What Happened?

After three years of hesitation, President Donald Trump has finally pulled back the curtain on his so-called “Deal of the Century” between Palestinians and Israelis. This comes in the midst of the third Israeli election in a year, Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, and the start of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

While the details of the 80-page “peace plan” need to be examined carefully, the general outline is clear: support for longstanding Israeli positions, including Israeli control of an undivided Jerusalem, the retention of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the inclusion of the Jordan Valley into Israel. While the plan talks of the possibility of a Palestinian state in the remaining parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the conditions imposed by the Trump administration for such a reduced state make it impossible for any Palestinian leadership to accept. Indeed, the Palestinians were not consulted about the plan, and they have already made it clear in very strong terms that it is a non-starter from their perspective.


Why Does it Matter?

Why did the Trump administration put out a peace plan it knew one side would reject immediately? The timing of its announcement cannot be divorced from the surrounding politics in Israel and the United States.

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing indictment and fighting for his political life, the U.S. plan offers him a golden opportunity to change the subject. With an election campaign underway, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz and his party are in a difficult position and will find it hard to oppose steps by Netanyahu to implement parts of Trump’s plan unilaterally. But the situation is not without risks for Netanyahu as well, as small parties to his right that he needs to retain power are unhappy that Trump’s plan leaves open the possibility of a Palestinian state in the future. Netanyahu may be counting on the Palestinians to react badly and generate a further shift rightward in Israel before the March elections.

In the United States the plan also offers Trump the opportunity to change the subject from his impeachment trial. Further unconditional support for Israel could also benefit Trump with Christian evangelical voters in the election later this year.


What Are the Implications for the Future?

The implications for peace between Israelis and Palestinians are quite severe. If Israel now moves to extend its sovereignty unilaterally over the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank, the last fleeting hopes for a two-state solution will finally be extinguished. Annexation would mark a point of no return. It is inconceivable that any future political configuration in Israel would undo it, and it is equally inconceivable that Palestinian society would ever accept it. Thus, Israelis and Palestinians would be locked into conflict for the foreseeable future.

While many Israelis believe the country is strong enough to endure whatever reaction may come from the Palestinians, the negative implications for Israel extend well beyond that. The lack of hope for peace will be corrosive for Israel’s international relations with Europe, with the Arab world, and eventually with the United States and the American Jewish community. Israel cannot indefinitely dominate and disenfranchise a population of several million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza without undermining its standing globally and eroding its democratic system at home. How this will play out over the coming years is uncertain, but the risks for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state are great.

For the Palestinians, the implications are also grave. We can expect the Palestinian leadership to lobby the international community for support, but this won’t change the situation on the ground. The Palestinian Authority (PA) may sever security coordination with Israel, but this will only cause Israel’s security forces to become more active themselves in the West Bank, further undermining the PA’s weak standing. The final demise of the two-state solution could also fatally damage the political legitimacy of the current Palestinian leadership, which built its pursuit of Palestinian national aspirations around the concept of a negotiated outcome with Israel. Whichever new Palestinian leadership eventually emerges, it will likely be far less inclined to embrace the idea of peace than the current leadership.