The "Deal of the Century" for Israel Palestine


2019-04-20 /

Since Trump took office, Israelis and Palestinians have moved further away from a two-state settlement. Instead the one-state reality has become even more deeply entrenched: Israel enjoys overriding control of the entire region between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) plays deputy sheriff. There have been no peace talks since April 2014. Backing by the Trump Administration and a warming of relations with the Arab Gulf states have encouraged Netanyahu's right-wing/national-religious coalition to expand settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to open the way to annexation of settlements, to expand the Jewish population share in Jerusalem and to strengthen the Jewish identity of the state of Israel. These objectives were pursued by a string of bills introduced to the Knesset since 2017 (some of which have been placed on hold or overturned by the High Court). In March 2017 Israel's security cabinet authorised - for the first time in twenty-five years - an entirely new settlement in the central West Bank. Representatives of the governing parties reject a sovereign Palestinian state and argue increasingly vehemently for annexation of Area C of the West Bank (about 60 percent by area) or even the entire West Bank. In the 2019 election campaign Netanyahu also stated his intention to expand Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
In the absence of a perspective of conflict resolution, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on conflict management has further eroded over the last few years. Clashes over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif have frequently escalated, requiring Jordanian mediation to restore calm. More than 180 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers since late March 2018, in the course of the "Great March of Return" protests at the Gaza border fence; thousands more have been injured, many seriously. On the Israeli side incendiary kites and firebombs thrown over the border fence have caused material damage including destroying agricultural crops. Increasingly frequent rocket and artillery exchanges between Israel and radical groups in Gaza have repeatedly brought the coastal strip to the verge of war. While Egypt and the UN were able to mediate short-term ceasefires to calm the situation and somewhat soften Gaza's closure, a long-term ceasefire, security guarantees and the lifting of the blockade have proven unachievable. Consequently the humanitarian crisis in Gaza drags on.
The process of erosion would accelerate still further if the Palestinian leadership were to decide to implement the decisions of the PLO Central Council, which has in recent years repeatedly voted to suspend security cooperation with Israel. Today combined US and Israeli pressure has created a situation where the very existence of the PA is at stake. In 2018 the United States ended its financial support for the PA and Palestinian civil society and in early autumn closed the PLO's office in Washington D.C. While US support for the Palestinian security forces was actually supposed to continue, the PA felt forced to reject it from January 2019 in order to avoid risking prosecution under the US Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA).
In February the PA lost another significant source of income. In the course of the election campaign the Israeli cabinet decided to apply the so-called Stern Law. Under the motto "No pay for slay" this cuts Israel's transfer payments to the PA (an element of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Protocol on Economic Relations) by the amount paid by the PA during the previous year to Palestinians imprisoned in Israel (all indiscriminately labelled "terrorists") and to the families of "martyrs". In response the PA refused to accept the reduced transfers. As a result, according to UN figures, it lacks about two thirds of its income. In the absence of a rapid political solution to this problem, this is likely to lead to the rapid financial collapse of the PA.
Other moderating institutions have been dismantled too. In January 2019 Netanyahu decided to end the Temporary International Presence in Hebron(TIPH), an observer mis-sion that had worked since 1994 - with few interruptions - to deescalate between Palestinians and radical settlers in the old city. This is likely to accelerate the quarter's transformation through settlement activity, displacement of the Palestinian population and emphasis of Jewish over Islamic cultural heritage. The level of violence has already increased noticeably since the mission's withdrawal.

Assessment and Recommendations

The American "deal of the century" is unlikely to contribute meaningfully to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead it risks further escalating an already tense situation and accelerating the erosion of joint conflict management. Even under strong pressure, the Palestinian leadership cannot be expected to agree to the US approach. In response to Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the Palestinians rejected any further mediation by Washington, and have since then refused high-level contacts with the US Middle East team. At any rate, the Palestinian leadership is divided, and President Mahmoud Abbas possesses neither the legitimacy to negotiate meaningful compromises nor the authority to implement any agreement. Israel's incoming government can be ex-pected to treat a Palestinian "no" to negotiations on the basis of the US plan as a green light to selectively and unilaterally implement those elements of the initiative that permit it to maintain permanent control over East Jerusalem and strategic parts of the West Bank. As the Knesset election is likely to produce another right-wing/ national-religious coalition there is a serious risk that the latter will feel emboldened to initiate de-jure annexation of Area C of the West Bank. That would permanently shrink the Palestinian territory to a few isolated enclaves. A two-state settlement would then no longer be conceivable.
The EU and its member states should spell out the principles against which any blueprint must be measured if it is to contribute to a lasting resolution of the conflict: fulfilment of the right to national self-determination of both peoples, guarantee of individual human rights for the entire population between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, and implementation of the right of return in a form that respects both the individual choice of the Palestinian refugees and the interests of states in which they will be permanently (re-)settled. Europe should not support any aspect of the US plan unless it fulfils these criteria. In particular - as the experience of the past twenty-five years underlines - even massive investment cannot achieve economic development in the Palestinian territories as long as the obstacles associated with the occupation remain in place (above all mobility restrictions, permit procedures and theft of natural resources). What is more, the obligations Israel would incur if it annexed parts (or all) of the West Bank need to be clearly stated, as do the expected responses from the European side. In that context, Europe should not be available to fund prolonged occupation or annexation.