columnU.S.-Israel Relations

The deal within the ‘deal of the century’

While opponents of Trump’s peace plan have accused Israel’s premier of making a diplomatic blunder with the U.S. and failing to deliver on annexation, the two administrations have never been closer and delaying annexation until after Israel’s elections may actually play to Netanyahu’s advantage.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during the Kohelet Forum Conference at the Begin Heritage Center, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 8, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

At the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman worked to clarify miscommunications surrounding just how fast Israel will be able to fully apply its sovereignty over Jewish settlements and strategic tracts of land set to “immediately” become part of Israel as part of the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During a White House press conference on Jan. 28 that rolled out the proposal, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “we will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved,” adding that “the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel.”

Shortly afterwards, aides to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that upon his return to Israel, he intended to advance a cabinet vote to immediately apply sovereignty to those territories. Netanyahu’s associates believed the prime minister stood to benefit from a declaration of annexation just one month prior to a third and hopefully decisive national election.

Yet the prime minister was quickly informed—and the ambassador to Israel made certain to clarify—that Trump’s statements meant “recognition can be immediately achieved” only after the work is completed “to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering.”

Friedman reiterated that a six-member committee will be formed, “and there will be a process” to precisely map out the some 800 kilometers border between Israel and a possible Palestinian state. We need to “convert a map drawn at a scale of 1 million to 1,” said Friedman. “It is not unduly difficult, but there are judgement calls.”

‘It won’t take too long’

On Thursday, special adviser to Trump and primary author of the peace initiative Jared Kushner reportedly told journalists following a briefing at the U.N. Security Council that the process could take “a couple of months.”

Responding to calls from Israel’s right to immediately apply sovereignty to Jewish population centers in Judea and Samaria, or to the strategic Jordan Valley, while waiting to finish converting the conceptual map into a technical one for further annexations, Friedman said “we don’t want to do this in piecemeal. We want to do it once, and have it done right, in its totality.”

While Friedman noted that he did not think the process will be completed before Israel’s March 2 elections, “a little bit of patience to do it right should not be too much to ask for.”

Just prior to Friedman’s remarks, the ambassador tweeted that “President Trump’s Vision for Peace is the product of more than three years of close consultations among the President, PM Netanyahu and their respective senior staff. As we have stated, the application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition.”

Considering the magnitude of any move to annex territories at the center of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict—even if those same territories are at the heart of Israel’s millennia-old biblical history—and the weight that a U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council will carry to block any opposition to Israeli annexations by members of the Arab league, as well as by liberal Western powers, a wait of several months is barely worth arguing over.

Just a day before Friedman’s remarks, Netanyahu told a rally in Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements to soon be annexed, “We are already at the height of the process of mapping the area that, according to the Trump plan, will become part of the State of Israel. It won’t take too long.”

It appears as though the Trump administration prefers for annexations to take place prior to the November U.S. presidential election to essentially guarantee that the current administration will be in place to approve the annexations.

Friedman was quick to point out that despite some “differences of timing” that may have very briefly existed between the two administrations, “it became clear soon we were always on the same page.”

Early opponents of the peace plan, who by and large appear also to be opponents of Trump or Netanyahu, have sought to expose Netanyahu for making a diplomatic “blunder” with the Americans and for failing to deliver on an election promise to annex the territories.

Yet it may actually play to Netanyahu’s electoral advantage to be able to annex the territories following elections. Netanyahu said on Saturday, “I don’t trust Benny Gantz,” the chairman of the Blue and White Party and Netanyahu’s chief challenger, to carry out the annexations despite his pledge, made in person to Trump, to support the plan.

If Netanyahu had delivered annexations prior to the elections, Israeli voters might not feel the embattled incumbent to be the indispensable statesman necessary to lead Israel through annexations, in addition to the finer details of any possible future negotiations.

‘An asymmetric relationship’

Meanwhile, by trying to manufacture a feud between the two administrations, which are arguably closer than any two U.S. and Israeli administrations have ever been, over what the term “immediately” means in political and historical parlance, the plan’s opponents are momentarily acknowledging that one way or another, the United States is ready to recognize Israel’s declaration of sovereignty over every Jewish settlement and outpost in the disputed territories. The same goes for the Jordan Valley, Israel’s easternmost border, which will completely encircle all lands currently being designated as a possible future Palestinian entity.

Commenting on reasons that Israel is being permitted to receive its rewards in any peace deal at the outset while the Palestinians must wait until after implementing their requirements under the “Peace to Prosperity” vision before receiving sovereignty over any territory, Friedman noted that “this is an asymmetric relationship.”

“Israel is in position to keep its part of the bargain. The Palestinians are not in position to keep any bargain,” he said.

He added that “the only way to get Israel to agree” to even consider entering into a process of negotiations with the Palestinians after years of rejectionism and Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state “is to give them what they are entitled to today.”

Friedman similarly noted of the Palestinians that “their institutions are very weak,” and that they did not protect basic freedoms for their constituents, such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

In return for the immediate recognition of an Israeli annexation of certain territories, Friedman said that the deal “creates a four-year settlement freeze on the 50 percent of Area C that will go to the Palestinians and will use that as the basis for negotiations.”

He said that “it seemed like a small price to pay, to recognize Israeli sovereignty over that territory, in exchange for a freeze on the other territory.” Friedman added that had Israel not agreed to freeze development on those portions of Area C that are envisioned as part of a Palestinian territory, it would have been able to continue creating “facts on the ground” that would “deplete the possibility of a two-state solution.”

This is what Friedman referred to as “the deal within the deal”—Israel will immediately annex the territories it is to receive under the deal and in return agree to freeze building on the land that the plan sets aside for a potential Palestinian state.

To achieve that state, the Palestinians would have to fulfill requirements including the cessation of incitement to violence, the cancellation of the ‘pay-to-slay’ terrorist stipend program, complete financial transparency and the demilitarization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—a rocket-filled enclave currently controlled by Hamas and serving as a haven for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The Palestinians have four years to fulfill these requirements, after which time any territories set aside as part of a future Palestinian state will revert to their current disputed status. And as both Trump and Kushner have stated, this “may be the last opportunity” the Palestinians have to achieve a state of their own.

Friedman acknowledged that the Palestinians may fail to deliver and may simply reject the plan from the outset.

“There is a possibility that the Palestinians will do that, and they should not be rewarded for aggressive behavior and failing to engage,” he said.

If they fail to meet their requirements, the Palestinians may find that a United States, if led in a second term by Trump, may be ready to back further Israeli annexations that will eliminate any possibilities for Palestinian sovereignty.

Friedman noted that he subscribes to the “Abba Eban doctrine” of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy: that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” He similarly stated that while the United States would continue “to engage as mediators” that “ultimately, it is up to the two parties” to negotiate the final terms of any peace arrangement.

Yet with regard to the deal within the deal of the century, if Palestinians miss this opportunity, Israel will already have reaped the rewards of their rejectionism, with even more annexations on the horizon.

Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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