U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which he unveiled at the White House on Jan. 28, calls for Israel to retain 30 percent of the West Bank (territory that the parties to the conflict had already agreed would remain under Israeli control, in accordance with the 1995 Oslo Accords), with the remaining 70 percent reserved for an eventual Palestinian state. The plan states that there would be a freeze on Israeli settlement-building in that area for four years—and land swaps to provide the Palestinian state with land comparable in size to the territory of pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza, and a capital in eastern Jerusalem.
It includes a $50 billion investment fund for 179 infrastructure and business projects in that state, designed to create more than one million jobs, cut the poverty rate by 50 percent and reduce unemployment from 31 percent to a single digit.
The establishment of such a state, according to the plan, is contingent on the Palestinian authorities complying with several conditions. These include recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, renouncing terrorism and “ending all programs, including school curricula and textbooks, that serve to incite or promote hatred or antagonism towards its neighbors, or which compensate or incentivize criminal or violent activity.”
The latter entails the P.A.’s ending its “pay to slay” practice of granting salaries and stipends to convicted terrorists and/or the families of those killed while committing acts of terrorism.
The plan was immediately accepted by Israel as the basis for future negotiations with the P.A. It was rejected by the Palestinian leadership even before it was unveiled.
What will become of the plan under the next U.S. administration headed by Joe Biden?
The president-elect has signaled that he will reverse many of Trump’s policies, such as the travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries; the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (climate accords); the end of the “dreamers” (DACA) program allowing children brought illegally into the United States to remain in the country; the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran; and various other executive orders. Biden is likely to reverse much of the above via Executive Order as well.
This is to be expected. It is common for incoming presidents from one party to reverse the policies of their predecessors from another party. Trump did precisely this with regard to many of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policies, including his signature health-care program. As the political saying goes, “elections have consequences.”
It is improbable, however, that the Biden administration will formally take the Trump plan off the table. It would be an embarrassment for the United States to turn its back on official U.S. policy merely for partisan political reasons.
Instead, like other proposals for an independent Palestinian state offered by presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, which were violated or rejected by the Palestinians, the Trump plan will simply wither on the vine of missed Palestinian opportunities.
What, then, will an administration under Biden do to further the “peace process” in the Middle East? Very little, except make small, largely symbolic, gestures to satisfy its mostly anti-Israel progressive base.
It will probably reestablish a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. It will restore some funding to the P.A., though any effort in this regard will be circumscribed by U.S. law, which prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars to cover the PLO’s “pay for slay” program—a program that the P.A. leaders insist will continue.
Israel’s biggest concern about the incoming administration is that it will “reengage” with Iran. There is good reason for concern on this score. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon presents an existential threat to the State of Israel and its 6.8 million Jews whom Iranian leaders repeatedly pledge to annihilate.
However, unlike Obama, who was single-mindedly determined to engage with Iran regardless of the consequences, Biden and his experienced aides are unlikely to shower Tehran with billions of dollars, while simultaneously permitting it to pursue its nuclear ambition to destroy Israel. Hopefully, Biden (all of whose grandchildren are Jewish) is too smart and too concerned for the fate of the Jewish people.
Furthermore, the list of what Biden’s administration will not do in the Middle East is considerably larger than what it will do. It will not move the U.S. embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, since its relocation was actually mandated by a 1995 U.S. law that successive presidents ignored.
Nor will it repeat the refrain repeated by Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry that Israeli settlements are an “obstacle to peace.” Its experienced aides know from personal experience that Palestinian rejectionism—not Israeli settlements—are the real obstacle.
While it may issue perfunctory statements critical of outlier settlements in the West Bank, it will not seek to dismantle the large settlement blocs near Jerusalem, which will remain in Israeli hands, just as anticipated in the Trump plan. Nor will it call for the forcible evacuation of the 500,000 Israelis who reside in those areas.
Biden and his appointees understand that Israel will not unilaterally withdraw from any portion of the West Bank without ironclad guarantees that the territory will not become a terrorist state—as happened when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Nor will Biden block the ongoing normalization of relations between Israel and its Sunni-Muslim neighbors, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and eventually Saudi Arabia, knowing that this process is beneficial to the whole region, even though it was brokered by Trump.
Nor will he resurrect Obama’s animus and disrespect towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden has a long history of friendship with Israel, its leaders and its people. For him, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not personal.
Most importantly, Biden is unlikely to offer up some grand proposal to “solve” the decades-old conflict. Although many in his national-security team are old Obama hands steeped in the now failed doctrine of the “two-state solution,” most of those officials, including Biden himself, have witnessed that doctrine repeatedly crash and burn under the unrelenting rejectionism of the Palestinians. A Biden administration, as much as some might urge it to do so, is unlikely to choose the failed path of its predecessors.
In addition, a Biden administration will have more pressing issues to address—such as the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy and racial tensions—than the long-simmering and seemingly endless Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Even though the particulars of the Trump plan will largely be abandoned by the next administration in Washington, Biden would do well to consider retaining some of its overriding principles. No longer should the Palestinians be allowed a veto over any plan that does not provide a path to its final solution, the dismantling of the State of Israel.
No longer should Israel be treated as an irritant instead of a valued ally and pressured to make unilateral concessions that undermine its national security.
No longer should the United States look the other way as Palestinians pursue a policy of terrorism and annihilation towards its Jewish neighbor. Most importantly, all parties should be made keenly aware that time is no longer on the side of the Palestinians, as each day that passes diminishes the size of any future Palestinian state, while Israel remains free to expand its settlements in the absence of a formal peace treaty.
There may be those in Biden’s squad who will press him to threaten to cut U.S. aid to Israel unless settlement activity is curtailed. However, Biden has “been there, done that,” and learned his lesson.
Twenty-eight years ago, then-Sen. Biden threatened to cut off U.S. aid unless Israeli settlement activity was halted. Israel’s prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, forcefully responded with a declaration of Israeli independence that rings true today: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid.”
Steve Frank is an attorney, retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications, including “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.