The Trump administration has now unveiled its Mideast peace plan. While we should expect plenty of debate about its terms, which represent a sharp departure from past U.S. peacemaking efforts, another development has essentially pushed the plan into the background. Israeli officials have announced that they plan to annex all West Bank settlements next week. If they do, this new phase of the process will be dead before it really starts.
The peace plan was supposed to take the interests of both sides into account. But the annexation move essentially makes any agreement superfluous, since Israel is already helping itself to the rewards that it’s supposed to gain from future negotiations over the plan. Any benefits for the Palestinians are left for the four-year period ahead designated by the Trump administration when both sides are to consider the plan. Israel has complained in the past that it is yielding tangible territorial assets for the intangible promise of peace. Now, Israel would be adding land immediately while the Palestinian land would be conditional on other benchmarks. The sudden urgency of the annexation plans seems designed to unite Israel’s right on the eve of an election, which might otherwise fracture the prospects of ceding territory to the Palestinians.
The annexation plans also have the effect of alienating the Arab states, who initially reacted to the new peace plan without their usual stance of lining up behind the official Palestinian position. This reflects a recent seismic shift that has taken place in Arab attitudes about Israel. Many of the region’s leaders now believe that, if the United States retreats from the Mideast, Israel is not only a necessary bulwark against the threats Arab states face but also a potentially useful ally. Unfortunately, the willingness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push annexation for his near-term political benefit could damage the emerging alignment between Israel and the Arab states. Arab leaders certainly won’t want to look as though they are even indirectly helping Israel take what they consider to be Palestinian territory.
Consider the irony: Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, has so far been unable on his own to mobilize the Arabs behind his campaign of rejection. On the contrary, their initial responses have been low-key, emphasizing not comments on the plan but calls for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. And some have even complimented the administration for making a positive contribution. But Netanyahu pushing annexation immediately, perhaps as soon as next week, will rescue Abbas, possibly forcing Arab leaders to respond to Israel’s unilateral moves and make the Abbas campaign of rejection a reality. Once they, too, go on record rejecting the Trump plan, we should expect Abbas to take his case to the U.N. Security Council, hoping to provoke a U.S. veto to show how isolated the United States and Israel are.
If there is to be any hope for the Trump plan — even in a modified form that would result from any direct negotiations between the parties — President Trump should use his good relationship with Netanyahu to tell him that he opposes any move to annex the territories now. Trump can stress that his aim is to create the possibility of a negotiation, not to preempt it. He has already stated that he expected an initial Palestinian rejection but was buying time so that Palestinians could reflect and see what could be gained by negotiating. How is there any such time if the Israelis move to annex now?
Moreover, think of the effect on Jordan if an annexation of the Jordan Valley goes ahead now. Did the president intend his plan to endanger Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan, the country with which Israel shares its longest border?
If Trump does not want his plan to be stillborn, and if the Israelis hope to salvage its most important parts (especially on security), it is essential that the Israelis postpone their annexation of the territories designated for them in the plan. The last thing that both the administration and the Israelis should want is to drive Arab leaders into adopting Abbas’s uncompromising posture.
Undifferentiated annexation of settlements will inevitably undermine Israel’s ability to separate from the Palestinians, making a one-state outcome more likely. By adding 62 settlements currently to the east of Israel’s security barrier, the plan makes separation into two entities more difficult, especially because these settlements are outside the blocs and the security barrier and will effectively shrink the size of the later Palestinian state. (Seventy-seven percent of the Israeli settlers live in the blocs.) Altogether, under the peace plan, Israel would be annexing as much as 40 percent of the West Bank.
Israel does not have an interest in having the Palestinians give up on their dream of statehood and aspiring instead to becoming voting citizens of Israel. This would undermine the Zionist rationale for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Trump knows annexation can doom his prospects, and he should urge Israel to demonstrate restraint so the plan has a chance.