Between the lines of the White House peace plan, behind the flowery language about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an unspoken but subversive question: What if the conflict cannot be solved? That’s the logical conclusion of calling it intractable. Doing nothing is not an option. But neither is trying to impose a utopian plan that seeks to transform reality rather than deal with the reality that exists.
President Trump’s plan is an attempt — a seriously flawed one that may be doomed to fail, but at least an attempt — to work within the reality that decades of Israeli and Palestinian actions and decisions have created. That reality is that Israel has effectively won the confrontation, and the two sides are too far apart for big, sweeping negotiations to succeed.
So instead of dreams, the plan has three big notions. It recognizes that any solution has to acknowledge the fact that Israel has basically won, instead of denying it or attempting to reverse it. In light of that, the plan primarily tries to shrink the standoff, rather than solve it, which may be a more manageable goal. And it paves the way for a U.S. ally to protect its vital interests and wriggle out of an existential bind. Some of the plan’s unspoken principles offer pragmatic and realistic ways to think about the conflict.
The fact is that Israel has become a prosperous, modern, Western country, while Palestinians remain mired in poverty. Every year that goes by, Israeli incomes and living standards rise, and Palestinians continue to feel they have no future or hope. The past decade has been the safest and most prosperous in Israeli history. After decades of sporadic fighting and entrenchment of Israeli settlements (many considered illegal under international law), Israel has the power to prevent a Palestinian state from coming into being, while Palestinian organizations no longer have the means to threaten Israel’s existence. In fact, the only strategic threat that Palestinians pose to the Jewish state is if Israel foolishly overreaches and tries to control all of the West Bank indefinitely, opening the door to a binational, one-state reality in which Palestinians become a majority. The Arab world has turned its back on the Palestinians, and the once-mighty Arab-Israeli conflict has become a narrower Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israel is undoubtedly the stronger party.
Throughout history, the victors have always dictated the ultimate terms of peace. Is that fair? Perhaps not. Is it how the world works? Yes. Wars don’t end when both sides agree they are tired of fighting; they end when one side, the loser, recognizes it can’t keep up the battle and decides to get what it can before things get worse.
For example, the United States dictated the terms of peace to Japan after World War II: Japan lost territory. It was banned from having an army. It was placed under military occupation until Washington was satisfied it no longer threatened the peace. The two situations are different, but recognizing reality avoids endless stalemates caused by trying to restore to the loser the power to threaten the winner.
Peace settlements have to work with reality, not try to radically overturn it. The muted response from the European Union and the Arab world to Trump’s proposal shows just how much the dynamics have shifted. This plan recognizes that armistice lines broken 53 years ago cannot be the basis for future talks.
Palestinian leaders are choosing to see the glass three-quarters empty rather than one-quarter full. But the question isn’t whether they would like the glass to be fuller; it’s whether it actually can be. Palestinian officials act as if they believe that time is in their favor and that every year, pressure will grow on Israel to make more concessions. The big idea of the American plan is to flip that logic and say that time is on Israel’s side: Every year that goes by, the Palestinians are the ones who suffer most from the status quo.
The Trump initiative also operates on the premise that the conflict might not ultimately be solvable. And so it states the obvious: The Middle East cannot absorb another failed state. It doesn’t condition changes on the ground on mutual consent between the parties, which has mostly been impossible in recent decades. Instead, it allows Israel to annex territories it sees as vital for its security while declaring most of the West Bank off-limits for settlement construction without waiting for Palestinians to agree to a final-status treaty.
The basic fact remains that the most any Israeli leaders could offer in a negotiation is still less than their Palestinian counterparts could accept, and vice versa. For example, the classic two-state model — which “everyone knows” is the solution — is still a nonstarter for the Palestinians because it does not allow a “right of return” for the descendants of refugees from 1948. Palestinian leaders have not had the courage to tell their people that the refugees are not “going home,” as the rest of the world has mostly now come to realize, and will have to build their homes in the state of Palestine instead of in what is now the state of Israel. Otherwise, why does the Palestinian Authority maintain refugee camps on its own soil instead of building homes?
Trump’s initiative is a breath of fresh air because it accepts that actual Israelis and actual Palestinians cannot wait for leaders on both sides to declare an “end of claims” — and that something can and should be done in the interim. The plan recognizes that since the conflict can’t be solved, it should be shrunk instead. This is the paradigm shift that Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman calls for in his bestseller “Catch-67” (which I translated into English). Instead of a dichotomy between peace and war, occupation and no occupation, let’s think in terms of a spectrum of more or less peace.
In some extremely modest ways, the American plan calls for action to reduce the unpleasantness of Palestinians’ day-to-day experience of Israel’s military occupation. The initiative calls for an Israeli settlement freeze over most of the West Bank, including about half of the territory’s largest section, Area C, and an amnesty for illegal Palestinian construction (conducted without Israeli permits). All this while final-status negotiations are ongoing. It could have demanded more to reduce the occupation’s footprint, but the logic is there.
Finally, the Trump initiative gives Israel a way — if it chooses — to escape its existential bind. Most Israelis believe, and the government argues, that the nation has learned from history that it cannot afford to pull out of the West Bank because that would endanger its security and open the greater Tel Aviv area to potential attacks. But it can’t afford to fully absorb the land, either, because that would endanger its status as a Jewish and democratic state. If Israel actively accepts that large sections of the West Bank, much more than the Oslo accords provided for, are earmarked for a Palestinian state, it can begin to remove the Palestinians’ doomsday weapon: the threat to drop their demand for sovereignty and instead demand the vote in Israel when they become or approach a majority.
In this sense, the Trump plan is remarkably like Ehud Olmert’s Convergence Plan, with which he won the 2006 Israeli election: A plan to unilaterally draw Israel’s borders if a peace deal proves impossible — to decide which territories Israel needs and which it will relinquish. And a plan to draw borders within which Israel can continue being Jewish and democratic. The map looks different, but the basic idea is the same.
There is, of course, much to criticize in Trump’s proposal. It is completely silent on the status of Palestinians in the territory that Israel will annex and on Palestinians’ access to their private land in those areas. The refusal to dismantle a single Israeli outpost to enhance the contiguity of the land reserved for Palestinians rewards Israeli extremists who have taken the law into their own hands.
The suggestion that Israel could redraw the border to put some Arab communities in the Palestinian statelet without their consent is disturbing. And the cynical timing — as well as the green light for Israel’s interim minority government, headed by a criminal defendant — to undertake such major changes just before elections makes a mockery of Israeli democracy.
But perhaps the biggest flaw is that in some of the plan’s good points, it doesn’t go far enough.
If it recognizes that Israel has won the conflict, why not announce an immediate plan to rehabilitate the refugee camps within Palestinian Authority territory? If it’s going to shrink the conflict, why dangle initiatives like trade liberalization, access to Israeli ports and joint economic ventures as sweeteners for a peace treaty, instead of pushing for them now? And if it allows Israel to begin to consolidate its borders to protect its Jewish and democratic majority, why not require Israel to formally abjure any sovereign claim to the land designated for a Palestinian state, recognizing the frontier as a border?
If the Trump administration were serious, it would have demanded that the Israeli government formally endorse the plan as a condition for annexation. The price of saying what belongs to Israel should be conceding what doesn’t.
This is not the Deal of the Century, but neither were the deals envisaged in the last millennium. Serious actors who want to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace have some solid principles to work with: Adapt to the real power dynamics on the ground; apply pressure to shrink the conflict until it can be ended; and tweak the plan to help the two sides separate rather than deepening their entanglement.