Is Trump’s plan a plot, a fantasy or an exercise in realism?

It’s not clear whether it will bail out Bibi or hurt Gantz, but imagining a future Middle East that accepts most of these terms is actually a practical idea.

Israeli workers hang a large billboard with pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Israeli workers hang a large billboard with pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, in Jerusalem on Sept. 4, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As far as many Israeli commentators are concerned, it’s all a plot to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and undermine the chances of Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. The Palestinians think it’s more proof that the United States is determined to destroy their hopes to force Israel back to the 1967 lines before continuing their struggle against its existence. Some on the Israeli right believe it to be an unfortunate move towards a Palestinian state that must be resisted. The foreign-policy establishment thinks it’s just insane.

And to the extent that most American commentators have paid any attention to it, they think it’s just one more example of President Donald Trump trying to change the subject from his impeachment trial.

The unveiling of the administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, coupled with the unprecedented invitation for both Netanyahu and Gantz to the White House to discuss it before an announcement is made, could be any or all of the above. But it should also go down in history as the first such American proposal that was rooted in reality, rather than fantasy.

Putting the spotlight on Middle East diplomacy is probably part of a White House effort to make sure that Trump is seen as governing while the Senate is sitting in judgment on him. Yet it’s also true that Trump would like to do something to help Netanyahu in Israel’s third election within the course of a year since the peace plan seems to align fairly closely with the prime minister’s thinking about peace.

So does that help Netanyahu win—or at least do better in the March 2 elections? Maybe. The assumption that it undermines Gantz, though, may be a mistake. Rather than being forced to stand on the sidelines watching Netanyahu monopolize the stage, having the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces come to the White House actually allows him to play the statesman who can deal with his country’s superpower ally. That could be to his advantage. As much as Gantz has to be wary of Trump’s embrace, it’s not clear that meeting with him or the release of a plan that actually reflects the way most Israelis, including many Blue and White voters, think about peace will undermine his chances of beating Likud.

That’s why the focus on the Trump plan’s tactical impact on either the election, or even the upcoming debate about whether the outgoing Knesset will grant Netanyahu immunity from the criminal charges hanging over his head (spoiler alert: it won’t), isn’t the most important aspect of what is about to happen.

Israeli right-wingers who are opposed in principle to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank under any circumstances need to recognize that not even Trump will acquiesce to any scheme that forecloses such a possibility, even in theory. And the Palestinians are never going to accept Trump’s terms, so they needn’t worry about the “ultimate deal” being the midwife to a Palestinian state, in addition to the one in all but name that already exists in Gaza under Hamas rule.

The fact that the Palestinians and the international community will never accept a plan that will not redivide Jerusalem or force hundreds of thousands of Jews out of their homes in settlements—let alone requiring the disarming of Hamas and limiting the Palestinians to a demilitarized state—does make the entire proposal a non-starter. That’s why establishment thinkers about foreign policy consider it crazy even to put something out there that cannot produce an agreement.

But Trump daring to propose a plan that envisions Israel holding on to almost all of the settlements—and limiting the Palestinians to a state that is both without Jerusalem or the ability to wage war—is not as irrational as the president’s critics believe it to be. It may be a fantasy to imagine Palestinians agreeing to this; however, if peace is ever to be possible, Trump’s terms represent the only formula that can produce both it and Palestinian statehood.

The point that Trump’s critics miss is that no Israeli government can or should consider signing an agreement that doesn’t force Hamas to disarm or limit the capacity of Palestinians to fulfill their fantasy of erasing the last 100 years of history. And while statehood is possible for the Palestinians (should they ever come to terms with the idea of giving up their quest for Israel’s elimination), the only way they are ever going to get it is by disarming Islamist terrorists and foreswearing the conflict in a way that most Israelis will take seriously.

The virtue of Trump’s plan is not in who gains from it in the short term—assuming that anyone actually can. Its value lies in the demand that the Palestinians and the foreign-policy wise men who have been enabling their whimsy to start living in the real world. The fact that it seeks to put pressure on the Palestinians by reportedly allowing Israel to annex land that it would likely keep in any peace agreement provides an incentive for peace, even if it is unlikely to be heeded.

It is those who have been calling for Israel to repeat Ariel Sharon’s failed Gaza experiment—in which the Jewish state traded land for terror, rather than peace—who are insane, not Trump. Those who think that a peaceful future can be built on dividing Jerusalem and evacuating Jewish communities are not paying attention to facts.

In a world in which Palestinians were actually prepared to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn, a peace agreement would probably resemble Trump’s proposal far more than the failed ideas put forward by his predecessors. Though it has no chance of success, it is Trump who is thinking seriously about the Middle East, not his critics.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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