Touted by its architects as the ‘deal of the century’, US president Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and Israel has had to again be kept hidden as Israel heads back to elections after a failure by its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a government. The decision for new elections (in September) followed a vote by the newly-inaugurated 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament), hours after Netanyahu announced he could not form a coalition government, plunging Israel into political chaos. The news was hugely disappointing for Trump, who had been waiting for Netanyahu’s government to be appointed before unveiling his plan. Instead, it now sits in limbo as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and Palestinians reject the proposal outright, based on leaks about what it contains. Trump’s administration has resorted to revelations in small doses, evidenced by the announcement that the economic part of the deal will be unveiled at a 25-26 June summit in Bahrain. This strategy postpones the grand announcement while allowing Israeli occupation to continue unabated. Israel, meanwhile, is in political turmoil, with Netanyahu fighting corruption charges, and increasing tensions between right-wing Orthodox Jews and secular right-wing groups.
Failure forming government
The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, secured major gains in the April election. He was elected prime minister after securing sixty-five votes from the 120-member parliament. The bloc is comprised of Likud (thirty-five seats); Kulanu (four seats); the Union of Right-wing Parties (URP) (five seats) that includes the Kahanist Jewish supremacist Jewish Power Party and Yisrael Beitenu; the ultra-orthodox Shas (eight seats) and United Torah Judaism (eight seats). It had hoped to form a coalition government similar to the one in 2015. Netanyahu, however, failed to get his partners to agree on critical issues, and to break a stand-off between the religious ultra-orthodox parties on the one hand and the racist leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Lieberman’s disagreement with the religious parties rested mainly on his insistence on passing the Haredi draft law, a controversial document which seeks to conscript religious Jews into the army (orthodox Jews are currently largely exempt from conscription). The religious parties were unwilling to compromise on the exemption of their members from military service, despite Netanyahu’s efforts. And Lieberman refused to concede, eventually collapsing the coalition effort.
Lieberman has since used Netanyahu’s failure to form a government to garner support for his party, and lambasted the beleaguered prime minister for bowing to pressure from the religious parties. Lieberman hopes to win additional seats in the September elections, and thus wield more influence in coalition talks. If he succeeds, he could weaken Netanyahu by reducing the number of Likud seats. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also working tirelessly to shift the blame to Lieberman for forcing Israel into fresh elections. It seems, therefore, that Netanyahu’s biggest challenge for the September election will be from parties from his own right-wing bloc rather than from ‘centrist’ Blue and White party he battled against in April.
Despite the standoff between Lieberman and the religious parties, Netanyahu also faced several hurdles with other parties in his right-wing coalition. These included managing the demands of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon who insisted on being finance minister. URP leader Belazel Smotrich also demanded key portfolios for his members, specifically the justice and education ministries. The URP remained aggrieved even after the Knesset’s dissolution because Netanyahu appointed a senior Likud leader as justice minister. Smotrich has threatened to again push for that ministry, which is key for new legislation; he hopes to use it to introduce biblical laws in Israel. If this insistence persists, it would pose a major threat to Netanyahu if he wins the September election.
Bad timing for rerun election
The decision to hold new elections in September could not have come at a worse time for Trump’s long-awaited announcement of his ‘deal of the century’, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The deal’s unveiling was to be after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Trump and Kushner had hoped that by then a new Israeli government would be in place to receive a deal heavily biased towards Israel. With Israeli politics plunged into uncertainty, Kushner and Trump are concerned about their plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.
On a recent visit to Israel, Kushner sought reassurance from Netanyahu. He had travelled to the region as preparation for the25-26 June Economic Summit in Bahrain, where he is expected to announce plans for economic incentives for the Palestinians. He will ask that the financial proposals, which are regarded as the economic part of Trump’s deal, be funded by the Gulf states that will attend the summit – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Kushner also met leaders in Morocco and Jordan, in an ultimately successful attempt to convince the two kingdoms to attend the summit.
Israel’s political chaos is now posing problems for Kushner, who had been looking forward to revealing the plan he and his father-in-law had been working on since 2017. Nevertheless, both of them will happily allow Israel to quietly continue expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory as contained in the deal. Leaks suggest the deal will allow Israel to build and expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank (including in Jerusalem), will entrench Israeli control of Palestinian air, land and sea borders, will subject certain Palestinians to military rule, and will deny the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the context of the current Israeli political reality, the new Kushner strategy is to release the plan in small doses starting with the economic plan to be announced in Bahrain. It will likely focus heavily on the besieged Gaza strip, and will involve economic incentives and plans for Gaza that will be operationalised by Egypt and Qatar. For the political part of the plan, Kushner’s recent comments that ‘Palestinians have no capacity to govern themselves’ hinted at what the spirit of the ‘deal’ might be. The plan will likely cement and legitimise the status quo of Israeli control of Palestinian lives, Israeli collection of Palestinian tax revenues and continued military rule for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, Netanyahu is on board with these aspects of the plan, but his current woes could mean he will be replaced by a prime minister who will not be as amenable to Trump and Kushner, thus raising questions about the plan’s future.
The April election provided an convincing victory for Netanyahu, who had hoped to form a strong right-wing government and to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His celebration halted abruptly after he failed to form a coalition government and was forced to announce new elections that will place on 17 September, two weeks before Netanyahu argues his case at a pre-trial hearing that seeks to indict him for bribery, corruption and fraud charges. These new political developments have thrown a spanner in the works and postponed the announcement of substantive parts of Trump’s plan for Israel and Palestine. A delay in announcing it, however, allows many aspects of the deal to be quietly implemented by the Israeli government anyway, with annexation of large portions of the West Bank and tying Gaza in economically to Arab governments already under way. This leaves the Palestinians with no real resolution in sight, and with no possibility, in the near future, of a Palestinian state.
By Phyllis Bennis
US president Donald Trump’s plan to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and potentially to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is not going to undermine peace efforts – because there are no peace efforts underway. Protests have already begun, and anger is rising not only among Palestinians but across the Arab and Muslim worlds, among numerous governments including key US allies, and among people across the globe. Understanding what this move represents means viewing it from two different perspectives.
Taken at face value, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reflects Trump’s need to placate his key Israel-backing donors, particularly the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and the Christian Zionist component of his right-wing evangelical base. Pro-Israel partisans in Congress orchestrated a law in 1995 mandating the embassy move, but giving the president a way out – the president could waive the requirement if national security might be at stake. Every president since has taken advantage of that waiver – including Donald Trump six months ago. Congressional Israel-backers could blame the president, the White House could lament that security threats prevented the move...everyone was happy. But Trump’s campaign commitment to move the embassy is more important to more influential supporters than was true of earlier presidents. Plus Trump’s failure to win legislative victories (until the recent potential disaster known as the ‘Republican tax scam’) meant he had more incentive to make good on his Jerusalem promise.
Trump called this move ‘the recognition of reality’. It should be noted that it has been US policy itself – support for Israel, billions of US tax dollars sent to the Israeli military every year, acceptance of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem, protection of Israel in the United Nations – that is largely responsible for that reality. The UN resolution partitioning Palestine into what were supposed to be [thoroughly unfairly apportioned] Jewish and Palestinian Arab states, also recognised a special status for Jerusalem – it was to belong to neither ‘state’, but rather be a corpus separatum, a separate body to remain under international control. Israel claimed West Jerusalem as its capital, and in 1967 when it illegally occupied the eastern half of the city after the Six-Day War, it announced the annexation of Arab Jerusalem and forcibly unified the city as its capital. No country in the world recognised the annexation, and since that time legally binding UN Security Council resolutions continue to reaffirm that East Jerusalem remains occupied Palestinian territory. Trump’s decision stands in direct violation of international law.
But US violations of international law regarding Israel is an old story. Decades of US actions accepting, acknowledging, allowing (even if sometimes rhetorically criticising) the expansion of illegal Jews-only colonial settlements in occupied Arab Jerusalem and across the West Bank set the stage. Decades of rewarding Israeli violations of UN resolutions and international law concerning Jerusalem with billions of dollars in economic and military support set the stage. Vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning illegal Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem set the stage. What’s new this time around is the deliberately provocative, reckless nature of the decision to placate donors whatever the risk – the risk of violent responses across the world, let alone the risk of further violation of Palestinian rights.
What is not at risk is the role of the United States as an honest broker in sponsoring peace talks. Why? Because the US never was an honest broker in Israel–Palestinian talks, it was always, as at least one long-time US negotiator admitted, playing the role of Israel’s lawyer. That hasn't changed either. There are no negotiations underway to be threatened with cancellation.
Sowing chaos and threatening more war across the region
The second perspective has far more to do with the regional situation, and the war-driven, anti-diplomacy foreign policy of the Trump administration. Aside from donor pressure, US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the threat to move the embassy, have to be seen in the context of the effort led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to consolidate a powerful anti-Iran coalition across the Middle East with ostensible enemies Israel and Saudi Arabia at its core.
Trump has anointed Kushner his point man on reaching the ‘ultimate deal’ on Israel–Palestine. It’s less about any claimed interest in peace than about the collaborative regional plans being hatched by Kushner and his new BFF, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS. Together the two crown princes, as it were, are trying to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together in a newly overt alliance against Tehran. To pull off that kind of normalisation of relations between these ostensible enemies and not risk losing power, or worse, requires changing the rhetoric, if not the actual circumstances. Enter the so-called ‘new Israeli–Palestinian talks’. If the ambitious young Saudi prince can convince the majority of the royal family and at least a majority of Saudi citizens that somehow new talks mean the end of the conflict and we can all stop worrying about the Palestinians, then normalisation of relations with Israel suddenly looks more acceptable. Such a partnership portends a serious rise in the threat of war – with not only the United States but Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus Jordan, the UAE, Egypt and more, openly unified against Iran.
Just a week or so before the announcement about Jerusalem, the Trump administration threatened to close the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians accepted Washington’s terms for new negotiations. Those US-brokered talks would be based on pro-settlement, human rights-violating conditions that no Palestinian leader could ordinarily accept. If some Palestinian leader – the current head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, or some other leader if the Saudis force Abbas to quit as they reportedly threatened – accepts a deal legitimising permanent Israeli control of Palestinian land, Saudi Arabia can easily slip into a cosy partnership with their erstwhile enemy.
The timing remains a question. Why would Kushner and his father-in-law make the goal of an Israeli–Saudi alliance against Iran more difficult by such a provocative move regarding Jerusalem? Part of the answer has to do with the primacy of Israel over Saudi Arabia in Kushner’s world – regardless of his recent bromance with MSB. Kushner has been a supporter of illegal Israeli settlements for years; in his role in one of his family’s foundations he helped orchestrate tens of thousands of dollars donated to Israeli settlements. According to Newsweek, ‘The foundation donated at least $38,000 between 2011 and 2013 to a fundraising group building a Jewish seminary in a West Bank settlement known as Beit El. During that period, Kushner’s foundation also donated an additional $20,000 to Jewish and educational institutions in settlements throughout the region.’
Somehow the Trump son-in-law forgot to mention those transactions when he filed financial reports required for his top-level security clearance. But it fits a pattern. In late 2016 Kushner ordered Michael Flynn, then the Trump campaign’s top foreign policy adviser, to persuade Russia to delay the imminent UN Security Council vote criticising Israeli settlements. President Obama had decided to abstain and to allow the resolution to pass; Trump wanted the Russians to delay the vote so the new administration could veto it. But Moscow refused to play along.
If you just listened to the official rhetoric from both governments, something like a Saudi–Israeli alliance appears unthinkable. But it turns out that many ‘unthinkable’ developments in the volatile Middle East are actually quite thinkable – although it usually means there’s a price to be paid. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital has been bandied about as a threat for years despite international law. The fundamentalist Saudi government has all but publicly pined for open relations with Israel despite Tel Aviv’s continuing violations of Palestinian rights. National leaders may pay a political price for those moves. But the real price – potentially in destroyed lives, devastated cities and more – will be paid by the people of Iran, who will likely face even more crippling sanctions and a growing threat of war; by the people of Yemen, where the US-backed Saudi war continues to escalate with horrific humanitarian consequences; potentially by Lebanon, where Saudi interference is again on the rise; and as always by the Palestinians, who have paid the price for US support of Israeli occupation and apartheid for more than seventy years, and have just been sold out again.
There are no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way that might be threatened by US recognition of Jerusalem. But the move certainly makes peace – or justice – anywhere in the war-torn region far less likely.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Other books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Understanding the U.S.-Iran Crisis: A Primer, Ending the Iraq War: A Primer, and Ending the Us War in Afghanistan: A Primer.