Why does Israel fear the Trump deal?

Saeed Okasha , Friday 21 Jun 2019

Despite cosy relations between the US and Israel, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” might have a few shocks in store for Tel Aviv

Trump and Netanyahu
File photo: US President Donald Trump (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017 (Reuters)

None of the parties targeted by the US peace plan known as the “Deal of the Century” knows its details. Yet, given that the Palestinians have officially rejected the plan (without clarifying whether or not they had more specific knowledge about its substance), it would have seemed logical for Israel and its supporters in the US to welcome it.

The opposite appears to be the case. Commentaries in the Israeli media suggest that the deal will not be to Israel’s liking and could cause Israel problems if passed up. The following sums up the main concerns.

Payback For Trump’s Gifts: As triumphant as the Israeli prime minister sounded after Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, many Israeli commentators have observed that these two gestures would not come without a price.

Trump made it clear that recognition of Jerusalem did not extend to the borders of the city and that the issue would be left to Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

In addition, the US might be prepared to recognise in advance the borders in which a Palestinian state might emerge, which would deprive Israel of the monopoly it has claimed on the right to define what it regards as its safe borders.

The Impact On Domestic Political Stability: The general elections in April failed to produce a new government because of divides in the right-wing camp led by Binyamin Netanyahu. 

As a result, the Knesset was forced to dissolve itself and call for new elections in September. This means that the first portion of the “Deal of the Century” — the economic segment, which is to be addressed in a workshop in Bahrain at the end of this month — comes at a time when a caretaker government is in power in Israel.

A representative of such a government would not have the full political competence to deal with a plan of the magnitude of the “Deal of the Century” which seeks to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Reports have circulated in Israel of an intent to send a delegation to Manama headed only at the level of the economy minister.

Such a low-level participation begs the question as to why Israel would not capitalise on the opportunity to drive home its success at expanding the scope of its official normalisation with Arab countries by sending a large top-level delegation headed by Netanyahu.

The likely answer is to be found in Israeli worries that the deal will contain points that could precipitate even sharper rifts in the already fractured right Netanyahu is trying to shore up ahead of September.

For example, Netanyahu may fear that the US proposal contains reference to the recognition of a Palestinian state, a principle that extremist right-wing parties reject out of hand.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s envoy who has been working with others to formulate the deal, has expressed concerns that Israel might declare its sovereignty over the West Bank or large portions of it before the US unveils its peace initiative.

Clearly, Israel fears the deal will lead to recognition of the borders of a “Palestinian homeland”, whether such an entity remained at the pre-state level or evolved into a sovereign state in the future.

The Spectre Of Sanctions: In May, in a report on some leaked features of the Trump administration’s plan, the Israeli newspaper Hayom suggested the possibility that Israel might be subject to US sanctions if it rejects the deal. 

A “policy analysis” appearing on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s website in May warns “Kushner’s peace plan would be a disaster.” The author, Robert Satloff, executive director of the institute and an ardent Netanyahu supporter, urges the Israeli prime minister to “come to his senses” and “scuttle the ‘Deal of the Century’”, albeit without sacrificing Israel’s good relations with the Trump administration.

Israeli Reluctance On Manama: Israeli official statements have barely alluded to the “workshop” that Washington has organised in Manama on 25 June and to which it has invited Israel, several Arab states, civil society organisations and businessmen.

Although Trump’s envoys, Kushner and Greenblatt, have stressed that the purpose of this forum, which they described as the first phase of the “Deal of the Century”, is to discuss how to mobilise economic support for the Palestinians, this does not mean that the deal will not have a political dimension.

“To those falsely claiming our vision is just economic peace: we’ve been clear that the economic vision we present can’t exist without the political component, and the political component can’t succeed without the economic,” tweeted Greenblatt in May.

Reverse Engineering Zionism

Just as the Zionist movement, when it began in the late 19th century, did not openly declare that its goal was a state but rather a “homeland”, Trump appears to be engineering a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the same way: the eventual creation of a Palestinian state through the establishment of an internationally recognised Palestinian national homeland.

The problem with this approach is that the Palestinians have already passed through this phase by virtue of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which deferred declaration of a state for a five-year period until the two sides agreed on final status issues (borders, security arrangements, Palestinian refugees and the status of East Jerusalem). So, does the Trump plan offer anything new?

Since Trump believes in deals rather than negotiations, it follows he would discard all international and US resolutions and agreements evolved over the years for handling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

He simultaneously makes it clear that he will brook no objection from either side based on past frames-of-reference. He would also hold that his plan will make a difference because, unlike Oslo, it does not divide the political solution into two stages (the first in 1994 and the second in 1999) and it offers much larger economic pledges than those offered in Oslo.

Also, it will not leave the question of final borders between what Kushner called the “New Palestine” and Israel to negotiations. These are to be set out clearly, in contrast to Oslo which cited frames-of-reference for negotiations subject to interpretation.

The Trump plan is more concerned with the concept of “Palestinian sovereignty” than it is with a chronological framework for the actual establishment of a Palestinian state.

As for the concept of sovereignty, the Trump deal will speak of borders in which the Palestinians have the right to raise their national flag, while security arrangements with Israel will establish the boundaries of the powers of the Palestinian agency that signs the deal.

If the Palestinian entity is not immediately officially recognised as a sovereign state, this delay will make the economic portion of the deal and the behaviour of the Palestinian agency that agrees to it the prime determinants of the amount of time it will take for that entity to move from “national homeland” to “state”.

The approach of Trump and his team has alarmed all parties concerned. This certainly applies to the Palestinian side.

The Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions have rejected the deal in advance. How will the Trump team deal with this situation?How will the Manama workshop affect the future of Palestinian-Arab relations? And what practical options do the Palestinians have in the face of domestic, regional and international pressures? 

A not insignificant portion of the Palestinian people have made it clear they would prefer to respond to the Trump plan only after learning its details.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Why does  Israel fear  the Trump deal?

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