Trump's Middle East peace plan helps Benjamin Netanyahu — but hurts Israel

Although the agreement grants Israel its wish list, it could sow the seeds for future conflict, bitterness and isolation of the country.
Image: President Trump Meets With Israeli PM Netanyahu At The White House
President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil, professor of U.S. and the world in Clemson University’s history department

The United States’ new Middle East peace plan unveiled Tuesday is indeed “the deal of the century” as the Trump administration touted it — if you’re embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His equally embattled friend, President Donald Trump, offered him a lifeline by presenting a plan that delivered on nearly every one of Israel’s longstanding negotiating dreams. It’s as if Netanyahu’s rich grandpa decided that instead of picking an item from his wedding registry, he would buy him the entire list.

While that might be ideal for the just-married, the proverbial kitchen utensils in this case happen to be toxic. Although many conditions of the deal appear to offer Israel a series of wins in return for little or no concessions, they could sow the seeds for future decades of conflict, bitterness and isolation for Israel in the international community.

Those moves are so inflammatory for Palestinians and illegitimate in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, they could encourage Israel’s further alienation.

The formal plan calls for Israel to keep a large landmass in the contested West Bank and deny Palestinians a number of traditional negotiating points. And perhaps more important was the verbal messaging that David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, conveyed afterward: As far as the United States is concerned, the Israeli government could immediately move forward on annexing a massive chunk of the West Bank.

Why is this a problem for Israel? Because it whiffs on a historic opportunity to stanch Israel’s rightward shift and return it to moderation and restraint. And because those moves are so inflammatory for Palestinians and illegitimate in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, they could encourage Israel’s further alienation from the international community.

The peace deal — if it had been dangled as a goal for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians rather than presented as a fait accompli — might have pushed Netanyahu to form a national unity government with the large party on his left in order not to miss the opportunity for Israel to get the best deal it will ever see. But in allowing Israel to take unilateral steps at the onset of the deal, that incentive is off the table.

Netanyahu comes away with a diplomatic win in advance of elections, strengthening his position despite being under indictment on corruption allegations and having failed to secure a mandate in two previous rounds of elections within the past year. The announced deal sacrifices a possible moment of national consensus to further the prime minister’s political prospects.

This shift to the right would increase the likelihood that Israel will have narrowly constructed coalitions going forward that would be even more volatile and prone to early collapse. At the same time, while Israeli voters may support a rightward turn and push for more aggressive steps, the government remains reliant on reasonable relations with other members of the international community — members who have made it clear that they oppose the measures that Netanyahu is set to pursue, such as annexation. They might seek to distance themselves from the actions of a hard-right government and even give tacit support to the movement pushing for boycotting, divesting from and imposing sanctions on Israel.

In fact, the second risk the peace plan presents to Israel is its implications for Israel on the international stage — including within the United States. For years, support for Israel was a broadly bipartisan issue in Washington, with minimal differentiation between the parties. Throughout the past decade, the consensus has been chipped away, and Israel is increasingly being radicalized into yet another wedge issue to score political points. The partisanship increased during the second term of the Obama administration, and it exploded in the early years of the Trump administration after Trump made support for Israel a major election theme.

That means that once the Republican Party loses the White House, the well for Israel might be poisoned. A Democratic-run Oval Office would likely seek differentiation from its predecessor’s policies, and the more the Trump administration is seen as biased toward Israel, the greater the likelihood the pendulum will swing back.

And what of the Palestinians? The deal of the century for Israel disincentivizes them from taking any meaningful steps toward peace because it strips them of many of their key negotiating positions. The deal would preclude discussion of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel, ensuring return only to the Palestinian state. The deal would also limit the possibility for a contiguous Palestinian state and give Israel the contested Jordan Valley separating the West Bank from Jordan, denying Palestinians a land crossing that would connect with Jordan’s large Palestinian population and the broader world.

The map of the Trump administration's peace proposal.

The deal forces Palestinian leaders to make a choice, with none of the options particularly good for Israel. They could decide to accept a plan that offers them almost none of their requests and enables Israel to annex 30 percent of the West Bank before the talks even begin. In exchange, they would receive massive financial assistance.

Or Palestinians, reading the tea leaves, can wait for the anti-Trump backlash in the United States and among the international community, using the counterreaction to push for much better terms in any future peace proposal. And last, the Palestinian leadership could turn away from the table altogether and seek to push for their goals through a return to violence.

None of those outcomes would be better for Israel in the long run. It is better to have a negotiating partner, however imperfect, than to see a return to violence. And any deal that encourages one party not to even enter talks or to believe that it could get more out of waiting than out of talking should be viewed with trepidation by both sides, even the one that stands to benefit from the imbalance.

A lack of communication will preclude an ability to resolve any future challenges through mutual agreement. Even worse, increasing rather than decreasing tensions and perceptions of imbalance threatens the ability to ultimately achieve the peaceful resolution that any deal purportedly seeks.