It is normal for parties to international conflicts to start debating the details of peace initiatives once they receive copies of first drafts.
But the case of US President Trump’s new peace plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably a rare one in diplomacy.
The Palestinians rejected it even before Trump’s administration unveiled the details of its so-called “Deal of the Century”, which will expectedly be made public by June.
Al-Ahram Weekly had a chance to speak to Khaled Elgindy who previously served as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009, and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations held throughout 2008.
Elgindy, a Brookings Fellow and author of a new book Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, From Balfour to Trump, believes Trump has “no carrots for the Palestinians, only sticks”.
The Palestinians haven’t seen any US initiative for a long time. Why do you think they are against this deal?
I think it’s fairly clear why the Palestinians have a problem. Forget about the plan; the details of the plan don’t matter because we already know the approach that the administration is taking.
First, they have taken Jerusalem off the table. Second, we know they are trying to redefine the term “Palestinian refugees” to change the status of most of them so they can no longer be considered as refugees, thus taking the refugee issue of the table. They haven’t come out and said clearly that they support an independent, sovereign Palestinian state, or an end to the occupation, which the last three US presidents spoke about. This was the baseline of any peace process based on UN Resolution 242: land for peace, the end of Israel’s occupation, the creation of a Palestinian state, with whatever mutually agreed modifications to the 1967 borders. If we think about Resolution 242, we are talking about almost 52 years of US policy.
So, we know that the Trump administration is not pursuing a plan that is based on the land for peace formula and Resolution 242, because we have already seen the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and we saw what they did in the Golan Heights by recognising Israeli sovereignty.
So, Resolution 242 has gone out of the window. Then there is not really much left for the Palestinians to be excited about. The details of the plan will probably revolve around how big or small the Palestinian autonomous areas are, and how much money they plan to pump into these areas from Arab states or others. It is really a plan that is focused around not ending the occupation, but making the occupation slightly more comfortable for the Palestinians. We don’t hear them talking about ending the occupation, and I think that is the number one problem that any Palestinian leadership will have with this plan.
In a way, it is not really a peace plan, and not a plan in which you listen to both sides, and then try to find ways to satisfy the most basic needs of them. It is really a way to give Israel almost everything it demands, and force the Palestinians to go along. It is not designed to change the status quo, but just to make the status quo more comfortable for everyone by reorganising and redecorating it. A peace plan, as we understand it, is a radical transformation in the status quo that deals directly with the issues that are driving the conflict.
What should the Palestinians expect on autonomy?
We don’t know the details, but it’s clearly not acceptable from a Palestinian standpoint. During the Oslo years, on many different occasions, there was talk about expanding Area A, and changing Area B, and maybe parts of Area C, expanding the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Oslo framework came with the understanding that it was temporary, interim and a steppingstone to sovereignty and independence. If we are talking about permanent autonomy, that is something that is not acceptable to any Palestinian leadership: past, present or future. The details of the plan, again, don’t matter because in a way it is already being implemented unliterally by Israel.
Now they are talking about annexation, which is a very serious possibility, of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That is the direction in which things are moving, and the outcome is dictated by Israeli force and unilateral actions. We have already seen that the US is ready to endorse the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, so the logical next step is to move towards the annexation of parts of the West Bank. I don’t know any analyst who thinks this is a serious peace plan. I can only think of two scholars in Washington who say give this plan a chance. I don’t certainly consider it a serious plan. It’s not like any other peace plan put forward by American presidents, or the Quartet or the international community. It’s not an attempt to solve the conflict, but an attempt to impose the status quo on the weaker side, which is the Palestinians.
In past months we saw US cut funds to UNRWA, financial problems for the PA and other economic challenges for the Palestinians. Will the incentives that will be offered impact the Palestinian position?
This highlights a basic assumption of the Trump administration: they believe they can bring the Palestinians to the table with threats and coercion. No positive incentives to be offered to the Palestinians, only negative incentives. This means there are no carrots, only sticks for the Palestinians.
We will cut off the aid in an attempt to pressure the Palestinians to accept this plan, hoping that if they do, some of this aid will be restored. This is another form of coercion, and I don’t think it will be acceptable to the Palestinian leadership. You can already see what Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi or Mahmoud Abbas himself said about this point. It is already clear that they will not accept a substitute to their political demands and basic dignity and desire for freedom in exchange for economic benefits.
So, I don’t see the Palestinians engaging with the Trump plan at any level, especially at the financial level because that will look to the Palestinian public like being bought off. Abbas is obviously having hard time in trying to keep the PA functioning in the West Bank and is trying to get money from Arab states or the Europeans, or anyone else who is willing to offer support. But I don’t think he is going to accept these threats from the Americans or the Israelis. The Israelis are already withholding the taxes they collect from Palestinians, and they want to turn over only a portion of it. The Palestinians say no, wanting all or nothing. They returned even the portion that Israel transferred. They sent this clear message to both the Israelis and Americans because these are conditions of surrender and capitulation. There is no other way to describe that. There is nothing the US administration has done to show even minimal good faith to the Palestinians.
If the Trump administration says this is what we have on the table now, but more gains for the Palestinians might be made through talks, will this lead the Palestinians to negotiate?
I can’t speak for the Palestinian leadership; they have to speak for themselves. But my sense is that the only scenario I can see the Palestinians engaging is a reversal of all of these destructive policies, on Jerusalem, refugees and aid cuts.
But I don’t expect this to happen because the Trump administration is not going to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv or recognise Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
After long years of stalemate, why do you think Trump is interested in putting a peace deal on the table?
My sense is that, since his presidential campaign, Trump talked about wanting to resolve this very difficult conflict that so many American presidents tried and failed to do. So, Trump sees it as a personal test, but I don’t think he or his team fully understands what resolving the conflict looks like and would require. Every president has decided, at some point, to take on this issue because it doesn’t go away. You can’t make it go away, it keeps coming back, one way or another, and you cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Trump sees himself as the world’s greatest negotiator. This is why he uses grandiose terms like “Deal of the Century”. But Trump and his peace team only understand the concept of winners and losers.
They believe they can impose a solution, then call it peace, and Trump gets credit for that. This is a very naïve vision and things will not work out the way he may be anticipating.
As someone who was active in the Annapolis peace talks, what are some of the major differences between the Bush and Trump administrations on the peace process?
There are many. Bush, like Clinton and Obama, called for ending Israel’s occupation and called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Trump’s approach is not based on any of those things. It’s not just the difference between Trump and Bush, but rather one between Trump and any other American president. At least the rhetoric of Bush was consistent in the sense he opposed the Israeli settlements and tried to get some kind of a settlement freeze, however flawed and problematic.
Clinton and Obama also tried. But the Trump administration is not interested in convincing Israel to do so, and they don’t have a problem with Israeli settlements.
They don’t believe this is occupied territory. In terms of action, I don’t think there is that much of a difference. We have Democratic and Republican presidents who tried to bend the rules of the peace process in Israel’s favour, which I discuss in my book. The Americans have always violated the rules of the peace process that they created.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: ‘No carrots, only sticks’ for the Palestinians.