Jan 29, 2020

Why Trump's Middle East peace plan already matters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claps as President Trump announces his Middle East peace plan
Trump and Netanyahu announce the peace plan at the White House Tuesday. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

President Trump is nowhere near a deal on Middle East peace, but his long-awaited plan has immediate and dramatic implications for the reality on the ground.

Driving the news: The White House gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a green light to immediately annex about 30% of the West Bank, a step every previous U.S. administration vehemently opposed. Netanyahu plans to act on that opportunity as soon as Sunday.

Our thought bubble: If Israel does annex the Jordan Valley, it will entrench Israel’s control and fundamentally change the equation for any future negotiations.

  • Green-lighting annexations is an even more dramatic step from Trump than moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
  • It could also ultimately be the least reversible of those steps. Once annexation happens, it’s hard to reverse.

For Netanyahu, this could be the biggest moment in a political career that has been remarkable for its longevity but not for landmark accomplishments.

  • He stood alongside Trump during the announcement — just hours after surrendering immunity from three corruption indictments, and one month before an election that could bring his political career to an end.
  • Annexing the Jordan Valley could keep right-wing voters who’d considered backing Benny Gantz, his primary rival, in his corner. It would certainly be central to his legacy.

For the Palestinians, who have boycotted this process, the full benefits of the plan would come far more slowly even if they were willing to go along with it.

  • The plan envisions a Palestinian state if a number of conditions are met over four years, but rejects a “right of return” for refugees and grants Israel control of nearly all of Jerusalem — not to mention much of the West Bank.
  • That’s a complete non-starter. “They turned down three previous plans that included 100% of the West Bank,” says David Makovsky, who worked on a previous initiative led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

What to watch: Arab states like the UAE and Egypt that had previously stood by the Palestinians on this issue have offered cautious support for Trump’s plan. Only Jordan, where most Palestinians reside, has expressed concern.

  • If the annexations go ahead, experts worry Jordan could pull out of a landmark peace treaty with Israel.
  • Makovsky says annexation could potentially rally the rest of the Arab world against the deal, and would certainly overshadow other parts of the deal he considers creative and constructive.
  • There are also concerns among Israeli defense officials that the opposition of the Palestinians could turn into an uprising in the territories.
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