The “deal of the century” has come a long way since its first use as a throw-away campaign gambit by a US presidential candidate, or as a means to criticise and ridicule that aspirant to the White House. At last it has become an official “conception” under the heading “The American Plan for Peace in the Middle East” and the “opportunity of the century”, at least according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This now fully-fledged US project inspired former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to write an article for Foreign Affairs with the title, “Disaster in the Desert: Why Trump’s Middle East Plan Can’t Work.”
Little was known about the “deal” when the Indyk article appeared in the magazine’s 15 October edition. Analysts had to piece together official preludes, leaks here and there, and snatches of overheard conversations in order to portray either castles in the sand or looming catastrophe. As it turned out, the project in its completed form echoed many of the speculations that had been bandied about in cyberspace and fleshed them out. But Indyk, in his article, had put his finger on the crux of the US project that was unveiled in Washington on 28 January in the presence of the Israeli prime minister. Not a single Palestinian or other Arab representative was on hand. One was reminded of the Egyptian saying many decades ago regarding the negotiations to end the British occupation of Egypt: they were about “George V talking with George V.” Under such conditions, when there are no real negotiations, the focus turns to how the absent party will react. But before turning to that, let’s begin with the following excerpt from the Indyk article.
“In July 2019, Jason Greenblatt, then US President Donald Trump’s envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, attended a routine quarterly UN Security Council meeting about the Middle East. Providing an update on the Trump administration’s thinking about the peace process, he pointedly told the surprised audience that the United States no longer respected the ‘fiction’ of an international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“Greenblatt went out of his way to attack not some extreme or obscure measure but UN Security Council Resolution 242, the foundation of half a century of Arab-Israeli negotiations and of every agreement Israel has achieved within them, including the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. He railed against its ambiguous wording, which has shielded Israel for decades against Arab demands for a full withdrawal from occupied territory, as ‘tired rhetoric designed to prevent progress and bypass direct negotiations’ and claimed that it had hurt rather than helped the chances for real peace in the region.
“The indignation was calculated. Guided by his boss Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on the Middle East, Greenblatt was trying to change the conversation, to ‘start a new, realistic discussion’ of the subject. UN resolutions, international law, global consensus — all that was irrelevant. From now on, Washington would no longer advocate a two-state solution to the conflict, with independent Jewish and Palestinian states living alongside each other in peace and security.
“Greenblatt’s presentation was part of a broader campaign by the Trump administration to break with the past and create a new Middle Eastern order. To please a president who likes simple, cost-free answers, the administration’s strategists appear to have come up with a clever plan.”
In sum, the plan took everything the Arab-Israel peace process has been based on since Resolution 242 and tossed it in the dustbin of history. This includes its subsequent interpretations in the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks in Camp David in 1978, the Madrid Peace Conference and even the Oslo Accords, the outcome of direct talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, and that seemed an extension of the UN partition resolution of 1947, albeit modified to take into account changes resulting from subsequent Arab-Israeli wars. Now, according to the plan, the present and the future are to be based on new foundations. A new adversary is to supersede the old Arab-Israeli enmity. It is Iran that is wreaking havoc in the region. No Arab country, including Palestine, has been spared the effects of Islamist radicalism, its terrorist manifestations and their consequences in the form of refugees fleeing violence and civil warfare. The Trump plan, or “deal”, proceeds from the premise that the Palestinian-Israeli question should be placed in perspective amidst everything that has happened in the region during the past two decades, including chapters that have surpassed the “Arab Spring” in violence, war and revolution.
The Palestinian reaction was anticipatable: burning flags and photos. The “deal” gave the Palestinians another four years of waiting after which the time will come to talk again, taking into account the “interests” accumulated over time.
The Arab anger at the “deal” is understandable. Even in the US and in Israel a large body opinion believes that it puts peace on hold, giving violence and radicalism more time to reap the fruits of trading in the Palestinian cause. The American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, stressed that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about a land and a people under occupation and that the Trump plan does nothing to address this. Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential candidate, recalled the two-state solution and relevant laws and resolutions. The rest of the Washington community in the liberal and resolutely anti-Trump think tanks together with the EU made similar comments. None of them are US presidents. Nor do any of them possess the key to the basic law of the Arab-Israeli conflict, namely creating de facto realities. Unfortunately, Israel has succeeded in creating many of these: a society, a state, a culture, a robust economy based on advanced technology. Recently, Israel has also become a petroleum country by dint of offshore fields of natural gas and — who knows? — may be oil as well. The only de facto reality that the Arabs can claim is that the Palestinians are still present on the land. There are more than six million of them, including 1.7 million Palestinians inside what used to be known as the “Green Line”.
How should the Arabs handle the US peace plan, or the Trump deal, which has departed so radically from the terms and principles that have been accepted for decades?
We could do as before: reject it and threaten intifada or even “revolutionary” action. The pros and cons of this would have to be carefully weighed. Of course, it is also the reaction the Israelis and international community expect.
Alternatively, we could think about how to take advantage of the one Arab de facto reality — the continued Palestinian presence in Palestine — and incorporate that in a counter proposal. Simply put, we should not behave as the Israelis, or more precisely, the Israeli and US right, expect us to.
We have a choice. Either we can look at the US administration’s deal as the end of the world or we can see it as a new beginning for the creation of realities on the ground, realities that favour Palestinians.
Ultimately, what we have is just a list of points for negotiation and for exploring avenues to a genuine peace for the Arabs and for the Israelis, too.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.