The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is no deal at all

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

Parallel to his ongoing impeachment trial, President Trump revealed his Middle East peace plan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 28. (Video: The Washington Post)

Maybe in the early stages of his presidency, it seemed plausible that a figure as sui generis as President Trump could untangle the Gordian knot of Middle East peace. But rather than working to bridge the profound gap between Israelis and Palestinians that bedeviled U.S. policymakers for decades, the Trump administration has spent the past three years doling out concessions to the former, while placing its boot on the latter.

And so it was not surprising when Trump laid out his supposed “deal of the century” on Tuesday afternoon that the White House’s proposal looked less like a possible agreement than a declaration of terms for Palestinian surrender.

The Trump administration’s now-published “vision for peace,” the culmination of what the president said was “a long and very arduous process,” outlines a scenario in which Israel maintains sovereignty west of the Jordan river, a capital in an undivided Jerusalem, and control over Jewish enclaves and settlements scattered through the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, get … not much. In Trump’s scheme, backed by Netanyahu, they would give up the claims of Palestinian refugees and accept a conditions-based path to statehood in a patchwork of territory carved up by Israeli roads and settlements. Trump’s plan cedes security control of the eastern border with Jordan wholly to Israel, calls for the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups and allots a Palestinian capital on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem — rather than in East Jerusalem proper, as envisioned by the international community and successive U.S. administrations.

Netanyahu made clear in the White House what this meant: “On this day,” he said, addressing Trump, “you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty … in areas of Judea and Samaria” — the biblical terms for the West Bank commonly invoked in Israel — “that are vital to our security and central to our heritage.” Shortly after the remarks, reports came that Netanyahu’s government plans to vote a vote on annexation of some 30 percent of the West Bank as early as this weekend.

None of this, of course, was brokered with the Palestinians, who were absent from the room and rejected talks with Trump officials once it became clear how one-sided their approach was. There were a handful of Arab ambassadors in attendance, but none from states that have served as key interlocutors to the Palestinians — including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, most Arab states have already disengaged from or spoken out against the Trump-led initiative.

Palestinians angrily rejected Trump’s plan. “After the nonsense that we heard today we say a thousand no’s to the ‘deal of the century,’ ” said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “We will not kneel and we will not surrender.”

But the unveiling of Trump’s plan presents a dead end for Abbas, whose primary role is that of the custodian of a moribund peace process that was supposed to lead to a two-state solution. The archipelago of Palestinian enclaves proposed by Trump — subordinate to Israeli security concerns and more akin to the “bantustans” of apartheid-era South Africa — is emphatically not that.

Trump and boosters of the plan argue that his approach is a more “realistic” reflection of the facts on the ground. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and permanent control over the Jordan Valley are, in this view, a fait accompli. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East point man, has argued that Palestinian political aspirations aren’t as important as the economic development of their territories — a perspective emphatically opposed by most Palestinians, who won’t trade their hopes for equal political rights for cash incentives.

Critics contend that Trump is taking the fundamental power asymmetry between the Israelis and Palestinians and pressing it to his and Netanyahu’s advantage. “Trump is creating not only a new Israel, but a new world,” wrote Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy. “A world without international law, without honoring international resolutions, without even the appearance of justice.”

The timing is also conspicuous. The two men, beaming onstage in the East Room of the White House, are fighting for their political lives: Trump is the subject of an ongoing Senate impeachment trial and, on Tuesday, Israel’s attorney general filed criminal indictments against Netanyahu on corruption charges. The cases will shadow his reelection bid in March.

Moving forward, plans for perennial Israeli primacy over the Holy Land are powerful sops to key political constituencies for both leaders — Christian evangelical voters for Trump and the nationalist Israeli right for Netanyahu. “This is about Trump. This is about Netanyahu. It isn’t about peace,” said Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission in Britain, in an interview with the BBC.

In a separate conversation with Reuters, Zomlot pointed to what happens after the United States and the rest of the world give up the ghost of the two-state solution and dismiss Palestinian calls for equal political rights. “January 28, 2020, will mark the official legal stamp of approval from the United States for Israel to implement a fully-fledged apartheid system,” said Zomlot. “History will mark the name of Trump as the one who pushed Israel in the wrong direction.”