When US President Donald Trump announced last week that he will unveil his plan for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, known as the “Deal of the Century”, it was important to recall public denouncements of the plan by the Palestinians. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in statements after Trump’s announcement: “Once again, we reiterate our rejection of US decisions on Jerusalem and recognising it as the capital of Israel. There are also a series of US decisions that contradict international law.” Abu Rudeineh continued: “We reiterate our position demanding an end of Israeli occupation of the territories of the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
These statements mean that the Palestinian Authority (PA) knew the details of the deal, and it may have directly told Trump that it will not agree to an independent Palestinian state at any price. Also, that the PA insists on rejecting the deal because it gives Israel sovereignty over many areas in the West Bank and most of East Jerusalem. Trump revealed that the Palestinians were aware of the details of the deal when he was asked if there was communication between his administration and the Palestinians, who had previously announced their refusal. Trump vaguely said: “We spoke to them briefly.” He did not give much more detail, but added: “I am confident they will at first respond negatively, but [the plan] is actually very good for them.”
The deal is clearly in Israel’s favour, it included recognition by the US of Jerusalem as “Israel’s undivided capital,” as noted by Trump during the announcement of the deal on Tuesday, without negotiating with Palestinians about the demarcation of Palestinian presence in the eastern sector of the city. The deal also asserted the legitimacy of Israel keeping Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Trump knows that Palestinian rejection of the deal, since they have frequently stated this, is understandable because they will have to give up a large part of their narrow dream: a small state within the borders of 4 June 1967. Their leadership will not have the courage to promote the deal to the Palestinian people or the left-wing and religious hawks in the Arab world. What is not understandable for Trump is why Israel could object or at least show disapproval of a deal that gives them a unified Jerusalem and sovereignty over settlements. The deal also gives them extensive security arrangements on the border with the future Palestinian state.
That is why Trump invited Binyamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the leader of Kahol Lavan Party, to come to the White House before announcing he will soon unveil his proposal. Trump understands that the two leaders are competing for votes in the elections slated for early March by outbidding each other about the decisions they will take on Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley if they win. Gantz and Netanyahu agree on several issues, including unification of Jerusalem and unwillingness to discuss the status of the city or fate of its Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem during settlement talks with the Palestinians.
However, statements by Gantz and Netanyahu also highlight their differences. For example, Gantz disagrees with Netanyahu about the future of the West Bank. He does not want to declare sovereignty over any part of the West Bank because it would violate international law. Gantz also believes in a two-state solution, while Netanyahu wants to derail any attempt at a two-state solution out of fear he will lose the support of right-wing radicals. But Netanyahu is also worried about openly rejecting a two-state solution because that would upset Trump.
Netanyahu wants to pre-empt any pressure by the US preventing him from annexing the Jordan Valley region, which is protected by international law, and hints he will ask for a joint defence agreement with Washington if Trump insists on blocking him from annexing the valley. Trump’s invitation to Gantz and Netanyahu was an attempt to use them to push through the deal in Israel by making each of them a source of pressure on the other.
It is certain that Netanyahu hopes the Palestinians will continue to dig in their heels against the deal because it will benefit him. First, it would maintain the cohesiveness of the right-wing front in Israel which mostly rejects a two-state solution. Second, Israel would be able to stand up to the Europeans who accuse it of obstructing peace, since Palestinian rejection of the deal will be evidence that Palestinians, not Israelis, are the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Third, Palestinian rejection of the deal will quiet down the voices of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement which is hounding Israel and trying to strip it of its legitimacy. BDS accuses Israel of practices on a par with crimes against humanity.
Fourth, Palestinian refusal gives Israel an excuse and begs US support for declaring sovereignty over territories where settlements are located in the West Bank.
Fifth, it will confirm that Netanyahu’s approach of ignoring international law is the correct course, unlike Gantz’s mistake of thinking that upholding international law is in the interest of Israel. This would give Netanyahu a substantial advantage at the polls against his top opponent, Gantz.
As for Trump, his Democratic rivals believe he chose this timing to talk about the deal to distract from his impeachment trial. But that doesn’t necessarily ring true. The domestic front in the US will remain focused on impeachment and no other issue will distract from this. In fact, Trump may take advantage of Palestinian rejection to attack and accuse them of wasting an opportunity to achieve peace, which would guarantee him the support of the Jewish and Christian lobbies in the US against attempts by Democrats to remove him from power.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.