The countdown has begun for the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s promised “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, one that aims to close the chapter on the decades-old conflict. For the Palestinians, initial signs point to a dismal start.
Last week the US State Department informed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that it had decided to close down its Washington office because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could not make the certification required by law to extend the office’s credentials by another six months. The reason given was that President Mahmoud Abbas, in his UN General Assembly speech last September, had called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute Israeli officials for their involvement in illegal settlement activities and for war crimes against the Palestinian people.
Under a rarely invoked 2015 law, the US is required to shut down the PLO’s mission if the Palestinians seek to “influence a determination by the ICC to initiate a judicially authorized investigation, or to actively support such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.” It also prohibits the US government from providing aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if it seeks UN recognition, with no waiver provided even in the case where US national security interests are at stake! The office was still operating normally this week as behind-the-scenes negotiations took place in Washington. Senior Palestinian officials have threatened to cut all communication channels with the US if the office is shut down.
Not since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 have relations between the US and the PA been tested in this way. Various US and Palestinian sources have said that the threat to close the PLO office was meant to pressure President Mahmoud Abbas to accept engaging in unconditional negotiations with Israel. President Trump has 90 days to study Tillerson’s decision, and his ruling would be determined by evidence that “the Palestinians are engaged in direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel,” the State Department has said.
One source close to the Palestinian side expects Trump to unveil his peace plan before the end of the year. There have been a number of reports, especially in Israeli media, on the main points of the plan. The White House described such reports as speculation, but it is worth looking at some of the key features in these reports.
What appears to be on offer is probably in line with Netanyahu’s position, and would reverse the few small gains of the past 25 years.
The plan will not be based on previous US initiatives and mutually agreed parameters, including withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, borders, and it will propose limited land swaps between Israel and the Occupied West Bank. It will not refer to the status of Jerusalem, it meets all Israeli security concerns including permanent presence in most of the Jordan Valley, and it will expand the PA’s self-rule powers in a temporary state in addition to offering a generous aid package. There could be a proposal to tie this state to Jordan through confederation. The plan will be part of a regional approach to ending the Arab-Israel conflict, and countries that host Palestinian refugees will be asked to settle them in exchange for aid and other incentives.
The plan is the result of a 10-month effort by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his team. It almost goes without saying that Kushner and his aides, in addition to the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, have close ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government.
Netanyahu has repeatedly argued for economic peace with the Palestinians without withdrawal from the West Bank, the return of refugees, dismantling settlements or giving up East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. The Trump plan will probably be in line with Netanyahu’s position.
Nevertheless, the Israeli prime minister has said he will wait to see details of the plan before he commits to anything. He has also applauded the decision to close down the PLO’s office.
Under these circumstances, it is clear that the Trump administration is rolling back most Palestinian gains, and there are not many, over the past two and half decades. With the PLO’s Washington office closed and the Palestinian flag removed, how could any leader tolerate maintaining contacts under these humiliating circumstances? The proposed deal itself will fall short of any offer that has been put on the table since Bill Clinton’s last-ditch attempt at reaching a final settlement between the two sides at Camp David in 2000.
There is little reason to believe that Trump’s offer will meet any of the Palestinian key principles for a just two-state solution that is also the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. Bowing to US pressure — which is nothing more than blackmail — is tantamount to committing political suicide. Abbas would be better off disbanding the PA and falling on his proverbial sword than acquiescing to US demands.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman. Twitter: @plato010