They say diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in a way that they look forward to the trip. That’s exactly how the Palestinians should respond to President Trump’s Middle East peace plan, bucking the mainstream consensus that the “deal of the century” is dead on arrival.
There are so many elements of Trump’s proposed peace plan that are not only objectionable to the Palestinians but outrageous. They range from:
- Allowing Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and all its settlements. This would create a permanent eastern border for Israel along the Jordan River and a gerrymandered, disjointed state for the Palestinians connected by bridges and tunnels and surrounded by Israeli territory.
- Guaranteeing Trump’s previous recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital while offering Palestinians a capital on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.
- Ignoring the basic rights of Palestinians to live in a viable state — territorially, economically and in control of its own security, borders, airspace and ports.
- Permitting Palestinians to establish a demilitarized state and after a four-year waiting period, during which time a number of conditions have to be met. These include the disarming of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza — a task that Israel with all its military might has failed to accomplish.
- Refusing the so-called “right of return” of any Palestinian refugees to Israel, and resettling refugees only in a future Palestinian state or third countries.
- Ignoring the right of all Palestinian refugees to be repatriated and, for those who choose and are able to stay in the countries where they are currently residing, to be appropriately compensated.
- Ignoring international law, including the Geneva Conventions, as well as the Oslo Accords and past U.N. resolutions.
Instead of being continuously outraged and incensed, however, Palestinians are better served by presenting a counterproposal of what would be an acceptable offer to them.
Possible Palestinian Counterproposal
The Palestinian counterproposal could include the following components:
- Negotiations between Israel and Palestine are to be based on the 1967 borders with mutually acceptable modifications.
- Palestinians could be open to Israel’s annexation of Israeli settlements adjacent to Israel’s borders of 1967 in return for acceptable Israeli territories of equal size and geographic importance.
- Settlements deep inside the West Bank would have to be evacuated — not dismantled — so that they may be used for returning Palestinian refugees.
- Appropriate compensation and reparations are to be paid to the Palestinians primarily by Israel, the United States and Britain.
- An international “Palestine Trust Fund” is to be established for funds collected from all donors, those listed above and others, to help build a modern Palestinian state, compensate and repatriate all Palestinian refugees. (Trump has proposed a $50 billion plan to develop a future Palestinian state and provide 1 million new jobs over 10 years, although it offers no specifics on how to induce international donors to fund the plan.)
- Security — internal and external — is of paramount importance to both Israel and Palestine. There would be comprehensive security cooperation between Israel and Palestine within their respective borders and in cooperation with the neighboring countries of Jordan and Egypt.
- International monitors would be allowed to be stationed in the State of Palestine in various locations and along its borders to ensure compliance with agreed-upon security arrangements. Such international monitors will be authorized by the United Nations as long as their presence is warranted and mutually agreed upon.
- The State of Palestine will agree to be a demilitarized state. Its security forces will be used to maintain internal order, control and secure its border, airspace and coastline.
- Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails for any politically related reason would be released upon the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. Israel and Palestine, in turn, would have the right to ban whomever they want from entering their state in the future.
- Palestine will have complete control of all of its natural resources, such as water, land, oil and gas. Palestine would be party to a regional cooperation council that includes Israel, Jordan and Egypt to coordinate the exploration of natural resources on land and offshore.
- Jerusalem will be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian village of Abu Dis will be linked to the Old City of Jerusalem, providing Palestinians with access to the Old City and East Jerusalem, where Palestinians would have a religious, administrative and political presence.
- The Muslim holy places will continue their custodianship under Jordan, while the Christian holy places will be overseen by a new custodial council made up of representatives of the Vatican, Palestine, Jordan, Russia, Greece and the Armenian, Coptic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. Jews will have unhindered access to the Jewish holy places in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. No one will be denied access to the holy places per the existing status quo arrangements.
- No expropriation of Palestinian lands or expansion or building of new settlements will be allowed from this date forward. The only building allowed in settlements will be the completion of existing semi-built structures. No building will be allowed in settlements deemed “illegal” or without license by current Israeli law. (Under Trump’s peace plan, Israel would agree to a four-year “land freeze,” during which time it would limit settlement construction while Palestinian leaders consider the proposal.)
- A cooling-off period will be provided to both sides to study the Trump peace plan and the Palestinian counteroffer until Nov. 15, 2020. Shortly thereafter, final status negotiations will begin and both sides will have until Dec. 31, 2023, to complete those negotiations and agree on all the terms of the final peace agreement.
- All outstanding issues that reach a point of impasse will be decided by a panel of five mediators — two selected by Israel, two selected by Palestine and one selected by both sides. The panel will be established by Nov. 15, 2020, and its mandate will end by Dec. 31, 2023.
These are the highlights of what a Palestinian counteroffer could in theory look like. Many points — in particular, only making modest adjustments to pre-1967 borders to ensure a contiguous Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital — have been reiterated in past peace proposals supported by the international community and the U.S.
Consequences of Palestinian Refusal to Present a Counteroffer
Trump has said his plan is a “historic opportunity” for the Palestinians to achieve an independent state and that after 70 years of little progress, “this could be the last opportunity they will ever have.”
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the main architect of the plan, urged the Palestinian leadership to “stop posturing” and come to the table, telling CNN that, “It’s a big opportunity for the Palestinians, and they have a perfect track record of blowing every opportunity they’ve had in their past.”
As widely predicted, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas immediately rejected Trump’s peace plan, dismissing it as the “slap of the century.” Some observers speculate the plan was designed to be so tilted in favor of Israel that the Palestinians had little choice but to reject it, allowing the Trump administration to blame them for walking away.
That is exactly why the Palestinians should present a counteroffer or proposal of their own. The consequences of not doing so could be profound.
Currently Israel is in full physical control of all of historic Palestine. Abbas cannot go from Ramallah to Bethlehem without “coordinating” his travels with the Israelis. Essentially, Israel exercises unfettered control from the river (Jordan) to the sea (Mediterranean).
Israel has the upper hand militarily to do whatever it wants in the West Bank and, to an extent, in the Gaza Strip. If it chooses to expand a settlement, it can. If it chooses to confiscate a Palestinian piece of land, it can. If it chooses to impose a curfew in any area, it can. If it chooses to cut off one area in the West Bank from another, it can. What can the Palestinian Authority do in response? Nothing. It is powerless.
If the Palestinians do not present a counteroffer, it will be construed as “the thousand no’s” that characterized Abbas’s initial response to Trump’s peace plan. That is all the pretext Israel needs to annex whatever settlements they want in the West Bank. They can proceed with their plan to annex the Jordan Valley as well.
Israel already annexed East Jerusalem. What were the Palestinians able to do to stop them? Nothing.
If Israel proceeds with these new annexations, it can create facts on the ground that might, over time, become irreversible. Is the current Palestinian leadership willing to take that chance?
Moreover, as long as Trump is president, Israel is protected from any adverse U.N. Security Council resolutions, even those that have had U.S. support under previous administrations. Already, Abbas’s attempt to push a Palestinian resolution at the United Nations condemning Trump’s peace plan has been watered down and postponed — a victory for the administration’s efforts to scuttle the resolution. (Abbas has said he is willing to negotiate with Israel directly but not with the U.S. as the sole mediator and not based on Trump’s peace plan.)
The Palestinians can emphatically reject Trump’s initiative but the smart thing to do is to offer an alternative so that it is viewed by allies as a constructive move toward a resolution of the conflict. Presumably, such a counteroffer will force Israel not to implement its threats to annex the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in the West Bank because the United States has invited the Palestinians to present a counteroffer (and signaled that it’s open to making changes to the plan if Palestinians come to the table).
From a Machiavellian perspective, the success of Trump’s peace proposal hinges on the Palestinians’ refusal to accept that proposal but, more importantly, their refusal to submit a counterproposal. Imagine what would happen to Israel’s political landscape if the Palestinians submit a counterproposal that would force Israel to sit down and negotiate over the new terms. Israeli infighting could easily scuttle any prospects for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form an annexationist right-wing government.
Israel would come under immense pressure not only from the Europeans, Russia and the U.N., but also from the United States to avoid taking any action before considering the Palestinian counteroffer. This could potentially lead to serious negotiations that would break the decades-long impasse, which is ostensibly the Trump administration’s goal.
In his deep desire to go down in history as a peacemaker, and possibly win a Nobel Peace Prize, Trump might be forced to lean heavily on the Israelis to compromise to make a peace agreement work. That would clearly be in the Palestinians’ favor.
If the Israelis refused, the world, including quite possibly the United States, would point the finger at them for their intransigence. And the United States will be put in a position not to support Israel’s annexation of any settlements, let alone the Jordan Valley.
About the Author
Bishara A. Bahbah was editor-in-chief of Al-Fajr, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper, and served as a member of the Palestinian delegation to multilateral peace talks. In addition, he was a professor at Bethlehem and Al-Quds Universities, and he taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate director of its Middle East Initiative.