For almost three years, the world waited for the Trump administration to table its so-called Deal of the Century, the peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians that it repeatedly touted but kept shrouded in mystery. It wasn’t ready, or it wasn’t the right time to achieve maximum impact, we were told repeatedly. The plan became something of a joke, like waiting for Godot. Many senior diplomats and UN officials believed there was no deal – it was just a Trump charade.
But it turned out there was a plan, released on Jan. 28 at the White House by President Donald Trump in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. It was a winner-take-all deal for the Israelis. There were no Palestinians at the White House presentation, which was timed to have maximum impact in support of Netanyahu’s third attempt in a year to be reelected, despite his pending trial on corruption charges. Trump’s proposed deal, which he said was for both Israelis and Palestinians, was in fact a gift to Bibi. The message that Netanyahu drilled home throughout his campaign was that only he was able to finagle such a historic gift from the U.S. president.
Six weeks after the March 2 elections, in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party picked up four additional seats, a deal finally emerged for a new government, led by Netanyahu and including his erstwhile opponent, Benny Gantz. The rationale Gantz gave for breaking his vow not to form a government with Netanyahu is that Israel needs unity of purpose to address the COVID-19 crisis. The written agreement that Netanyahu and Gantz signed to create a national emergency government, however, appears to identify a second priority as well. Annexing parts of the West Bank, an element of the Trump deal, is reportedly the only issue other than COVID-19 that the Israeli government will be allowed to discuss during its first six months in power. Netanyahu expressed confidence this week that the Trump Administration would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley in the coming months.
For the average Palestinian, Trump’s unveiling of the Deal of the Century was just another lesson in 25 years of lessons in cynicism. To understand Palestinian bitterness, you need to take a clear-eyed view of the trajectory from what began as real hope for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 to the Trump Deal of the Century, which offers a parody of scraps to the “losers,” reflecting, once again, how the current U.S. administration views the Palestinians.
The Promise of Oslo
Oslo feels like only yesterday. The international community’s strong commitment to the Oslo Accords was based on a practical approach of compromise by both Palestinians and Israelis to achieve the fundamental objective of two viable states living side-by-side in peace and prosperity. This brighter future would also be the basis for a broader Middle East peace, with normalization of ties between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.
No one thought it would be easy to implement Oslo. The final-status issues of borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of millions of Palestine refugees were highly sensitive and elicited maximalist rhetoric on both sides. But in the early days, it seemed that both Israelis and Palestinians wanted peace badly enough to make a deal. A real deal. Unfortunately, no one ever found that magical mix of good will, pressure on both sides, and compromise to make it come true.
While efforts continued for decades, in retrospect, the real prospects for implementing Oslo probably died alongside Yitzhak Rabin, when he was assassinated in 1995. Over the years, the world’s commitment to Oslo became increasingly pro-forma, though we all clung to its facade, in part because it was hard to imagine ever reaching agreement via a different approach.
Meanwhile, behind the facade, Israel worked relentlessly to transform the facts on the ground in its favor through illegal settlements and other policies. The result made the Oslo parameters impossible to implement. In response, the world wagged its finger, shook its head, and made statements, some stronger, some weaker. The words were never matched by action, however, especially because the United States ensured through pressure on other countries and through its U.N. Security Council veto that Israel was never meaningfully punished by or even harshly criticized in that potentially influential forum.
The Trump administration has torn down the facade of Oslo and instead offers Israel more than it could have dreamed of four years ago, and on a very fast timetable. The final status issues? The Palestinians get nothing on Jerusalem or for refugees, and only a pseudo-state with limited sovereignty and scattered territories requiring tunnels and elevated highways to make them contiguous. Details will be worked out by a United States-Israel committee. International law? Not an obstacle. Previous commitments? Overrated. And the Palestinians can still negotiate if they come to the table, we’re told. Sure, perhaps they could make a deal for a bit more of the Sinai desert to make up for losing all of the fertile Jordan valley.
Bibi’s Next Moves
The bottom line is that Bibi’s gift from Trump worked – he remains in power. But now the clock is ticking with a lot to get done. First, Bibi needs to pay Trump back. Moving forward with annexation of parts of the West Bank will be popular with a part of Trump’s political base. It will allow him to claim a major foreign-policy victory, pretending that unilateral Israeli action is the equivalent of a peace deal. Netanyahu undoubtedly also wishes to lock in as many gains on the ground as quickly as possible, understanding that U.S. support for implementing the Trump deal could disappear if Trump loses in November.
Meanwhile, the world is distracted by the COVID-19 crisis. Initial reaction to the Trump plan in the rest of the world was politely negative, but little more. European Union member states could not even reach agreement on how to react, leaving their high representative for foreign policy to say, “steps toward annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged.” That had little meaning in February and means even less now.
The world’s commitment to Oslo has now been reduced to distracted indifference. How can we look in the eyes of the millions of Palestinians whom we all have told since 1993 that, if they were patient, the Oslo process would bring them justice and their own state?
What is more, the Palestinian lesson in cynicism is not lost on authoritarian regimes and nativist politicians around the world who have their own issues with “difficult” national minorities and/or neighbors. In the past, they were at least somewhat constrained by international law and agreements from imposing their will. Now, they are already taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to advance their authoritarian agenda. In this climate, the world’s display of indifference toward the Palestinians suits them just fine.
Oslo — what might have been. Shame on us all.