A gloomy winter of Palestinian discontent has been made grimmer still by Donald Trump’s new “peace plan.” It’s been presented as a “take-it-or-leave it” offer, and invited comparisons with apartheid from its critics.
And yet the very Palestinian politicians who’ve led negotiations over a future state of Palestine for more than two decades appear unsure about how to effectively respond – leaving their people bereft of hope.
Ahmed Jihad is a mechanic rebuilding a badly smashed taxi van in a jerry-built garage in the West Bank. The Jewish settlement of Beit El looms over him from the hill above.
“Nothing makes sense. You see, everything is getting worse. We have no more air to breathe,” he said a day after Trump published the so-called “deal of the century.”
In his early 20s, he’s seen the steady march of Jewish settlements on the West Bank – which many countries and the United Nations see as illegal under international law – spread across the landscape that was supposed to one day become a Palestinian state.
He lives in Jalazone, which also happens to be the site of a refugee camp for descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948-49 war that followed the foundation of Israel.
He’s also grown up under Palestinian politicians – first Yasser Arafat, and then Mahmoud Abbas, who’ve frustrated even their most staunch international allies by failing to accept compromises in negotiation that could, arguably, lead to peace and a viable Palestinian state.
Since 1967 there’s been a general consensus in Israeli politics that the conquest and occupation of the West Bank was unsustainable in the long term. While many on the far right were adamant there should never be a Palestinian state, mainstream opinion believed that ruling over a Palestinian population in the territories would lead to endless violence, and, indeed, serve to undermine the very founding principles of the state of Israel – that it would be a democracy, a Jewish state founded on the towering ethical traditions of Judaism. These, clearly, did not include military rule over neighbors.
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit was a paratrooper involved in the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City in the Six-Day War. Flush with the euphoria of victory, he felt then it could be pyrrhic.
“We marched on south towards Hebron. I felt then that we were walking into a trap of our own making,” Professor Margalit has often said.
Years of conflict were supposed to have been ended with a peace process that began in 1993. Talks dragged on. A Palestinian Authority was formed under Arafat as a temporary administration ahead of a final deal. Israel expanded its Jewish settlements on the West Bank and neither side found their way to a successful deal.
A violent uprising, the Second Intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed, raged for nearly five years from 2000. It almost destroyed the “peace process.” In its wake came Israel’s decision to build walls and fences to keep Palestinians out.
They cut through the landscape – but reduced attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants.
Efforts limped on to achieve a peace deal. Cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli security forces to prevent militant attacks and terrorism resumed.
In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a deal that would have swapped Israeli territory to compensate the Palestinians for the annexation of Jewish West Bank settlements into Israel itself.
The Palestinians would get control of Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which were seized in 1967. The Old City of Jerusalem would be placed under international jurisdiction and there would be a symbolic gesture towards the return of Palestinian refugees from the ’48 and ‘67 wars to their homes, but the vast majority would have to settle elsewhere.
The offer, often seen as the most generous Israel ever made, would have established a Palestinian state over 90% of the West Bank and all of Gaza.
Abbas rejected the plan. Olmert was soon convicted of (unconnected) corruption, and the so-called peace process went into hibernation.
Jigsaw of land masses
Now, after 10 years serving as Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu stood side by side with Trump to gleefully greet the US President’s new plan for peace.
It proposes that the Jordan Valley and all Jewish settlements be almost immediately annexed into Israel.
Israel will continue to enjoy all of Jerusalem, including the east of the city, which is still considered to be occupied territory by the UN.
Israel would control all security west of the River Jordan – that means over the whole area.
Gaza would be linked to the rest of a Palestinian state by a tunnel and the new state would have “transportation contiguity.” The “state” on the West Bank would, actually, be a jigsaw of unconnected land masses connected by tunnels and bridges, under and over newly annexed Israeli territory.
The Palestinians would be required to recognize the Jewish state, drop demands for Jerusalem as a shared capital, end their (UN-sanctioned) claims for a right of return for refugees and their descendants, demilitarize Gaza, disarm Hamas, end financial support for alleged “terrorists’” families, and allow all faiths to pray on the Haram al Sharif, the Temple Mount, which would remain under the custodianship of Jordan.
A new Palestine would have no army, no international borders, no control over its radio waves, but would, in theory, get a $50 billion funding bonus over 10 years from unspecified Arab nations in return for agreeing to these terms.
The plan, the Palestinians said, was “dead on arrival.” They’re refusing to even entertain it.
But their leadership appears to be struggling with what to do next.
“If you don’t want the two-state solution, and you celebrate the destroying of the opportunity of two states living-and-letting-live you’re left with two options,” Saab Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said last week.
“One is what they’re trying to impose on us now: a one-state, two-systems, apartheid, which isn’t going to fly.”
“Or maybe Netanyahu wants one person one vote from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean but I don’t think he thinks this way,” the veteran diplomat said.
A little-noticed clause in the Trump plan suggests that 10 towns inside Israel itself, which are mostly occupied by ethnic Arabs, could be incorporated into a Palestinian state with a re-drawing of the borders since “these communities largely self-identify as Palestinian.” It’s estimated that this would affect more than 200,000 people.
Adalah, a Palestinian human rights group, noted that “this marks for the first time a US administration has ever given a green light to the transfer of Israeli citizens to the authority of another state.
“Adalah sees this move as a racially motivated attempt to forcibly transfer Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, strip them of their citizenship, and place them under perpetual Israeli military occupation,” it said in a statement.
The annexation of conquered land and the involuntary transfer of populations are banned under international law.
“It’s so ridiculous, so racist, and so un-Jewish,” said Ahmad Tibi, a resident of Taibe, one of the 10 towns that could be “transferred.”
Tibi, who is also the leader of the Ta’al party and a senior member of the opposition Joint List group in the Israeli parliament, noted that there were about 150,000 voters in this block of territory, while political parties supported by Israel’s Arab (or Palestinian) population make up the third biggest block in the 120-seat parliament.
“This plan is deepening the apartheid reality on the West Bank … you’ll have two systems of everything, one for Jews and one for Palestinians,” he added.
He repeated Erekat’s mantra that the choices were to continue the march towards what they call apartheid, or accept a one-state, one-person-one-vote system.
The latter notion has been ruled out by a wide cross-section of Israeli society. A democratic Jewish state could not survive contact with demographic reality. There are currently about 7 million Jews and 6.5 million Palestinians living west of the Jordan River.
Birth rates among non-Jews in this area are above those for Jews. So, the argument goes, a fully fledged multi-ethnic democracy would pretty quickly vote away the unique Jewishness of the Jewish state. It would be the end of the meaning of Israel as a nation and a haven for all Jews.
Erekat and Tibi both suggest, therefore, that the pursuit of the Trump plan “deepens apartheid.”
A rump state
Old-fashioned South African apartheid officially ended with the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. But it had long roots, back to British colonial rule that thickened into a hydra affecting every part of South African life from the 1950s onwards.
Petty apartheid was the everyday stuff. Racially segregated beaches, park benches, buses, trains, schools and even cities.
Grand apartheid is what critics of the Trump plan are talking about, though. This was a scheme to turn every black South African into a citizen of somewhere else – namely a “homeland” based on their ethno-linguistic heritage.
So, residents of say, Soweto, South Africa’s biggest “township,” would not only be denied the right to live in neighboring whites-only Johannesburg – but they would also be assigned a “homeland” as their nation.
Zulus would be hived off to KawZulu, Tswana people to Bophuthatswana, Xhosa to Ciskei or the Transkei and so on. There were 10 Bantustans, as they came to be known.
The apartheid governments celebrated the Bantustans as places where “separate development” could be practiced. They helped to dilute the non-white numbers of actual South Africans; under local laws they could raise their own taxes and run their own local affairs but do very little without the permission of the real South African government.
None were ever recognized internationally and all were condemned as an apartheid plot to further entrench racial segregation. They also happened to provide a cheap labor pool for workers who could be expelled back to the homelands if they got uppity.
Almost all looked like ink splashes on the canvas of mapping, non-contiguous patches of land “given” to black people by a white government.
Trump’s map of a future Palestinian state, which Palestinians like Erekat say would arguably have less real independence than even a South African Bantustan, looks much like an old fashioned “homeland” for the Palestinian people. It would also mean that the Palestinians would have to give up on about 30% of the West Bank, according to David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel.
CNN put the Palestinian allegation that the Trump plan could create a system of “apartheid-style Bantustans” to Netanyahu’s office, as well as to that of his main rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, which has also said it supports the plan.
Netanyahu’s bureau said: “The Prime Minister’s office has been working with the administration for three years on the deal of the century, and this work is ongoing. We’re not discussing anything beyond this at this point.”
For its part, Gantz’s office said: “Blue and White views this as an historic opportunity to bring hope and stability to the region, following years of stalemate. We urge the Palestinian leadership to engage in dialogue instead of automatically refusing and again missing an opportunity for peace.”
Speaking at the White House at the launch of the plan, Netanyahu insisted that it was a good deal for the Palestinians.
“Mr. President, Israel wants the Palestinians to have a better life. We want them to have a future of national dignity, prosperity, and hope. Your peace plan offers the Palestinians such a future,” the Israeli PM said.
“Your peace plan offers the Palestinians a pathway to a future state. I know that it may take them a very long time to reach the end of that path. It may even take them a very long time to get to the beginning of that path, but if the Palestinians are genuinely prepared to take that path, if they’re genuinely prepared to make peace with the Jewish state, and if they agree to abide by all the conditions you have put forward in your plan, Israel will be there.”
The prospect of being a Quisling administration administering a rump ink-blotch Palestinian semi-state has enraged Palestinian leaders. Erekat insists that Trump’s plan, a “Vision for Peace,” would inevitably mean the end of the PA.
But he won’t say when the PA will throw in the towel.
Confusion over Palestinian position
Critical for Israel, though, is the security cooperation that has been essential in trying to prevent attacks inside Israel and on Jewish settlers – or in capturing those who have perpetrated assaults and murders.
During an extended press conference, Erekat was asked at least a dozen times what concrete steps the Palestinian Authority would now take.
In the end he was asked whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was going to suspend security cooperation with Israel if he pursued the Trump plan.
“Yes,” he said.
This was, he went on, communicated in a “message” to Netanyahu, but he would not be drawn further on what else, if anything, was being considered.
On Saturday an emergency meeting of the Arab League also rejected the plan after hearing from Abbas that “we’ve informed the Israeli side … that there will be no relations at all with them and the United States, including security ties.”
Moments after he made this statement, his own administration added to the confusion surrounding the Palestinian position, briefing journalists that no actual decision to end relations with the US and Israel had actually been taken – it was still just a threat.
After all, as the PA’s Erekat has pointed out, the plan is an existential threat to the Palestinian Authority which, if it agreed to implement the Trump plan, “would just be for picking up the trash.”
On the Palestinian street there’s been little response to the dramatic shift that the Trump plan could mean – partly because of the vacillating Palestinian leadership, and partly because Israel already controls all of the Jordan Valley aside from Jericho and a handful of small villages.
The settlements are already walled off from the rest of the West Bank and entirely under Israeli control.
Abram Mohammed Ibrahim is an elderly grocer in the central market of Jericho, a city of some 23,000 Palestinians surrounded by territory under Israeli control. He drew the approval of younger men while railing against the Trump deal.
Privately many Palestinians see their leaders as weak and fading with the years of failed negotiations, and deeply compromised.
In public, though, they stick to attacking Israel.
“We as Palestinians should go back to jihad, that should be our way of resistance. We should not be afraid of Trump or Netanyahu or anyone. We should go back to our old ways of fighting, no more useless peace negotiations which have brought us no dignity nor rights,” said Ibrahim.
There are no signs of a return to violent resistance or even non-violent mass protest, which has never taken off among the Palestinians – much less a return to the militant terror attacks of the 70s and 80s when Palestinian groups hijacked planes and took their grievances violently international.
Instead, now, the fight for Israel may be largely internal. A decision to pursue the Trump plan in earnest could jeopardize what for many Israelis is the whole point of their nation.
To establish a Palestinian “state” as suggested by Trump could bring hardliners from the right and more liberal Zionists into a battle for the very soul of Israel.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Ahmad Tibi's position in the Joint List group in the Israeli parliament.