Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

For peace to exist, the right of Palestinians to a fully sovereign state must be recognised

The plan being prepared by the Trump administration looks likely leave out this crucial point

The peace plan drawn up by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, could have catastrophic consequences. AFP / Saul Loeb
The peace plan drawn up by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, could have catastrophic consequences. AFP / Saul Loeb

In recent days there has been a greater sense of what the peace plan being prepared by US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may contain. More importantly, it is also becoming clearer what it may not contain: recognition that Palestinians have the right to a fully sovereign state.

The line heard from Trump administration officials is that their plan will offer something new, because all previous efforts by Washington to mediate a Palestinian-Israeli settlement have failed. For example, this was the gist of comments by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 9.

Revealingly, Mr Pompeo refused to answer questions about what Washington would do if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised before his country’s recent elections. In other words, today the administration is refusing to reaffirm past US policies – namely that the West Bank is occupied territory whose status has to be defined by both Israelis and Palestinians, and that Palestinian statehood must be the outcome of any negotiations.

Mr Kushner seeks to challenge the foundations of Arab-Israeli negotiations since 1991, to the detriment of the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. His plan reportedly envisions giving Palestinians autonomy and allowing them to benefit from billions of dollars in economic aid. As Mr Kushner told Sky News Arabia, his scheme would allow Palestinians and Israelis “to do commerce and to have opportunity and improve their lives”.

This is a reheated variation on the autonomy plan presented by former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in 1979. Palestinians were to have autonomy in parts of the West Bank, but Israel was to retain military control over much of the territory, including the border area with Jordan. The Begin plan sought to extend Israeli law to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, proposing what Mr Netanyahu has vowed to do today.

That this should be the example from which US negotiators borrowed, after years in which Israeli and US officials had recognised the Palestinians’ right to have a state of their own, says a lot about Mr Kushner’s frame of reference. US officials seriously believe that the Palestinians can be bought off with promises of economic assistance and an ability to “do commerce”. Mr Kushner’s adoption of the Israeli position not only shows wilful blindness towards the Palestinians’ minimal demands, it makes it more likely that Palestinians will come to the conclusion that armed conflict is their only way to proceed.

This is where Mr Trump and Mr Kushner, and their facilitators in Washington and Israel, have behaved so recklessly. They have used the pretence of novelty to put forth a plan that will empower one side and alienate the other. It will be very difficult for US officials, now or later, to move away from the Kushner guidelines, effectively solidifying an approach that will bring more mutual hostility and destruction down the road.

Is that Mr Kushner’s thinking? Who knows, but even a novice like him can count. At some stage the number of Palestinians and Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will tilt strongly in the Palestinians’ favour. What does Israel do then? The common mantra is that if Israel expels the Palestinians it will lose its democratic identity. But Mr Netanyahu has allied himself with extremists and would likely not hesitate to take such action if it ensured the survival of a Jewish majority in Israel and the West Bank.

A conspiracy theorist may wonder if that is not intentional. In the event of a new war between Palestinians and Israelis, there is a distinct possibility that this could lead to demographic changes that benefit Israel. That is not to say that Israel will openly expel Palestinians from the West Bank, but it can easily create a security situation in which violence forces Palestinians out of areas to which they will not be allowed to return. If some consider this fanciful, history strongly suggests they shouldn’t. Certainly, the Jordanians are worried about the possibility of a permanent Palestinian exodus into their country.

Moreover, facing a revolt initiated by the Palestinians, Israel would be in a good position to portray its actions as being in self-defence. There are no guarantees whatsoever that any coalition of countries would be able to compel the Israelis to return Palestinians to areas they had left. In fact, everything suggests that were a war to come, the Israelis would see a golden opportunity to turn this to their demographic advantage.

The Israeli historian Benny Morris expressed the implicit logic behind this in a much-publicised interview with Ha’aretz in 2004. Asked about whether David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first leader, had been a “transferist” in seeking the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, he replied: “Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst... It would not be able to exist.” Does Mr Kushner agree, and is his plan designed to create conditions making such an outcome more likely? One can’t help but wonder.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: April 17, 2019 02:03 PM

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