Daniel Levy: Don't Call It a Peace Plan

January 31, 2020 – From the mid-1990s to the early noughties, much of my professional life was spent in a rather niche pursuit that came flooding back to me with yesterday’s release of President Trump’s “Peace Vision.”

The drafting of Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements became my thing—sometimes in uniform serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), sometimes as a concerned citizen in informal and often clandestine talks, and sometimes as an adviser in the offices of the Israeli prime minister and then justice minister during official negotiations.

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I was a negotiator at the agenda-setting Oslo B agreements under Yitzhak Rabin; submitted texts from afar to Clinton’s Camp David Summit with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak; and then joined the follow-up talks between Israelis and Palestinians, in Taba in January 2001. I have participated in numerous track-two Israeli-Palestinian talks before becoming a lead drafter of the unauthorized Geneva Accord plan in December 2003. The picture of that signing ceremony of Israelis and Palestinians seeking a new way forward still hangs in my study.

Some of those texts saw the light of day and some were even signed with great pomp and ceremony in the presence of world leaders. None, of course, led to anything approaching peace.

In the intervening and often gloomy years of entrenched conflict and occupation, I often questioned the wisdom of what we had attempted. Those memories and uncertainties hit me like a punch to the gut when reading the lengthy White House plan issued Tuesday: “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People.”

Had these talks after all been an exercise in softening the Palestinians, prematurely extracting concessions based on the ultimately dashed premise that an Israeli partner would emerge? In its outward appearance, the plan had such a familiar feel to it, like returning to a place of one’s childhood. But as I absorbed the words, nostalgia gave way to a feeling of having entered a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland. The language of peace had been cut and pasted, then put through a grinder, delivering an act of aggression dripping with the coarse syntax of racism. A hate plan, not a peace plan.

Here are ten ways in which the document released on Tuesday is a relentless assault on the very idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace:

1. Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Peace Plans

Terms of surrender and peace plans are not the same thing. But even terms of surrender have more chance of being durable if they are constructed in such a way as to maintain a semblance of dignity of the defeated party.

A peace plan has to be predicated on both sides saving face, on both sides being able to declare some kind of victory. The plan announced is a 180-page hate letter from the Americans (and by extension the Israelis) to the Palestinians. Until one reads the entire document (and unless one knows the history of the conflict), it is hard to convey the depth of contempt and scorn this text displays toward Palestinians. It oozes colonialist supremacism.

The text is drawn from the most unsophisticated and patronizing of Israeli PR talking points, an exclusivist narrative from start to finish. Only the Israeli side is deemed worthy by the American plan of empathy, of having its historical claims and justifications to the land and to nationhood embraced. According to the plan, the Palestinians exist to be slapped and pushed around. They are interlocutors only insofar as they can offer contrition and penance.

Per the text, Israel’s military actions are always defensive. Its relinquishing of any occupied territory is a generous concession, for this is “territory to which Israel has asserted valid legal and historical claims and which are part of the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.” Israel is depicted as an exemplary steward of a united Jerusalem, and its population is crowded into a narrow coastal strip (someone should really tell the White House that Israel has the most powerful military in the region, including a nuclear weapons capacity).

The Palestinians by contrast are a gang of miscreants, inciting, ungrateful, and corrupt. It is hard not to read in this text a white supremacist mindset. Racism comes to the fore in the plan’s adoption of the idea of transferring the political rights of residents of the Triangle area in Central Israel, where communities of Palestinian citizens of Israel live. Under land swaps, the Triangle could be transferred to the Palestinian state, thereby undermining the citizenship status of the entire Palestinian-Israeli community. The plan endorses the ethnocracy-over-democracy logic of Israel’s recently passed Nation State Law.

2. A Palestinian State? This Is a Bantustan Arrangement.

The visuals of the map proposed are a dead giveaway: a patchwork of Palestinian islands best viewed alongside the map of South Africa’s apartheid-era Bantustans. A Palestinian state is supposedly on offer, but that notion is drained of all possible meaning. The document even goes on a philosophical detour to tell us, “Sovereignty is an amorphous concept that has evolved over time.” Israel will control all security, territorial waters, airspace, and international crossings of this nonstate—and can even maintain a permanent naval blockade.

The lack of contiguity of this nonstate should be of no concern, after all, since the plan “maximizes ease of travel within the state of Palestine through state of the art infrastructure solutions comprised of bridges, roads and tunnels.” Palestinians will even have access roads so they can traverse the Jordan Valley, “subject to Israeli security requirements.” The enclaves of Palestinians in Israeli territories will unfortunately also only have access to the rest of “Palestine” subject to “Israeli security responsibility,” and in certain areas Israel can also decide zoning rules and building permits for Palestinians. Palestinians are all too familiar with what this matrix of control amounts to in practice.

The Palestinian nonstate will not have Jerusalem as its capital, for that is to remain the “undivided, sovereign capital of the State of Israel.” The Palestinians can have outer Jerusalem neighborhoods on the other side of where Israel has erected its security barrier, but don’t despair, the Palestinians can call this noncapital by whatever name they like.

Oh, and finally, the glorious nonstate of Palestine only comes into being if a series of preconditions are met, which “must be determined to have occurred by the State of Israel.”

3. Asks of Israel? There Are None.

Despite some tactical attempts in Israel, from both the left and right, to depict the U.S. document as demanding unwanted Israeli concessions, this is a slam dunk for Israeli maximalism. Israel is only asked to not do or give up things it has already declared no interest in. And if Israel should change its mind or should that not be enough, then there is a fallback; Israel can stop any implementation with the unilateral veto it is accorded in the plan.

The Jerusalem border will be set according to the barrier Israel already unilaterally built. There is no end to settlement growth. Israel has defined all the land it wants; it can both continue building there without disturbance and extend Israeli sovereignty in all such areas, with American endorsement.

The clause supposedly placing a moratorium on the demolition of Palestinian homes and structures has the following helpful override clause: “This moratorium does not apply to the demolition of any structure that poses a safety risk, as determined by the State of Israel, or punitive demolitions following acts of terrorism.”

Israel even gets to unilaterally override U.N. Security Council resolutions. The American conceptual map is designed “in the spirit of UNSCR 242”—the definitive blueprint to a two-state solution that was unanimously passed after the 1967 war—“and in a manner that meets the security requirements of the State of Israel and … takes into account the State of Israel’s valid legal historical claims.”

4. Humiliation, Part One: Refugees and Prisoners

Anyone familiar with the Palestinian experience will know the historic centrality for Palestinians of the refugee experience and the enormous shadow cast in contemporary Palestinian life by the phenomenon of so many Palestinians having served time in Israeli prisons. The latter is the consequence of a demeaning occupation that inevitably generates resistance, both violent and peaceful, and which has over the years criminalized any act of Palestinian political struggle.

The plan is uniquely invidious in its treatment of Palestinian refugees; they are not even accorded the kind of rhetorical empathy that is heaped on Israel by the bucketload. Israel’s tough line on refugee return is a matter of historical record, but in peace talks there have been at least attempts to soften the blow. Here, not so.

The text asserts that “there shall be no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel.” Not only that, but Israel can decide how many and which Palestinian refugees could take up residence in the new nonstate of Palestine. “The rights of Palestinian refugees to immigrate into the State of Palestine shall be limited in accordance with agreed security arrangements … and regulated by various factors including increased security risks to the State of Israel.”

The final insult is reserved for the compensation file. Compensation implies suffering. It implies humanity. To remove any such impression, we are told that funds would be far better off “if used to implement the Trump economic plan.” All that is missing is for that to include a shiny new Trump hotel!

When it comes to prisoners, standard practice when moving from war to peace is for those imprisoned in the context of liberation struggles to be released, sometimes subject to processes of truth and reconciliation. Not in this hate plan. Prisoners involved in murder, attempted murder, or conspiracy to murder are excluded, making the entire prisoner clause an exercise in humiliation rather than reconciliation.

5. Security and Control

This is an easy one, as only Israelis are worthy of security, so only Israel needs to have security capacities and control. The most far-reaching articulation of Israel’s security needs is embraced and then allowed to run wild throughout the document, with sideswipes taken at Palestinians wherever possible. At least there is no attempt to obfuscate here: “The security portion of this vision was developed based on our best understanding of the security requirements of the State of Israel,” which is also defined so that “all of Iran’s activity must be taken into account in determining the State of Israel’s security needs.” In short, the Israeli military can continue to operate everywhere with impunity, and the Palestinian nonstate will not only be demilitarized but will also serve as a subcontractor for the Israeli military in perpetuity.

With Israel in control of the land, sea, air, and border crossings, more should not be necessary. But in case Big Brother might miss anything, the text stipulates that “solely as determined by the State of Israel, the State of Israel will rely on blimps, drones and similar aerial equipment for security purposes.” Military occupation, everywhere, forever.

The document goes on to tell us that the Palestinians should be grateful because “the State of Palestine will not be burdened with such costs (defense), because it will be shouldered by the State of Israel.” American generosity apparently knows no bounds, because the security plan outlined “results in billions of dollars in savings for international donors in lieu of creating a new multinational security force.” Thank you, America.

6. Gaza: You Guessed It, All the Palestinians’ Fault

It is one of the most overcrowded spaces in the world, and most of its inhabitants were expelled from their original homes during the Nakba. Several years ago, a report by the United Nations suggested that by this year, 2020, Gaza might become unhabitable in key areas of human security.

When Israel did withdraw from Gaza in 2005, it imposed a permanent closure and stated that the withdrawal would be conducted under punitive conditions. Since then, in various rounds of clashes with Israel, at least 5,514 Palestinians, of which 2,667 were civilians, have been killed, according to the Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem. Over the past two years, marches of return have been rebuffed by Israel with fatalities numbering over 250 among Palestinian civilians, including many children, and over 30,000 injured. Surely even the Trump administration can find some empathy for Gaza? Nope.

Everything is the fault of the Palestinians. Gazans and the leadership in Gaza carry, we are told, the sole and exclusive responsibility for their circumstances. Israel is pristine, faultless. No conflict situation in the world works that way, and no attempt to resolve a conflict can make such an assertion. The U.S. text also asserts that “significant improvements for the people of Gaza will not occur until the full demilitarization of Gaza.” That will not and even should not happen; more misery for Gazans is on offer.

7. Palestinian Homo economicus

Significantly, more than half of the document issued on Tuesday, 124 out of 181 pages, is devoted to what is called an “Economic Framework,” full of McKinsey-style presentations on “unleashing economical potential” and “enhancing Palestinian governance.” This is basically the re-release of the easily forgettable Manama “Peace to Prosperity” document.

There are two minor problems with this glorious future heralded for the Palestinians. First of all, it ain’t going to happen—these points are part of a plan that will not be implemented. We have been here before, more than once. A Palestinian economy that remains under occupation cannot flourish, and the plan fails to recognize this simple truism. The plan guarantees permanent occupation. Ipso facto the economic plan is dead on arrival.

The second problem is that this indulges in pure fantasy by treating the Palestinians not as a nation with collective national aspirations but as Homo economicus, a collection of individuals who make perfectly rational economic choices and whose horizons do not extend beyond economic opportunities for a better material life.

Attempts to buy off and define a glorious neoliberal future for the Palestinians are as unoriginal as efforts to generate economic growth under occupation. Neither has a great track record, to put it mildly.

8. Humiliation Revisited: It’s Everywhere

This hateful text never misses an opportunity to degrade the Palestinians. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that this is intentional. For example, the only mention of respect for human rights in the document is as one of the preconditions that the Palestinians must meet before being granted their nonstate!

In several places, the plan suggests its generosity to the Palestinians by allowing them special arrangements and special access to areas that are anyway part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. For instance, while the Jordan Valley will be under Israeli sovereignty, “notwithstanding such sovereignty, Israel should work with the Palestinian government to negotiate an agreement in which existing agricultural enterprises owned or controlled by Palestinians shall continue, without interruption or discrimination pursuant to appropriate licences or leases granted by the State of Israel.” How dismal.

Similar arrangements are proposed in the Dead Sea area of Palestine, which again will be Israel, but the Palestinians will be allowed to “develop a resort area in the north of the Dead Sea without prejudice to the State of Israel’s sovereignty at such location.” Likewise, a special tourist area is designated in the north Jerusalem neighbourhood of Atarot, again not part of Israel, not your business.

Palestinians are banned from pursuing recourse in international organizations or the International Criminal Court. And only Palestinians must end incitement toward their neighbors; no such stipulation is made of the Israelis. And the list of humiliations goes on.

9. Israel as Judge and Jury

Serious attempts to resolve long-standing conflicts require an implementation mechanism that is resilient in the face of mutual distrust. That would normally then put in place a combination of disincentives to backsliding as well as third-party guarantors.

In keeping with the motif running through the Trump document, any such notion is eschewed. Israel gets to decide everything, sometimes with the Americans. When it comes to moving toward the formation of the Palestinian nonstate on offer, the preconditions “must be determined to have occurred by the State of Israel and the United States jointly, acting in good faith, after consultation with the Palestinian Authority.” Israel has a veto. If there ever were anything unpalatable to Israel in this plan, it would never be implemented.

10. Jordan and the End Goal of This Plan

One has to assume that the plan’s authors have one of two scenarios in mind, and those unsurprisingly offer a win-win for Israel. In one scenario, the plan is implemented in accordance with Israel’s interpretation, and it succeeds in formalizing Greater Israel alongside Palestinian Bantustans. That is presumably what Trump anticipates—that the ongoing squeeze on Palestinians might push them to sign off on such a deal. While that is not inconceivable, such a leadership would have a serious legitimacy problem and struggle to stay in power.

The more likely scenario (one imagines intended by at least some of the plan’s architects) is that the Palestinians are blamed for rejecting the plan, and Israel together with the U.S. moves ahead anyway in implementing its sovereignty and permanent control, perhaps beyond even what is envisaged in this document.

One option that has long been a hobbyhorse of the Israeli right would be to involve Jordan in realizing Palestinian political representation. That is more than hinted at in the document where there is a reference to Jordan “by virtue of territorial proximity, cultural affinity and family ties” playing a “distinctive role in assisting the Palestinians on a range of issues” that interestingly enough include “institution building and municipal services.” That, in addition to a separate mention of a Jordanian role in the security realm, should be a wake-up call to the Hashemite Kingdom as being one way in which Israel might want to force the issue of Jordan running cover for the apartheid plan on offer.

The one saving grace in this otherwise appalling spectacle was that the plan’s introduction was happening on a day when the U.S. president was scrambling to keep his impeachment pushback strategy on track. Simultaneously, the Israeli attorney general was filing an indictment against Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Jerusalem district court on three corruption cases, for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Taken together, it suggests that the plan might go down with its co-presenters.

Nineteen years ago this month, at Taba, I sat at the negotiating table, sensing that we might be genuinely close to an agreement. I had the privilege of working alongside a team of patriotic Israelis, many of whom genuinely sought understandings with the Palestinians, partly out of a sense of shared humanity but also very much because that would serve the Israeli interest. A mutually dignified way forward is still possible and will still best serve Israelis.

But none of those interests are served by the hate plan issued on January 28 at the White House. Following its publication, Palestinians and Israelis may have to look for a very different approach if our shared humanity, mutual dignity, and the need for equality are to be addressed.

Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP), based in New York and London, and is a former Israeli negotiator. 

The mission of the U.S./Middle East Project is to provide non partisan analysis of the Middle East peace process and to present policymakers with balanced policy analysis and policy options to prevent conflict and promote stability, democracy and economic development throughout the region.  www.usmep.us

This article was originally published in The American Prospect: https://prospect.org/world/dont-call-it-a-peace-plan-israel-palestine-trump/