‘The Deal of the Century’: Peace Plan or sinking the last lingering hopes for peace?

By Harry Hagopian
March 13, 2019

I came across the following startling tweet on 2 March 2019. Posted by Dr Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington DC, he was commenting on Jason D Greenblatt’s exchange on social media with Saeb Erekat regarding ‘the deal of the century’ between Israel and the Palestinians that has been hounding many enquiring minds for months on end:

I’d assume he’s hoping to make it harder for you to drop a flaming bag of dog poop (known as your “peace plan”) on the Palestinian front porch, ring the bell and run away. You’re doing a fantastic job of sinking the last lingering hopes for peace. You should be very proud!

In fact, one prediction crossing my radar recently suggested that the deal would also provide $60 billion for the Palestinian Authority, $40 billion to Egypt as well as $20 billion to Jordan and Lebanon. It would highlight four principles – freedom, respect, security and opportunity – with one key goal of “developing infrastructure” for “tremendous growth in … the West Bank and Gaza.” It seems to me that the naïve  – perhaps crude would be a more apposite adjective - reasoning presupposed that oodles of cash would ensure the acceptance of this deal. But it was equally clear to me that the deal would envisage shifting such a colossal financial burden to the US allies – which in blunt language meant some of the Gulf countries.

A recent Editorial by Sani Meo in the latest edition of This Week in Palestine magazine cast doubt that such a deal could ever be acceptable to a majority of ordinary Palestinians no matter the personalities, circumstances or consequences. I enjoyed Meo’s piece because it was a sensible and local grassroots viewpoint that echoed the opinions of ordinary men and women who cannot easily be lured into a deal that promises them a lot of benefits, as well as many hardships, but also deprives them of their vision for a free Palestine. In fact, his piece underlined the fact that the US Administration refuses to understand that no Palestinian leader could acquiesce to a deal that essentially sells out Jerusalem. The last sentence in this Editorial struck me when Meo also concluded, “It is no secret that the deal of the century is meant to rid those regimes of the Palestinian 'nuisance', but as weak as those wretched Palestinians are, they hold the key to sabotaging a major political scheme that would change the strategic geopolitical situation of the area and possibly beyond. Without mincing words, the deal of the century is a no go.”

So what about this plan that is purportedly meant to be unveiled after the Israeli parliamentary elections of 9April and the formation of a new government in Israel? Let us go back a few months and examine some salient facts.

Over many years, Palestinians have somehow acknowledged a few facts. A key fact is that Israel is uninterested in withdrawing from the occupied Palestinian territories. Rather, it is interested in the geography of these lands whilst attempting to rid itself of their demography. Otherwise put, keep the arable lands with their aquifers and get rid of those pesky Palestinian men, women and children who populate them and who challenge the monochromatic version of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel) and are a burden on the financial coffers of the State.

Palestinians have also acknowledged that the USA under all its presidents had an inbuilt political bias in favour of Israel and against Palestinians. Whether this is due to the standpoints of their legislative bodies in the Senate and Congress, to the impact of a community of Evangelical Christians or to lobbying organisations such as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), US presidents have tilted willy-nilly toward the Israeli Zionist version of a future peace pact whose genesis can be found in the shameful last chapter of the British Mandate. Whether US Presidents have been hard-nosed with the parties or paid lip service to Palestinian legitimate demands, the equation has been both uneven in the implementation of International law and unerringly skewed in its interpretation.

Furthermore, Palestinians have acknowledged that Europe is not really a weighty political player and clearly lacks a coherent common foreign policy. I remember Palestinian officials telling me that the USA makes the political decisions whist Europe provides the funding. Crudely put, America provided the military arsenal for Israel to bomb, damage or spoliate Palestinian territories and infrastructures, whereas Europe stepped in to repair or rebuild them.

Palestinians have moreover acknowledged – whether overtly or covertly – that many of the Arab countries are fed up to the teeth with the Palestinian conflict and want to find a way to get rid of this refugee-laden problem. Official statements or endorsements of the Palestinian rights have often been no more and no less than mere verbal placebos, and the dollars coming into the Palestinian coffers from some Arab states has been a way of ‘throwing money at the problem’. But a key reason why they have demurred until recently from any more drastic action such as regular public meetings with Israeli officials, is the strong grassroots support that Palestinians enjoy across much of the Arab and Muslim countries. Rulers would prefer to pay token support to this cause, which, remember, was for decades the hub of all the conflicts in the Arab World rather than have to contend with the ire of their populace.    

And finally, Palestinians have openly acknowledged that they are divided not only between the West Bank and Gaza but also amongst the different parties of those two territorial encampments. They remain in bitter disagreement over many issues. However, no matter the political algorithms of such disagreements, there are no more than a handful of Palestinians today (whether inside the Green Line or in the occupied Palestinian territories) who would accept forfeiture of the Palestinian right for self-determination and the establishment of an independent and sovereign state.

But much of this changed with President Trump and his coterie of functionaries – including Jared Kushner, Jason D Greenblatt and David Friedman – who muddied the waters and encouraged rapacious attitudes. This president, transactional to his fingertips but with a political nous that rivals a tailor’s dummy, seems fixated by the monies of the Arab Gulf countries, and is paranoid (at least outwardly) over Iran. So he has been trying to shift the fulcrum from Palestine to Iran. Three Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – have helped feed this paranoia as they seem more interested in countering Iranian hegemony than in securing a Palestinian independent state. The political environment that spawned the Saudi-tailored Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut (2002, reaffirmed in 2007 and 2017 simultaneously) is alas no more, and the façade of solidarity with Palestinians has been replaced with other egregious agendas that highlight elements of fear, control, impulsiveness and suppression. 

In pursuing its focus on Iran, though, the current US Administration and its allies have tried to ride roughshod over Palestinian aspirations and lead them toward further concessions that are tantamount to an abject surrender of their rights and hopes for their own state. Lie on your backs and shut up, Palestinians have been told, and we will tickle your tummies with some morsels of territory and a bagful of money. 

But when the Palestinians – divided, powerless, weary and challenged but resolute in their dignity – pushed back and refused to play ball, the US Administration decided to 'punish' Palestinians in the hope of coercing them to come back to the negotiating table in order to consider a “deal of the century” stewed in Jared Kushner’s steamy kitchen. In other words, Palestinians were told that they had to forfeit their rights, put up with the new realities and move on. 

Consequently, the US embassy was transported from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Palestinian Mission in Washington DC was shuttered (and its representative assumed his new functions in London), the US Consulate-General in East Jerusalem was shut down, and all forms of financial monies were withheld from Palestinians. Israel was encouraged by the boldness of the US Administration to pursue its own brazen settler policies or tax-related financial restrictions, and some Arab League members hoped that the ‘Palestinian problem’ would be sorted out so they could focus on Iran. They whimpered and issued diplomatic exclamation marks that meant less than the decibels associated with them.

But what now? Has the Palestinian goose been well and truly cooked by these unilateral measures?

To start with, I am not sure about the viability of the “ultimate deal”. However, assuming that it will be midwifed at some stage, I was one of those people who had initially encouraged Palestinians not to turn it down outright but to play Israeli ministers at their own game with a 'yes, but' formula that is a classic in political negotiations. However, it seems to me that Palestinians will be put in such an unenviable position that their only option now is to reject a deal that ostensibly will try to win their approval by inducing them with financial hand-outs However, assuming that such financial largesse were even possible, I do not believe that an economic spurt would resolve what are two political narratives competing fiercely over land. Palestinians can be given enough money to create more start-up projects and financial investments, but their land will remain under occupation. I recall wryly the 'Advancing Conditions for Growth and Resilience' business-led push for Israeli-Palestinian peace which took place on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan via the World Economic Forum in 2013. Despite the presentations by Yossi Vardi and Munib Al-Masri, the financial initiative failed starkly to break the political impasse.

In a phrase coined by his campaign strategist, President Bill Clinton said winningly during the 1992 presidential campaign, “It's the economy, stupid!”. But as I envisage Ibish’s flaming bag of dog poop, I would say today what I have reiterated for decades, “It's the land, stupid!” And if we fail to understand this irreversible causal nexus between 'land', 'occupation' and 'rights', we will quite soon find ourselves grappling with what is already morphing into an even bigger struggle for a binational state. So let me repeat for emphasis, “It's the land, stupid”.

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© Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as Legal Consultant to OTS Solicitors in London (particularly on Brexit and immigration issues). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (The Russell Press).  Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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