The Middle East peace plan has generated controversy rather than hope

The long-awaited US Middle –East peace plan was recently released  on 28 January by President Trump in Washington with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to him. Described as "the deal of the century" by Netanyahu it has generated more controversy than agreement. The blueprint, which aims to solve one of the world's longest-running conflicts, was apparently drafted under the stewardship of President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The joint announcement about the peace deal, according to the BBC “came as both Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu faced political challenges at home”. The media responded that this measure had emerged at a time when both the US President as well as the Israeli Prime Minister was facing serious difficulties at home- Trump being subjected to an impeachment trial in the US Senate and Netanyahu being investigated on corruption charges. Both leaders have however denied any wrongdoing.

David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel has however pointed out that the timing of the announcement was not tied to any political development and also added that the proposed deal had been "fully baked" for some time.

It would be important at this point to outline in short the proposals contained in the proposed deal as outlined by President Trump-

§  The US will recognise Israeli sovereignty over territory that Mr Trump's plan envisages being part of Israel. The plan includes a conceptual map that Mr Trump says illustrates the territorial compromises that Israel is willing to make;

§     The map will "more than double the Palestinian territory and provide a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem", where Mr Trump says the US would open an Embassy. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in this regard has however noted that Mr Trump's plan would give Palestinians control over 15% of what it called "historic Palestine";

§     Jerusalem "will remain Israel's undivided capital". It may be mentioned here that both Israel and the Palestinians hold competing claims to the holy city. The Palestinians insist that East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, has to be the capital of their future State;

§     An opportunity for Palestinians to "achieve an independent state of their very own" - however, he gave few clear details in this regard;

§    "No Palestinians or Israelis will be uprooted from their homes" - suggesting that existing Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank will remain;

§     Israel will work with the King of Jordan to ensure that the status quo governing the key holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims is preserved. This is important because Jordan runs the religious trust that administers the site; and

§ Territory allocated to Palestinians in Mr Trump's map "will remain open and undeveloped for a period of four years". During that time, Palestinians can study the deal, negotiate with Israel, and "achieve the criteria for statehood".

It needs to be noted at this point that until now all of the most difficult aspects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal - the so-called final status issues - like borders; the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the long-term status of Jerusalem; and the fate of Palestinian refugees, were to be left for face-to-face talks between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. This proposed deal suggests that such a format will not be crucial any longer. Israel has enthusiastically supported this proposed deal because the deal proposed by Trump and enthusiastically endorsed by Prime Minister Netanyahu essentially frames all of these issues clearly in Israel's favor.

It may be recalled that the Palestinians were not just absent from this meeting in Washington; they have continued to boycott the Trump Administration ever since it unilaterally moved its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Since then, the US has ended both bilateral aid for Palestinians and contributions for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). In November, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said that the US had abandoned its four-decades-old position that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were inconsistent with international law.

 Now the Palestinians through this proposed deal have essentially been presented with an ultimatum of four years to come around and agree to co-exist within a difficult and different geo-political paradigm.

Analysts in this regard have pointed out that while President Trump is offering the Palestinians a State of their own, it would be a much truncated one. The denotation of the deal also suggests that no Jewish settlers will be uprooted and Israeli sovereignty will apparently be extended to the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. 

The Palestinians, according to this plan might have a capital in the East Jerusalem suburbs but the question will remain as to how much damage it may do by over-turning Palestinian aspirations.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in his response to the Washington scenario, responded by pointing out that it was "impossible for any Palestinian, Arab, Muslim or Christian child to accept" a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. The militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has also rejected the deal which it said aimed "to liquidate the Palestinian national project". A spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres said the UN wanted a peace deal on the basis of UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements. It also reiterated that the UN remained committed to a two-state solution based on the borders in place before the 1967 war, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) composed of 57 Muslim Statesafter a special meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia also announced on 3 February, 2020 that it rejects the Trump- Israeli plan “as it does not meet the minimum aspirations and legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and contradicts the terms of reference of the peace process”.

There have been several viewpoints that have been outlined by geo-strategists in the last few days regarding the various facets that will remain as challenges in getting such a deal through. In this context one needs to remember that the two sides signed a breakthrough peace accord launched in Oslo in 1993  but , more than a quarter of a century later the two sides are arguably as far apart as ever. The significant areas with regard to the resolution of the Palestinian- Israeli issue can be identified as being related to the following factors:

(a)   Jerusalem: Both Israel and the Palestinians hold competing claims to the city. Israel, which occupied the formerly Jordanian-held eastern part in 1967, regards the whole of Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians insist on East Jerusalem - home to about 350,000 of their community - as the capital of a hoped-for independent state. In this regard it may be noted that the Palestinian claim enjoys the support of the majority of UN Member States ;

(b) Palestinian statehood: The Palestinians want an independent state of their own, comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israeli prime ministers have publicly accepted the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel but not what form it should take. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that any Palestinian state should be demilitarised with the powers to govern itself but not to threaten Israel;

(c)  Recognition: Israel insists that any peace deal must include Palestinian recognition of it as the "nation-state of the Jewish people". The Palestinians on the other hand, want to refrain from recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, because they fear that this might lead to discrimination against Israel's Arab population of Palestinian origin, who are Muslims, Christians and Druze;

(d)   Borders: Both sides have fundamentally different ideas as to where the boundaries of a potential Palestinian state should be. The Palestinians insist on borders based on ceasefire lines which separated Israel and East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza between 1949 and 1967. Israel, on the other hand claims that those lines are militarily indefensible and were never intended to be permanent. However, on more than one occasion, it has been unofficially indicated that Israel believes that its own eastern border should be along the Jordan River.

(e)   Settlements: Since 1967, Israel has built about 140 settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as 121 outposts - settlements built without the government's authorisation. They have become home to some 600,000 Israeli Jews. These Israeli settlements are considered illegal by most of the international community, though Israel disputes this. Palestinians say all settlements must be removed for a Palestinian state to be viable. Mr Netanyahu has however vowed not only to never to uproot any settlements but also to bring them under Israeli sovereignty.

(f)   Refugees: The UN says its agencies support about 5.5 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East Palestinians insist on their right to return to their former homes, but Israel says they are not entitled to, noting that such a move would overwhelm it demographically and lead to its end as a Jewish state.

Given the factors enumerated above, as expected, the Trump deal has run head-on into criticism.

Despite Netanyahu meeting the Russian leadership after his visit to Washington, Russia has raised serious questions about the proposed deal being “a new opportunity”. The Arab League meeting in Cairo on 1 February has also rejected the Trump plan and re-affirmed their support for Palestine. Former US President Jimmy Carter has also stated that this Plan would violate international law. In this regard he has also urged the United Nations to stop Israel from annexing Palestinian land. 

There have also been very critical comments made by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. They have pointed out that this “Deal of the Century” is more like Swiss cheese, with the cheese being offered to the Israelis and the holes to the Palestinians. They have also noted that there are many ways to end the occupation, but the only legitimate options are those based on equality and human rights for all. They have also commented that Palestinians, under this deal will be relegated to small, enclosed, isolated enclaves, with no control over their lives.

In conclusion, one thing is very clear. The Trump deal might end up drawing the support of some of the Middle Eastern States, but, it is unlikely that it will be accepted unanimously by Palestine or throughout the region or by all Member States of the United Nations. The anxiety of instability and terrorism will continue to grow. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance