American efforts to take Jerusalem and refugee status off the table will savage Palestinians' rights to negotiate their own future
The winners and losers in Washington's new plan for Palestinians
It’s still not clear what the Trump administration’s strategy to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – the so-called “deal of the century” – will be. However, if one looks at what US officials involved in the effort have recently said, it would seem to be based on two pillars and possibly a third that remains more ambiguous.
The first pillar is that the United States is sponsoring a plan that would deny Palestinians any margin of manoeuvre by strong-arming them into an Arab consensus. According to Al-Hayat last week, Jason Greenblatt, the US envoy to the peace process, recently told European diplomats based in Jerusalem that Washington’s plan was almost ready. When asked about what would happen if the Palestinians rejected, it, he reportedly responded that they would not be a decider on the issue. Because the plan was a regional one, the Palestinians would be part of an agreement but would not decide on the outcome; the region would.
This Arab-centric approach seemed to echo unconfirmed reports in early December that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had heard from officials in the region of a peace plan that would give Palestinians much less than they had demanded. The alleged plan included non-contiguous parts of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, limited sovereignty, maintenance of most Israeli settlements and no right of return for Palestinian refugees. The White House said that was not the plan while Saudi Arabia denied it entirely. The Saudis have since reiterated their commitment to Palestinian rights.
However, Mr Greenblatt’s comments to the Europeans came much more recently, appearing to confirm American intentions of neutralising Palestinian displeasure by mobilising Arab backing. His statements reflected an American desire to compel the Palestinians to approve an agreement that possibly harmed their interests, regardless of whether it made a lasting settlement with Israel more improbable.
As a part of this, the Trump administration clearly has a second pillar in its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, namely to take both Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue “off the table”. Jerusalem was purportedly resolved when the administration recognised the city as Israel’s capital, without also recognising it as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The administration’s main objective with regard to refugees is to dismantle the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency, or UNRWA. Mr Greenblatt allegedly told the Europeans that Washington sought to end the work of UNRWA, since it was not possible for the agency to go on forever. Rather, it was necessary to set a time limit for UNRWA, he said, since younger generations of Palestinians who were born elsewhere could not be considered refugees.
Mr Greenblatt was effectively telling Israel that if it prolonged the refugee problem it had created long enough, at some stage it would simply go away. But his was a novel interpretation of what it means to be a refugee. International law does not distinguish between generations in its definition of refugees. The children of those directly dispossessed are no less eligible than their parents to enjoying a restoration of their rights. Nor do refugee rights, enshrined in international law, fall because one state petulantly decides it must be so.
The third pillar of American policy is more ambiguous. It hasn’t been expressed but if one puts together the first and second pillars, the results lead to it: the US may work to impose recognition that there is a clear winner and loser in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The new reality faced by Palestinians today might force them to admit that they lost against Israel and that the only realistic outcome is for them to adapt to the consequences of this admission.
For now, this view is associated with a small corner of the pro-Israel firmament in the US, namely the Middle East Forum founded by Daniel Pipes. However, some Republican members of the US Congress have formed an Israel Victory Caucus to advance the idea.
American efforts to ensure that Palestinians no longer have rights in negotiations over their own future, even as two of their sacred issues, Jerusalem and refugees, are undermined, indicate it might not remain a fringe view for very long. Palestinians might find that they cannot demand anything because they have lost everything.
The immorality of US President Donald Trump and Mr Greenblatt will come up against regional realities that have defeated more substantial figures. But Palestinians have to be careful. There is talk among them today of withdrawing recognition of Israel. That would be foolish. Their only salvation lies in remaining within an international consensus and not ceding that card to Israel. Plus, they must realise that nothing done in Washington will resolve Israel’s central dilemma: It cannot make the millions of angry Palestinians over whom it rules disappear.
Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut