newsU.S.-Israel Relations

US, Arabs ‘rushing’ plan to establish Palestinian state

The proposal depends on a hostage deal that would include a pause in fighting in Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Nov. 5, 2023. Photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Nov. 5, 2023. Photo by Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.

The Biden administration is preparing to make a major push for Palestinian statehood if a Gaza ceasefire agreement being negotiated in Cairo this week takes effect.

According to The Washington Post, the United States and its Arab partners are “rushing” to finalize the plan to establish a Palestinian state—a plan that could be announced in the next few weeks with hopes that a deal to release the remaining 134 hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting takes effect before Ramadan, which begins on March 10, give or take a day.

Negotiations in Cairo on a hostage-for-ceasefire deal have been extended until Friday. However, only lower-level officials are participating after Tuesday’s initial summit, which included high-ranking representatives from Egypt, Israel, Qatar and the United States.

There is an urgency to reach an agreement because Jerusalem is readying for a major offensive in Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in the Gaza Strip. While Israel is working on an evacuation plan for the 1.5 million civilians sheltered in the city ahead of the battle, fears are mounting in Western capitals about the toll the fighting could take on the noncombatant population.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday dismissed reports of progress in the Cairo talks, with his office issuing a statement saying that Jerusalem did not receive any new proposal from Hamas on releasing the hostages and that the premier “insists that Israel will not give in to Hamas’s delusional demands.”

Jerusalem’s goals in the war, which have not changed, are to destroy Hamas in Gaza, free the hostages and ensure that the territory never threatens Israel again. Hamas initiated the war on Oct. 7 when thousands of terrorists broke across the border, murdering 1,200 men, women and children, wounding thousands more and kidnapping 253 people.

Netanyahu emphasized the importance of the Gaza military campaign on Wednesday evening and reiterated Jerusalem’s position on the Cairo talks.

“This week we freed two of our hostages in a brilliant military operation. As of now we have freed 112 of our hostages in a combination of strong military pressure and tough negotiations.This is also the key to freeing more of our hostages: Strong military pressure and very tough negotiations,” the prime minister said.

“Indeed, I insist that Hamas drop its delusional demands. When they do so, we will be able to move forward,” he continued.

In addition to the United States, the participants planning the pathway to a Palestinian state are Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinians. Notably, Israel is not involved in these discussions, according to the Post.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been pushing hard for the Palestinian statehood plan, despite it reportedly not being a major obstacle to the Abraham Accords or an Israeli-Saudi detente before the Oct. 7 attacks.

The American diplomat focused on Palestinian statehood during his latest Middle East swing, saying in Doha that steps were being taken for “a practical, timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel.” The issue was also a focus of discussions at the White House between President Joe Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

U.S. officials told the Post that actions under consideration include a unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state by Washington at the start of the process. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has also expressed interest in early recognition of a Palestinian state.

Other issues reportedly being discussed by the United States and Arab countries are the permanent evacuation of many Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria and a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem. Also being discussed is the reconstruction of Gaza after the war and uniting Gaza and the Palestinian areas of Judea and Samaria under one form of governance and security mechanism.

The Americans and Arabs are looking to discuss their plans with European leaders during policy meetings at the 60th Munich Security Conference, which kicks off Friday.

There is widespread opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state in Israel, particularly after the Oct. 7 massacre, which many see as a reward for the Hamas terrorist attack and an incentive to commit more atrocities.

A February survey found that more than half of the Israeli public opposes the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a deal that would end the war against Hamas and normalize relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

According to another survey, published in January, when Israelis were asked whether they support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, 66% of Jewish respondents said they opposed such a move, while 27% expressed support for the creation of a “Palestine.”

This opposition to a Palestinian state extends to the Israeli leadership; Netanyahu has been a longtime vocal opponent of the idea.

“Everybody who talks about a two-state solution—well, I ask, what do you mean by that? Should the Palestinians have an army? … Should they continue to educate their children for terrorism and annihilation? Of course, I say, of course not,” the premier told ABC News in an interview that aired on Sunday.

“The most important power that has to remain in Israel’s hands is overriding security control in the area west of the Jordan [River],” he stressed.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Thursday rejected the reported U.S.-Arab plan to recognize a Palestinian state in the next few weeks.

“We will in no way agree to this plan, which actually says that the Palestinians deserve a reward for the terrible massacre they did to us: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” tweeted Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionism Party.

“The message is that it pays very well to massacre Israeli citizens,” he continued. “A Palestinian state is an existential threat to the State of Israel, as was proven on Oct. 7. Kfar Saba will not be Kfar Aza!” he said, in reference to the central Israeli city of Kfar Saba, which would abut the border of a theoretical Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria just as Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the hardest-hit communities on Oct. 7, is close to the Gaza border.

“Today, at the meeting of the political and security cabinet, I will demand a clear and unequivocal decision stating that Israel opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and the imposition of sanctions on over half a million settlers. I expect clear support from Prime Minister Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, Gadi Eizenkot and all the ministers,” Smotrich said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli also blasted the reported U.S. plan to recognize a Palestinian state, telling Army Radio on Thursday that “if this is the American vision, we need to resist it and threaten them with our own unilateral steps, like canceling the Oslo Accords.”

Meanwhile, tensions are boiling over between Netanyahu and Biden over Israel’s pending Rafah military offensive and the overall direction of the Gaza campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

While Biden has made public statements criticizing Israel’s conduct in the war, including calling it “over the top,” his administration has no intention to slow down arms sales to the Jewish state, according to the Journal.

The two leaders held a “tense” phone call on Sunday over the looming Rafah invasion, and in late December Biden reportedly abruptly ended a call with Netanyahu, declaring the conversation “over” and hanging up. U.S. and Israeli officials said that Biden was angry during the Dec. 28 call and almost yelled during a restive exchange about civilian casualties and Washington wanting to shift the war to a more targeted phase.

Netanyahu and Biden have spoken 18 times by phone since the start of the war.

Furthermore, the Journal reported, citing U.S. officials, last month the Biden administration was considering enacting a package that would have reversed two Trump-era policies: labeling Israeli-made produce across the Green Line as “Made in Israel” and another that stated that the United States does not see Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria as violating international law.

Washinton also considered sanctioning Smotrich and Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party.

While the Biden administration decided against these measures, it did end up sanctioning four Israelis residing in Judea and Samaria.

U.S. officials also said that the State Department had opened an investigation into Israeli bombings in Gaza in which civilians were killed. The State Department is also investigating whether Israel used white phosphorous in Lebanon to determine if the IDF illegally used American missiles and bombs.

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