also possible that Jan. 28’s event will be long on pomp and short on substance, especially given the timing in the middle of Trump’s impeachment trial, when he would welcome any distraction for the public. The economic portion of the plan, which was released last year by Kushner, mostly was a rehash of proposals to direct financing from Gulf states into Palestinian areas. It has since faded from the discourse.

2. Is there a map? What does it show? A map amounts to a sign that the Trump administration is serious about implementing the plan — and has done the hard and controversial work of drawing boundaries.

The Jerusalem Post has reported that there will indeed be a detailed map that will include areas — including the Jordan Valley — that will be annexed to Israel. The Jordan Valley, which runs along the West Bank’s eastern border with Jordan, lies beyond Israel’s West Bank security barrier on land that the Palestinians have long claimed.

If the map does give the Jordan Valley to Israel, does it include any other far-flung Israeli settlements? Does it give Palestinians any kind of contiguity that would herald eventual statehood?

Even if Trump’s map never becomes reality, presenting one would add a level of concreteness to his plan that could reshape the discourse around Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations long after he leaves office. President Bill Clinton, in the waning days of his administration, made a two-state outcome official policy — and much to the consternation of the Israeli right wing, that was the official policy through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

3. Will Palestinian leaders find anything to like? The Palestinians don’t know what’s in the plan, except it’s unlikely they will be happy. They haven’t trusted Trump since December 2017, when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his moves since then to cut all funding to the Palestinians have made them even warier of his overtures.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly refused to take a call from Trump ahead of Jan. 28’s announcement, and Trump admitted that without Palestinian buy-in the plan was probably dead in the water.

“I think in the end, they’re going to want it,” Trump said Jan. 27, meeting with Netanyahu. “It’s very good for them. In fact, it’s overly good to them. So we’ll see what happens. Now, without them, we don’t do the deal and that’s OK.”

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator who is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Palestinian strategy would likely to be to depict the plan as a narrow U.S.-Israeli endeavor. That could prevent the rest of the world from endorsing it.

“Palestinians will want to show it’s a U.S.-Israel position, isolated,” al-Omari said Jan. 27 at a Washington Institute briefing for reporters.

4. How will the rest of the Arab world react? The first front in the Palestinian effort to quash whatever plan emerges will be among the Arab nations. King Abdullah II of Jordan has already said that anything resembling annexation would be catastrophic. And in previous years, Arab nations tended to allow the Palestinians to determine what the best position was on Israeli and U.S. overtures.

But Netanyahu has forged a fragile and informal alliance with Sunni Arab states that fear expanding Iranian influence, and the Saudi royal family is close to the Trumps; Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are close allies. The plan could crack the facade of pro-Palestinian Arab solidarity.

5. What does this mean for Israeli politics? Trump isn’t the only leader to benefit from a high-profile peace plan: Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, who is running against the longtime Israeli leader in March elections, are also each looking for a win. They each appeared at the White House on Jan. 27 for meetings with Trump — and photo ops.

Netanyahu got time away from the corruption indictments he is facing and Gantz got to look prime ministerial.

But it might not last, and Gantz — while lavishing praise on Trump and the plan — made clear at a media appearance following his meeting with Trump that the plan was going nowhere until after Israel’s March 2 vote — and unless at least part of the Arab world is on board.

“Immediately after the elections, I will look forward to implementing it from within a stable, functioning Israeli government in tandem with the other countries in our region.” Gantz said in English and in Hebrew.

In Hebrew he was more pointed: “A prime minister under indictment cannot run a peace negotiation,” he said. “Netanyahu cannot lead a country and a trial.”

6. How do American politicians — and Jewish leaders — react? Expect no complaints from the right. There are some Republicans in Congress who might otherwise balk at any concessions to Palestinians, but in a political climate in which Trump places the highest premium on loyalty, especially now that he is mired in his impeachment trial, no one will likely object publicly.

On the left, even Democrats in Congress who are close to AIPAC are preparing to oppose the plan. On Jan. 27, two of the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, warned the Trump administration not to approve moves by Israel that haven’t received Palestinian assent.

“Unilateral actions by Israelis or Palestinians, as well as U.S. backing of such actions, is counterproductive peaceo U.S. foreign policy goals by pushing the parties farther away from the negotiating table,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the powerful chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, who is Jewish. “A sustainable peace will only be possible if it is the result of direct negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.”

Lowey is one of AIPAC’s closest friends in Congress. The lobby’s tone-setting annual conference takes place at the beginning of March; AIPAC backs the two-state solution. A bellwether of whether the national Jewish community endorses the plan will be the degree to which AIPAC addresses it during the conference.

7. Will anyone still be talking about Israel on Jan. 29? Netanyanu will leave D.C. after the announcement, but Trump’s impeachment trial will be ongoing. If history is any guide, that could crowd out continued attention to the peace proposal.

Dennis Ross, a longtime peace negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents, said impeachment would necessarily cloud the proceedings, recalling how Clinton’s impeachment dogged his efforts to broker a deal in 1998 between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that [the hearings] hovered over the meeting” between the leaders, said Ross, who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute.

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