How quickly things can change.
Last week, after President Trump unveiled his “Deal of the Century,” there was euphoria, both here in Israel and abroad, expressed by those committed to Israel’s legitimate rights to the Land.
It was considered a “Wow!’ moment: For the first time, an American president had acknowledged Israel’s right to apply sovereignty to considerable swaths of Judaea and Samaria – some 30%, including all Jewish communities – and the Jordan Valley. The smile on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s face says it all:
Of course, that euphoria was tempered by a host of unanswered questions, and by the presence on the “Deal” map of a Palestinian state right in the middle of Judaea & Samaria. Yet this is simply what we might have expected.
Trump’s stated policy was referred to as historic. And in one sense it still is: Palestinian Arab charges of Israeli occupation and their claim to everything to the 1949 Armistice line have been refuted.
But the euphoria is gone, gone, gone.
When last I wrote, I described backtracking by the Trump administration. We had been advised that there was no need to wait to begin applying sovereignty, and then were told by Jared Kushner that a joint US-Israeli committee had to meet first to finalize the details of the map. It would take many weeks, he said – certainly until after the election.
Putting a good face on it, Israeli officials said the delay was just “technical.”
Yes, but…while some areas on the map might need refining, others are clear cut. How about beginning with those? No, said Kushner, all of the application of sovereignty has to be done at the same time.
Really? Why is that?
And then there was more, and it was greatly troubling. On Sunday, Kushner gave an interview that showed on Egyptian TV. In it, he said (emphasis added):
“The plan seeks to curb the expansion of the settlements, to allow the feasibility of a Palestinian state…
“The map attached to the plan is not a scientific map. If the Palestinians don’t like where the line is drawn, they should come and tell us where they want to draw it.“
Whoa! This was big time troubling.
If he is making an offer to the Palestinian Arabs to indicate where they would like the map changed, the US cannot very well reach a final agreement with Israel on those lines before the Palestinian Arabs have a chance to do that, can they?
How much time would the Palestinian Arabs have to request changes? The plan gave the PLO four years to make a decision on the “Deal.”
Of course they won’t honor this by making suggested changes – not tomorrow and not in four years. This is a question of the US stance.
And “curbing the expansion of settlements”? Wasn’t this about Israeli rights? Not when you are talking to Egyptians, certainly it is not.
Trump had said, at the time the “Deal” was unveiled, that “…without them, we don’t do the deal. And that’s okay.”
I had taken that to mean that on-going Palestinian Arab obstructionism would lead to a nod from the US for Israel to apply sovereignty to additional land – that the map was a proposal that would be over-ridden in time if there were no “partner for peace.” This would mean ensuring that there was no massive Arab building in Area C over the next four years that would de facto limit future Israeli expansion.
Now there is deep unease about a US expectation that once we do apply sovereignty – in line with that map – there would not be any Israeli expansion in the future, no matter how the PLO plays it.
I want to share my own take on what’s going on:
Not for a moment do I think that the “Deal” team expected the PLO to jump at their proposal. Mahmud Abbas’s “We say 1,000 times: No, no and no to the deal of the century” could not have been a surprise.
Here you see Abbas, second from right, meeting in Ramallah with PLO officials including the ever sharp-tongued, obstructionist Saeb Erekat to his right:
What “the team” clearly did expect was a more positive response from the Sunni Arab world. For years, they has been courting these nations, expending considerable energy in involving them and bringing them on-board.
Jared visited Saudi Arabia. And the precursor to the “Deal,” the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, was held in Bahrain last June.
Securing the support of Sunni Arab states was imperative because the funds for this massive economic venture to lure the Palestinian Arabs would have come from them. What is more, pressure from these states would be required to move Abbas to a more conciliatory stance. The goal, as I see it, was to make Abbas feel he was out of step.
But the team was dead wrong in their expectation of Sunni Arab support:
Neither Egypt nor Jordan, the two states with peace treaties with Israel, sent their ambassadors to Trump’s speech unveiling his plan. Nor did the Saudis.
Egyptian President Sisi said that he “appreciates the continuous efforts” of the Trump administration to end the conflict, and hopes for talks that might eventually restore to Palestinians their “full legitimate rights through the establishment of a sovereign independent state.” Similar statements came from Jordan and the Saudis.
Three Arab states — Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — did send their ambassadors but later announced that they had been provided with only a general outline of what was to transpire before the event. Once they heard the plan they knew they could not support it.
The 22-nation Arab League, at an emergency meeting held in Cairo on Saturday, rejected the plan. A League statement declared that it “rejects the US-Israeli ‘deal of the century’ considering that it does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people.” Arab leaders vowed “not to… cooperate with the US administration to implement this plan.”
Today, Monday, at the request of Abbas, the 57-nation strong Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to discuss the plan. The OIC released a statement calling “on all member states not to engage with this plan or to cooperate with the US administration in implementing it in any form”.
So, what we see is that the “Deal of the Century” bombed big time in the Arab/Muslim world. (Not to mention its unsurprising rejection by the EU and Russia.) This is what happens when naïve politicians, however well-intentioned, think they know best and can fix matters.
It is pointless for representatives of the Trump administration to chastise the Arab League, as they just did, for holding on to old approaches that won’t help the Palestinian Arab people. They still don’t get it: This is not about Arab concern for the well-being of the Palestinian Arab people. The members of the Arab League don’t give a damn for that. This is about politics and ideology. The leaders of the Arab states cannot even stand Abbas.
All of this helps explain the US backtracking with regard to the timing of the Israeli application of sovereignty. As well, it explains the efforts by Kushner to clarify what is good about the plan.
He made a statement during his interview on Egyptian TV that particularly incensed people here in Israel:
“The most important part of this whole plan is that Israel is agreeing to recognize the special role of King Abdullah of Jordan regarding holy sites and Muslim holy shrines and make sure that any Muslim who wishes to pray there is welcome to do that.”
This makes it sound like an achievement of the plan, when in fact this has been the “status quo” for decades.
Kushner is also touting the US efforts to “achieve normalization” between Israel and the Arab states. We’re getting very close, he said yesterday, pointing to such matters as non-belligerent agreements, direct flights between Israel and Arab nations and allowing Israeli officials to attend events in Arab countries.
I do not deny that these achievements are good, and pave a constructive path for more that may develop down the road. But they don’t constitute normalization. There is no recognition forthcoming from the Arab states with regard to Israeli rights of any sort, and no peace agreements are being forged.
Nor, in-and-of-themselves do these achievements make the enormous “team” effort towards peace a success.
So, where does this leave Israel?
Prime Minister Netanyahu, facing elections in just four weeks, has been figuratively cut off at the knees. He glowed with his eagerness to begin applying sovereignty after the Trump announcement. Now he must decide how to move forward in spite of US demands that he not rush.
I cannot speak for what he will decide, but suspect he may move to apply sovereignty to one area.
Several right wing organizations, leaders of the communities in Judaea and Samaria, and members of political parties on the right are urging the prime minister to act unilaterally and not wait for the US nod. There is a sense that what is not done now will not happen later – that the situation will simply deteriorate.
Said Ayelet Shaked (Yamina):
“We are in a historical moment. I think there is a really historical opportunity to take a brave step and apply Israeli sovereignty right now.
“When Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel, the Americans pushed him not to do it, to postpone it, but he did it. When Begin applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights, he didn’t even tell the Americans he was going to do it.”
She says the brave step is to apply sovereignty to parts of Judaea and Samaria now, without telling the US beforehand.
And I would agree.
Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani on Sunday called for the deal to be shelved (emphasis added).
“I was wrong, the Americans misled us. I was in Washington, we sat with a senior official in the Trump administration who told us: ‘If the Palestinians do not join the agreement within 48 hours, you can apply sovereignty.'”
“…This agreement should be taken and thrown into the trash, it poses an existential danger to the State of Israel.”
Prior to the Trump announcement, Netanyahu had spoken about speedily applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. The US government asked that he wait until after the plan was unveiled and he complied.
The Americans said the plan would not be unveiled until after the Israeli elections (presumably, when there would be more governmental stability). But then they back-tracked on this and made the announcement before the election. Whether or not this was done in an effort to give Netanyahu a boost is not clear – although there is considerable speculation regarding this. Better had they not.
Now Kushner speaks about the fact that the committee deliberations regarding the map will last until after the election. I was puzzled as to why he said that, rather than simply saying it will take several weeks. Was there a message there? At this point would Kushner prefer to see Gantz, with a softer and more compliant stance, come to the fore?
Gantz, in my book, is no more than a political clown.
Netanyahu had asked Trump to include Gantz in meetings prior to the announcement of the plan, and this the president did: meeting with him separately in Washington. I thought it a smart move on Netanyahu’s part ‒ he had in essence co-opted Gantz, who was part of the project and could not critique the prime minister from the opposition going forward.
What Gantz did was come home and declare that he could handle the unfolding of the peace plan better than Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s political situation is enormously complicated by his indictment. He had declared intention to seek immunity – although it was considered unlikely he would get it. Then, just hours before a Knesset vote on the matter was to be held, from Washington, he withdrew that request.
Trial will proceed some weeks hence and the timing is still not clear. Legally, it is my understanding that he is able to hold office unless and until found guilty. However, the fact that he is not simply a sitting prime minister but is going into an election further confuses the matter.
As expected, violence from the Palestinian Arabs has increased since the “Deal.” There were several rockets launched over the last few days, with Israeli retaliation following. There has also been a steady spate of balloons with explosive devices launched. The new policy of Minister of Defense Bennett is to respond to these as if they were rocket attacks, which is certainly a welcome first step. Whether predictions of a significant action against Hamas turn out to be true is something we will know soon enough.
Abbas, for his part, is playing it as he always does. He said he is breaking all ties with Israel, but he cannot: without security cooperation, Hamas would be on him in no time.
All other news, I hold for my next posting…