Muriel Asseburg

After the Presentation of Trump’s Vision for the Middle East, Europeans Need to Weigh In

Point of View, 24.02.2020
Muriel Asseburg

In his “Deal of the Century” for the Middle East, US President Donald Trump has primarily been guided by the narrative and interests of the Israeli right. The plan does not provide a basis for peace negotiations. Muriel Asseburg explains why and how Europeans should react now.

At the end of January 2020, US President Donald Trump and his Middle East team, after a long delay, presented the political component of the so-called Deal of the Century. It claims to provide for a comprehensive and definitive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution. It complements the economic component, which had been presented in Manama, Bahrain, in June 2019. After a successful peace deal, the economic component is to lead to massive levels of investment in Palestine and the region, triggering a boost in development.

Entrenching of the one-state reality

In fact, however, the plan is designed in a way that will entrench the one-state reality that has developed in Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies. It would permanently enshrine Israeli security responsibilities and Israel’s control over borders, airspace, and coastal waters as well as legitimise the annexation of about 30 per cent of the West Bank. According to the Trump administration’s script, the State of Palestine would not have a contiguous territory. Rather, its islands would be connected by bridges, tunnels, and transit routes, all under Israeli control.

The planned land swaps are not only unequal in size and quality, but also have explosive potential, mainly because the so-called Arab Triangle in Galilee is to be part of the Palestinian state. In fact, the Palestinian Israelis living there would lose their Israeli citizenship and be isolated from their surroundings. What is more, there would not only be Palestinian enclaves in Israeli territory, but also 15 settlement enclaves in the Palestinian state. This would guarantee continued friction.

Jerusalem would remain the “undivided capital of Israel”, and Israel would retain control over the majority of Palestinian residential areas, the Old City, the Holy Basin, and the holy sites. The Palestinians would be allowed to regard the neighbourhoods east of the separation barrier as their capital, if they so wish, and call it Al-Quds. As a result, some 140,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem could lose their residency permits. The plan categorically excludes the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The Trump plan is not a basis for negotiations, but it is likely to shape reality

The Palestinian leadership has already rejected the plan and negotiations on its basis. This is not surprising. Not only is the document largely based on the narrative of the Israeli right, but it also ignores Palestinian claims and interests almost entirely. It is also contrary to principles of international law, such as the inadmissibility of the appropriation of territory by force. Moreover, it falls far short of the international consensus on conflict settlement, enshrined for example in Security Council Resolution 2234 (2016), which provides for a balance of interests, a territorial arrangement based on the 1967 border, and a consensual settlement of the refugee issue.

The American vision also offers the Palestinians far less than previous US plans or Israeli proposals. Above all, however, the offer of a Palestinian state is completely void of meaning due to the restrictions envisaged. Its implementation would in any case be subject to an Israeli-American veto – as would the carrot of substantial financial assistance. For it is Israel and the Americans who would decide whether or not the Palestinians are meeting the criteria for statehood and whether they merit the investment in prosperity.

However, this does not mean that the plan is irrelevant. To the contrary, it is likely to have a decisive impact on developments on the ground and become a point of reference for future approaches, for any future Israeli government is unlikely to accept less than has been promised by Trump. What is more, the plan allows Israel – independently of negotiations – to annex the designated areas and further expand the settlements there. In this way, it closes the door to a negotiated two-state arrangement for good.

Europeans need to weigh in

Although an Israeli-American committee has already been set up to work out the details of annexations, and even if the strategic environment is far from favourable, there is still room for the Europeans to influence the next Israeli government’s cost-benefit calculation and prevent it from permanently obstructing a negotiated solution, as well as to prevent the Trump plan from becoming an international frame of reference for future approaches to the conflict. The European Union (EU) and its member states should make use of this room for manoeuvre.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, already warned that annexations would not go unchallenged. It is necessary to spell out now how a European response to de jure annexations would look. In that context, Europeans have toyed with a wide range of approaches – from recognising the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders and sanctioning Israel, for example by suspending the Association Agreement, to cautious engagement with the Deal of the Century.

It would be essential to first quickly agree at least on a minimum shared position – instead of waiting until the European Council meeting on 26 and 27 March – and, on this basis, to send clear signals not only from Brussels but also Europe’s capitals. This should include Europeans’ refusal to recognise a unilateral determination of borders and their demand that Israel grant citizenship rights in all annexed areas as well as those under permanent occupation. It should also include confirming Israel’s obligation to ensure the livelihoods of the populations in all areas it permanently controls – and a corresponding withdrawal of European financial support. In addition, EU member states would have to drive home the point that de jure annexations would seriously disrupt relations between Israel and Europe.

Such declarations will not resonate if a right-wing nationalist government led by the Likud is formed again in Israel after elections on 2 March. But if the next coalition is led by the more moderate Benny Gantz, there will be a chance for dialogue.

Second, Europeans must prevent the Trump plan from becoming an international frame of reference for future negotiations. Therefore, they should refrain from anything that could be understood as giving legitimacy to the plan – for example, by proposing talks on “this and other proposals”.

Third, Europeans must not give the impression that they are giving Israel (or any other actor) a free pass for violations of international law – as Germany did in its letter to the International Criminal Court, which was aimed at protecting Israel from an investigation into suspected war crimes.

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