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Politics

Trump’s Mideast plan skews heavily toward Israel, with few concessions to Palestinians

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Israel Benjamin Netanyahu deliver remarks at the White House on Jan. 28, 2020.
President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver remarks at the White House on Jan. 28, 2020.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

President Trump on Tuesday presented his long-promised plan to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving Israel virtually everything it wanted, including control over an undivided Jerusalem, no right of return for Palestinian refugees, full sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and no evacuations of any Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians, under the plan, could receive up to $50 billion in financial investments and the promise of eventually receiving sovereignty through a demilitarized state, surrounded by Israeli territory and broken up into noncontiguous parcels throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Speaking to a heavily pro-Israel audience at the White House, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump vowed unrelenting support for Israel while urging Palestinians to accept what “may be the last opportunity” to build an independent state.

Palestinian representatives said they were not invited to Tuesday’s East Room ceremony and not consulted in the plan. They declared it dead on arrival, noting it consists largely of ideas they have rejected repeatedly.

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“Our rights are not for sale,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a television broadcast from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, shortly after Trump’s address. “We say a thousand times over: No, no, no.”

Describing an 80-page document drafted over nearly three years, Trump said the plan gave Palestinians four years to meet a list of demands that would then qualify them to negotiate a state. Some of the demands, such as reining in the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and ending payments to the families of militants slain by Israelis, have either been rejected by the Palestinian Authority in the past or are beyond its capability.

During that four-year period, Trump said, the expansion of Israeli settlements, which has turned the West Bank map into something akin to Swiss cheese, would be suspended in those areas that the plan envisions would one day become part of a Palestinian state. But no settlements would be evacuated, and presumably settlements in areas not envisioned by the plan to become part of a future Palestine could continue to expand.

Trump said Israel would be guaranteed permanent control over its “undivided capital” in Jerusalem, denying Palestinians a piece of East Jerusalem, which they have long hoped to make their capital. Instead Trump’s plan revives an Israeli proposal that envisions Palestinians renaming some communities on the opposite side of Israel’s security barrier as “Al-Quds,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Palestinian leaders previously scoffed at the notion, noting the suggested parcels have never been considered part of the holy city.

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“Jerusalem is not for sale,” Abbas said.

The “conceptual” map that accompanied the administration plan showed the potential future Palestinian state as a gerrymandered, mostly kidney-shaped splotch of land completely surrounded by Israel.

Trump’s announcement, followed by a speech of thanks from Netanyahu, was welcomed by conservative pro-Israel groups and several Republican lawmakers. But numerous Democrats and an array of peace and human rights activists lambasted the plan as one-sided and lacking fresh vision.

“Not even a pretense of realism,” tweeted Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which is active in the region.

Several former diplomats and other experts on Israel said that Netanyahu’s White House visit also served to reassure him he had a green light to take the next potentially provocative step: annexation of roughly 30% of the West Bank. Netanyahu has scheduled a meeting of his Cabinet on Sunday to discuss such a step.

Although Netanyahu carefully avoided the word “annexation” in his public remarks, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, told reporters after the ceremony that “Israel is free to annex settlements at any time.”

David Makovsky, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said annexation would render the plan “DOA — dead on arrival.”

“It would only doom U.S. efforts to get Arab states on the American side of this,” he said.

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Though Netanyahu singled out the governments of Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates for sending emissaries to the White House event, none offered a public endorsement of the plan and their embassies did not return calls seeking comment.

Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the Trump plan was “clear as mud.”

“Trump’s description was full of contradictions,” he said. Among other things, Shapiro wondered: How do you give Israel full sovereignty over settlements and build a contiguous Palestinian state? How do you call this a “basis” for negotiations while allowing Israel to implement all portions favorable to it?

“If Trump is reelected, the plan will accelerate the end of the pursuit of two states,” Shapiro said. “If a Democrat is elected, it will go on the shelf and be ignored.”

Hours before Trump unveiled his plan, Netanyahu suffered a major political setback when prosecutors in his own country proceeded with a three-count indictment against him for alleged bribery, fraud and the coercing of favorable coverage from Israeli media outlets.

Netanyahu, like Trump, had hoped the announcement of the U.S. plan would give political boosts to both embattled leaders. The two close allies are mired in legal troubles: Netanyahu’s looming corruption trial and Trump’s impeachment trial on charges of abuse of power.

Also like Trump, Netanyahu has dismissed the case against him as politically motivated.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony along with Cabinet members, conservative Jewish community leaders and evangelical Christian representatives who strongly back Trump’s pro-Israel policies, defended the plan as beneficial to Palestinians.

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If they reject it, he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “they’re going to screw up another opportunity, like they’ve screwed up every other opportunity that they’ve ever had in their existence.”

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s acting defense minister and head of a right-wing pro-settler party whose support Netanyahu would need to build a government, said the country should take advantage of the parts of the plan that cement Israeli control of all land. At the same time, he rejected the key Palestinian concession in the plan.

“We will not allow the government of Israel to recognize a Palestinian state under any circumstances,” he said.

Palestinian leadership boycotted any dealings with the Trump administration after a series of pro-Israel steps, including recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — Palestinians also claim the city as their capital in an eventual independent state — and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Trump also cut off much U.S. aid to Palestinians in a bid to force their leaders to the negotiating table, and abandoned the U.S. commitment to a “two-state solution,” the idea that foresaw an independent Palestinian nation living peacefully alongside Israel.

Arab states either trashed the plan or remained quiet. Jordan warned Israel against taking any further steps toward annexation. “Unilateral annexation of parts of [the] West Bank by Israel will have dangerous consequences,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.

Trump surprised Israelis last week when he abruptly invited Netanyahu and his chief political rival, Benny Gantz, to the White House this week to share the peace plan.

Netanyahu and Gantz, a former army commander who heads a centrist political party, faced each other in elections twice last year, both resulting in a virtual tie and rendering both unable to form a government. A third election attempt is scheduled for early March, an unprecedented era of political chaos in a country where politics is rarely smooth.

“In order to move forward with the ‘deal of the century,’ it is our responsibility to march united under a prime minister who has the public legitimacy to enact it,” Gantz said after his meeting Monday with Trump and before returning to Israel on Tuesday. “There is reason to fear that a prime minister with three indictments against him will make decisions based on the personal interest of his own political survival.”

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem.


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