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"While the Trump peace plan will probably not lead to a breakthrough, Israel may yet benefit from it"

Michael (Mike) Herzog, former military secretary to the Minister of Defense

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What does Israel believe it stands to gain from the Trump peace plan?

While all actors in the Middle East try to speculate the terms of Trump’s secret peace plan and calculate their next steps, I believe that considering the close relationship between the governments, Israel already has a certain idea of what its outline is.

To consider Israel’s interests in Trump’s peace plan, one first needs to ask what the plan’s actual goal is. To the best of my understanding, the goal is to lay out basic parameters for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel’s official position for years has been that it supports direct negotiations without preconditions. Assuming Trump’s plan endorses this basic principle, Israel will not openly object it. That said, there is currently no second party to such direct negotiations, since the Palestinian Authority (PA) has already announced that it no longer sees the US as a fair mediator, and thus has removed itself from the process.

Under these circumstances, the principles the plan puts on the table as a foundation to future negotiations may prove crucial. If these principles support the fundamental Israeli positions on the core issues – borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, refugees (i.e., taking the Palestinian "right of return" off the table), and Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish Nation State – Israel could benefit from such a plan regardless of its possibility of success.

Even with the realistic assumption that the plan will not lead to direct negotiations and to a political breakthrough, under certain conditions it may benefit Israel if the Palestinians refuse to take part in it – that is, if the plan establishes an American stance on the aforementioned core issues, which could help Israel in the future. Moreover, the administration might decide to impose sanctions on the PA for its refusal to cooperate, or to reward Israel for its willingness to accept the plan as a foundation for negotiations.

Mike Herzog

Photo: Courtesy of the author

What does it fear it might lose?

To answer this question, we should assess how such a plan might impact the various factions in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government. Most coalition parties do not see eye to eye on the Palestinian issue. PM Netanyahu seems to support negotiations and a political solution that includes the two-states solution under certain conditions. Others, however - the right-wing Jewish Home party, for example - strongly reject this solution, with the party openly stating its desire to annex parts of the West Bank (known as C territory in the Oslo accords). Against this backdrop, a plan that will be received differently by different factions in the government might undermine the stability and longevity of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.

Israel also risks its closest ally adopting positions it does not support. For example, the question whether the plan will demand Israel to remove settlements, and how many settlers will have to be vacated, will be critical to the government's handling of the issue, both on its merits and on internal political considerations.
In the unlikely scenario that the Trump peace plan will deviate from the lines accepted by Israel concerning the core issues, the government will face a problem. Israel must be ready to respond to the possibility that a pro-Israeli Trump administration, which has demonstrated its support by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will pose certain demands for progress in the process that would not be easy for Israel to accept.

In such a case, Israel will have to decide how to respond, with the risk of either openly objecting to the administration or allowing Trump to force its hand into concessions it does not want to make. That said, I find it difficult to believe that the demands made to Israel will deviate significantly from its fundamental principles, or will come as a surprise to Jerusalem. 

How can Israel contribute to promoting the peace plan?

Israel is a major actor that has substantial impact on the economic and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and it can contribute to their improvement – on the condition that there is a cease-fire, of course. It is important for the Americans that the security situation in the Gaza Strip calms down before they publish their plan – and that is a big "if".

In light of profound distrust between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships (as well as between the Palestinian and American leaderships), it is doubtful whether Israel can influence the PA President Mahmud Abbas to change his negative attitude to direct negotiations without preconditions. However, given the new reality of indirect dialogue between Israel and some of the other actors in the region, actions Israel may help encourage the Arab countries to support the peace plan, and force the Palestinians back to the negotiation table.

From a strategic perspective, I believe that Israel must consolidate its vision for its future relationship with the Palestinians and the reality it wishes to see – or prevent – in the long term. In my opinion, it is important that Israel leaves an opening for political separation from the Palestinians in the future – even if such a separation is currently impossible – in order to prevent a slow descent towards a bi-national reality. Such a policy should not hinge upon an American plan. To keep this window of opportunity open, Israel must, inter alia, consider how the settlement policy in the West Bank might impact the willingness and political capacity of the PA to negotiate with Israel.

Which obstacles is Israel liable to mount, and how can it sabotage the process?

Thwarting a peace plan is easy – Israel may simply say “no.” It may also negotiate without making any concessions and doom it to failure, or implement policies on the ground that are inconsistent with the terms of the plan, especially in the areas of settlements and security. However, in the end, the devil is in the detail, and the Israeli reaction to the plan will depend on those details.

I believe that if the suggested layout will be inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a viable and acceptable peace plan, as seen by Israel, Jerusalem may reject its terms notwithstanding its close working relationship with the administration. On the other hand, if the concessions Israel is required to make are merely tactical, then the choice will be between maintaining Washington's support and refusing an issue that is not perceived as critical. If this is the case, I assume Israel will adhere, even if it does not like it.

Brigadier General (Res.) Michael (Mike) Herzog has actively participated in all Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians since 1993, including in back channels and in the last round of negotiations in 2013-2014. During his tenure in the IDF he served as an intelligence officer in various positions, as head of the Strategic Planning Division in the Planning Directorate, and as military secretary and chief of staff for four Defense Ministers. He is currently an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington DC, and a Senior Fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), and the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).

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