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Caught between the Dome of the Rock and a hard place

Tom Grein | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

The conventional wisdom to President Trump’s new Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan is that it’s a one-sided deal architected by the most pro-Israel administration in history. This take, while hot, is far from unreasonable. To date, Trump has given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively everything he has ever wanted, from moving the American embassy to Jerusalem to recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights to withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal. But despite the President’s partisan leanings, nobody will suffer more from a terse dismissal of the deal than the Palestinians.

Almost every time the Palestinians have said “no”, they have ended up with less. This was true in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, 1982 Reagan Plan, 2000 Camp David Summit and 2008 Olmert-Abbas negotiations. Their case for stubbornness this time around is strong, too. The plan quashes the longstanding international consensus of a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders (the Gaza Strip and contiguous territory in the West Bank). Jerusalem is to remain the undivided capital of Israel, with the Palestinians offered not “East Jerusalem” as their capital but “Eastern Jerusalem”—which is likely code for Ramallah. The right of return for Palestinian refugees is annulled, while national security is to be controlled by Israel.

Irrespective of whether the Palestinians decide to come to the table, Netanyahu has said he will move ahead with recognising Israeli sovereignty over the proposed Jewish areas in the deal—that is, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the area West of the Jordan River. This action violates Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, legitimates Israeli colonialism on the West Bank and snuffs any chance of a contiguous Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “steps toward annexation… could not be passed unchallenged”, while the Arab League has rejected the plan.

That being said, there are properties of the deal that are attractive. Crucially, the plan provides a clear vision of what a future Palestinian state would look like. The 1993 Oslo and 2000 Camp David discussions were encumbered by the unwillingness of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to clearly define their borders—though this plan offers tangible boundaries to work with. It presents a ready-made path to economic prosperity, with Washington promising $50 billion in investments and access to sea ports and industrial zones. Most importantly, it gives the Palestinians the opportunity to finally achieve national sovereignty and peace. For a people stricken by military occupation, economic inertia and political disenfranchisement for over half a century, the deal gives cause for optimism.

Ultimately, the Palestinians’ negotiating position is not as strong as it has been in the past. They no longer hold the pan-Arab currency they once did, as Arab focus has shifted from Jerusalem to Tehran in recent years. Arab ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates attended Trump’s announcement, while key Arab actors, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, have been notably quiet in the days following—a marked shift from past expressions of firm solidarity. With many including Arab leaders increasingly committed to regional security, the Palestinians are politically isolated and arguably at their weakest negotiating point in history.

This reality, however, is yet to register in Ramallah. President Mahmoud Abbas labelled the deal a “conspiracy” and said “a thousand times no.” The Palestinian Authority (PA) has since cut all ties with Israel and the United States. Though Abbas’ dismissal only hampers the Palestinians already battered international credibility, making them look inflexible. It also makes the PA look un-stately—as pragmatic negotiation is a principal executive quality—and contradicts the very character they’ve sought to build for decades, further entrenching their isolation on the world stage.

Internal developments of Israeli politics offer additional impetus for Palestinian pragmatism. In recent decades, Israeli society has shifted toward the religious Zionist-right which, at best, considers Palestinians improbable partners in peace and the entirety of the West Bank divinely dealt Jewish land. Moreover, the deal has bipartisan support from the opposition leader Benny Gantz, therefore any hope of a better deal with an Israeli change of government at the March 2 election is unlikely. The determination of Trump to do the Deal of the Century may be a unique opportunity the Palestinians have to achieve a state.

There is no shortage of justifications for Palestinian intransigence in discussions, but pragmatism and vision distinguish the revolutionary from the statesman. If the Palestinians want a state, they must start acting stately. This means cooperation, negotiation and compromise—outright rejection of a peace plan at this stage will simply mean more of the same, and shrink the possibility of statehood.

The road to statehood is littered with challenges. The Palestinians are divided between the Islamist rule of Hamas in Gaza and the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It is a requirement of the deal to have a unified Palestinian representation, therefore Hamas will need to go. Much blood would be spilled in this pursuit.

But a break with those who have promised so much yet delivered so little is just for the sake of tomorrow. In the process, let the old cliché of the Palestinians never missing the opportunity to miss an opportunity be resigned to history, too.

Tom Grein is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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