On January 28, US President unveiled his long-awaited peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he hailed as the “deal of the century.” This is the latest attempt by the US to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians and end the seven-decade-old dispute.
The deal sparked outrage by the Palestinians but was praised by the Israelis. Even though the plan addresses controversial issues such as Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, many observers have rebuffed it as one-sided.
The plan sets out both political and economic steps for peace. For the Israelis, Jerusalem would be the undivided capital of Israel. They would also have full control over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Israel would retain most of the territories it captured during the 1967 war. For the Palestinians, the West Bank would be connected to the Gaza Strip via a tunnel or highway. However, the Palestinians would have to relinquish almost 40% of the West Bank and would have their capital in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village in the Jerusalem Governorate. The framework also contains economic advantages that are offered to the Palestinians, including an investment of $50 billion and 1 million jobs.
Fair Observer Debates the Trump-Kushner “Deal of the Century”
In a televised statement shortly after the deal went public, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacted to it by stating: “[W]e say one thousand times no, no, no to the Deal of the Century.” In a joint communique, the Arab League emphasized that it would not cooperate in the enforcement of the plan. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, welcomed the peace plan and said: “[T]he deal of the century is the opportunity of a century, and we’re not going to pass it by.”
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based Australian journalist. His latest book is “Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.” Loewenstein has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a frequent commentator on TRT World, CNN and Al Jazeera.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Loewenstein about the “deal of the century,” Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the role of international organizations in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This interview took place before the recent Israeli elections. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: No Palestinian official attended the White House announcement on the “deal of the century.” The attendees were evangelicals and the entourage of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Does it matter to Trump if the Palestinians perceive the deal as disproportionately biased?
Antony Loewenstein: I think the aim is to show that. It is quite clear that, for a long time, the close coordination between the Israeli government and the American administration is to almost guarantee that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, for that matter, will reject it. So, they can then turn around and say: You see, we gave them a deal and it was a great deal, but they didn’t want it. Now we have to go on and continue with our plan which is annexation, indefinite apartheid, etc.
So, to me, in fact, the idea was that Palestinians would reject it — they knew that they would, almost certainly. It’s hard to see how they could ever imagine that the Palestinian leadership would accept this deal — and it’s not really a deal, it’s more of a gun to the head. It’s basically saying that you have no choice but to accept this. And if you don’t accept this so-called deal, then you will not be treated with respect.
And to actually launch a peace deal in which one of the two sides are not present and have not been involved in drafting the process, and the key people who drafted it were all Orthodox Jews who support the illegal settlements in the West Bank, says all you need to know about what kind of absurd deal this is.
Ziabari: You said the Americans knew from the beginning that Palestinians would reject the peace plan. In the interim, the White House published a map, delineating the future composition of Palestinian lands and Israeli territory. The Palestinian response has been stringent, saying they’ll not accept this deal under any circumstances. Considering the map has been published, do you think that is the green light for Israel to annex more Palestinian lands, including the Jordan Valley, and to build more settlements in the West Bank?
Loewenstein: I think it’s almost inevitable and, in fact, one of the things that is important to remember is, in some ways, that Israel doesn’t even need this deal. I mean they’re annexing territory to an extent now anyway. There’s currently in Israel and Palestine a “one-state” solution. It’s an apartheid state for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and the Jordan Valley, but what it means practically on the ground is that Israel has the freedom to do what it wants. There is one civilian law for Israeli Jews in the West Bank and one law for Palestinians, which is a military rule, and that’s discriminatory and apartheid by definition.
So, does the map guarantee Israel will continue on its part? I think the answer is: yes. But Israel doesn’t need the Trump plan or the Trump map or the Trump deal to do that. They’re doing it anyway and, frankly, they’ve been doing that for years.
The problem with this issue is not Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a terrible, racist president, but he has only accelerated the trends that were happening here already. These problems were created long before Trump — for decades, in fact — by the Republican and Democratic presidents who allowed Israel to occupy and discriminate against Palestinians without any punishment, including Democratic presidents such as [Barack] Obama. So, Trump is really not the problem here; Trump has merely made the problem worse, for sure, but when he leaves office, Israel would almost certainly continue behaving as it does because there’s literally no international pressure on them to stop them.
Ziabari: Do you think the economic incentives of Trump’s “vision for peace,” including tripling Palestine’s GDP, investing $50 billion in the new state and creating 1 million new jobs for Palestinians over the next 10 years, are attractive enough to satisfy the Palestinians and compel them to accept the plan?
Loewenstein: Well, I’ve read not one Palestinian who’s accepted it. That’s pretty much all you need to know. I can’t say there’s not one Palestinian amongst 5 million in the West Bank or Gaza who do accept it, but I’ve read no one who says they accept it. And, to be clear, the offer that Trump has apparently put on the table is not actually that amount of money — it’s an aspiration for that amount of money, maybe down the track if Palestinians accept a demilitarized, weak, broken-up state.
So, frankly, I’m not surprised Palestinians won’t accept it and reject it, and if you’re a logical, sensible person, you would as well. So, I think really that the issue here is Israel and the US can throw money at the problem but, ultimately, unless you make a political deal and you actually imagine what an equitable solution will be, this problem will continue to get worse.
And that will happen if Netanyahu loses the upcoming election because it’s the third Israeli election in a year happening in early March; he might win or he might lose. We don’t know yet, of course, but the likely alternative, the opposition leader, thinks pretty much in exactly the same way. He supports annexing territory. He’s a right-winger in Israel. He doesn’t see Palestinians as equal human beings.
So, the sad reality politically here, in Israel at least, is that both major sides of politics think exactly the same way. In fact, even before Trump’s plan, Benny Gantz, the leading opposition leader, flew to Washington to essentially meet Trump and give him his blessing for the plan, essentially saying that if I win the election in March and I become prime minister, I’ll move forward with that plan as Netanyahu will if he wins. So, this is a very elaborate but sick game that the Israeli elites are playing, because Palestinians are simply seen as irrelevant and viewed as subhuman and it’s not surprising, therefore, that every sane Palestinian would 100% reject this deal.
Ziabari: The Organization for Islamic Cooperation has rejected President Trump’s peace plan and called on its 57 member states not to cooperate in the implementation of the deal. Does the refusal of major Muslim countries to work on the enforcement of the deal affect its prospects for success?
Loewenstein: Well, the short answer is it has no impact. I mean, that’s the sad reality. There are many dozens of Muslim countries around the world, I know, but they have virtually no influence or impact on Israel or the US, and it’s important to know that a number of Muslim, Arab states are, in fact, looking to maybe make a deal with Israel. They may not accept the Trump peace plan, but they are increasingly close with Israel; they are very keen to isolate Iran; they are keen to share defense arrangements; they are keen to get Israeli weapons and surveillance technology.
That’s the reality of what’s happening in the Middle East. And of course, Israel is very happy about that. For decades, the Arab world was particularly united against Israel. That has radically changed in the last 10 years. On paper, yes, many leaders came out and they are opposed to the peace plan, but in practice, it actually is very different. It’s very conceivable that either some will accept the peace plan or a version of it because they’re so keen to become close to Israel because of their fear of Iran.
Ziabari: Again, on the peace plan, Jared Kushner, the main architect of the deal, has said Palestinians have repeatedly missed opportunities for peace, and that they should accept the deal if they want a viable state of their own. Do you think this plan is genuinely what will guarantee an independent Palestinian state and bring an end to the seven-decade-old conflict, or was Kushner simply trying to sell his deal by saying so?
Loewenstein: Jared Kushner was being a typical colonial master saying how his misbehaving subjects, the Palestinians, were not behaving nicely. I mean it’s basically the agenda of Kushner. He has spent his entire life around Israeli settlements. His family supports the settlements. Kushner is a right-wing fundamentalist and so the idea that someone like him and all the other people around him who drafted this plan — David Friedman and others — have any real intention or understanding or care about Palestinians, the answer is no because what’s suggested is not a viable Palestinian state.
If Palestinians have a choice between the status quo and the prospect of some kind of state, which is not really a state — with no independence, no army, no freedom of movement really, no ability to go in and out as you please — because Israel ultimately is the master of that state, it’s very reasonable that they will reject it, which is what they’ve done.
At the moment, there is no viable alternative on the table, but the challenge now is for Palestinians as a mass movement, both within Palestine and globally to devise a new strategy which could involve, for example, a “one-person, one-vote” campaign, to say that the two-state solution is dead, it’s been dead arguably for 20 years, and now we demand equal rights in the state — which is, to me, an international law requirement and also a very legitimate claim. And that’s something, I think, that growing numbers of Palestinians do support, are talking about it and that has to be emphasized with the leadership, namely the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
But let’s be clear: The leadership in Palestine is part of the problem as well. They are corrupt and they’ve been in power for far too long. They’ve not had free and fair elections for a very long time. Many Palestinians treat them with contempt because they mostly are very old men who don’t speak for Palestinian people, and that’s a problem. And, of course, that situation is what makes Israel and America very happy. They’re very content with that situation because the Palestinian Authority today is essentially the policemen for the occupation. They are armed and trained by Israel and international forces to essentially go around the West Bank, suppressing the opposition to their rule and keep calm. But keeping calm means keeping Israel happy, and a lot of Palestinians are very upset and angry about that [and] rightly so. So, to me, until the Palestinian Authority is either abolished or radically reformed, which I’m not convinced is actually possible, and we have free and fair elections, they are also part of the problem.
Ziabari: Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that Trump is the “the best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” The Trump administration has strived to promote itself as the most pro-Israel in the country’s modern history. Why is Trump so persistent in appealing to the Israelis? Does he gain domestically?
Loewenstein: I think he thinks that it does. I think there are a few reasons: One, the Republican Party is very pro-Israel. He’s got a very strong evangelical Christian base who are also very fanatically pro-Israel. The majority of Jews in America have always voted Democrat, so they wouldn’t vote for Trump anyway. There are obviously some Jews who do vote for Republicans or Trump, but they are very few. So, he sees that his base is quite pro-Israel. He doesn’t see any downside because the Palestinians as a people and as a lobby group are very weak as opposed to the pro-Israel lobby in America, which is very strong and powerful.
So, he does see it as beneficial for him and, obviously, we will see this year in the US whether it helps him win reelection. I mean the Israel issue on its own will not win reelection, but we need to see whether this issue becomes a serious one during the campaign once we know who Donald Trump is facing, whether it’s Bernie Sanders or somebody else. So yes, I think Trump sees it as beneficial to his agenda and outlook.
Also, frankly, Trump and many people around him hate Muslims, hate Arabs, hate Palestinians. It very much fits into their worldview. There is contempt, open contempt to people who are not white, who are different to them, who are brown, who have different skin, who have a different religion and who have a different background, and the Palestinians are simply part of that, unfortunately.
Ziabari: Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered illegal, according to the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2334. However, the US recently shifted its position on the settlements, no longer considering them a violation of international law. What will be the effects of the new US approach? Will it encourage Israel to construct more housing units in the West Bank while the UN Security Council still sticks to its stance?
Loewenstein: Well, one of the key problems with this conflict is that international law and the United Nations are toothless and often powerless. They’re choosing not to exercise their power because, ultimately, the settlements have been illegal since the beginning in 1967; virtually the entire world agrees with that except for Israel and the US. The United States did change its position recently, but to be honest, it had that position unofficially for decades.
Israel has been building settlements for 52-53 years, and there are now 750,000 Jewish settlers all living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. No one seriously thinks they’re going to be removed; they’re there permanently, the occupation is now permanent. That’s the reality which Israel has created.
So, one of the really disappointing aspects of this whole issue is that the International Criminal Court, which has been really weak on many global conflicts for many years including this one, just recently announced that, possibly, they’re going to move forward with an investigation into some of the issues around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even if they do, and it’s not clear that they will, the ICC has shown on this issue, amongst other issues, that they’re very toothless and powerless and the United Nations is exactly the same. So, ultimately, the resolution of this issue will not come through the UN. With the Security Council, there are obviously various countries that have veto power. Then there is just not really any viable way to see the situation changing that way unless the global makeup shifts.
And with the international law, there have obviously been a number of attempts over the years to bring justice to the Palestinians, by trying to prosecute Israeli prime ministers or defense minsters or army generals. Virtually none of them ever succeeded in many countries, including in Europe, which may be more open to such things. I think that will change eventually, but I think we’re a long way away from that still, sadly.
Ziabari: By saying that international organizations such as the United Nations and the Security Council are powerless and unable to come up with a panacea for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are you implying that the settlement of the crisis is merely contingent upon the will and determination of any US government, or is it a matter of having a reliable broker in the White House?
Loewenstein: Well, ultimately, the US has never been that reliable broker because they’ve always been what I would call “Israel’s lawyer.” They’ve always been on Israel’s side. This has been pretty much the case in the last 50 years. So, there’s never really been an American government, Democrat or Republican, that has viewed Palestinians as having equal rights to Israeli Jews.
The only possible change to that view is if someone like Bernie Sanders wins the presidency. He has talked about seeing Palestinians as human beings, talking about a peace deal and trying to negotiate, which may or may not happen, because there’ll be a huge amount of pressure on him to either back down or to not make it the focus of his presidency. He will be so busy trying to undo years of damage done by Trump if he wins this year.
So, someone like him is a possibility but, ultimately, I think the US has placed itself at the center of global negotiations. What the United Nations should have done, and the European Union particularly should have done years ago but did not, was to make themselves a viable alternative power source to the US. And the European Union has failed in doing that, and now as Europe increasingly becomes politically fractured, there is no consensus; there are growing numbers of Eastern European states particularly that are very pro-Israel, including Hungary and Poland. There are some Western European nations that are more critical of Israel, like Belgium, France and others, but they’re quite weak and the EU works on consensus, but there’s simply no consensus there.
So, apart from the US and the EU, where is this alternative global broker going to come from? It’s not going to be the Arab states. I don’t know where that comes from right now. That’s the problem. And until there is a viable alternative, this situation will continue to be managed badly by the more powerful forces which are Israel and the US.
Ziabari: A 2019 survey by the Van Leer Institute found that 71% of Jews in Israel believes there is a moral problem with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Israel appears to be highly divided on the issue of occupation. Is there any chance these fissures might lead to a change of policy on the part of the Israeli government?
Loewenstein: I wish there was. But the truth is that most people I speak to here who are looking for change — I’m talking about on the Israeli Jewish side — have accepted many years ago that that change will not happen. In other words, it will not happen within the country. There are definitely people within Israeli Jewish society who are very opposed to what’s going on, and they are very outspoken and they are very brave, but there are very few of them. And even though many Israeli Jews, when they’re asked in studies, will say the occupation is not their ideal outcome, they continually vote for politicians that are making the settlements permanent.
It’s interesting that it’s definitely a minority of Israeli Jews who are very pro-settler. That is true, but that shows in some way the strategic brilliance of the settler movement that a minority population in Israel have spent 50+ years being able to be the key drivers of Israeli government policy where the majority of Israelis are either paralyzed, blind or deaf, including willfully blind to what’s going on.
And it’s amazing how you can have an occupation down the road from your house if you live inside Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem where a lot of Israeli Jews live. And they are never going to the West Bank; they never meet Palestinians; they often express incredibly racist views.
Obviously, I’m generalizing. There are many Israeli Jews who don’t think like this, but a lot of public opinion polls of Israeli Jews find racism very strong against Palestinians. They wouldn’t share an apartment block with a Palestinian; they wouldn’t want to send their child to the same school or kindergarten as a Palestinian Muslim or Christian child. There’s very deep racism here. And there’s racism on the Palestinian side, too, but most studies have shown that Israeli Jews are much more racist to Arabs than the other way around, despite decades and decades of conflict with the Palestinians who are the occupied people, not the other way around.
So, I think without outside international pressure, either from government or other places, it’s very hard to see the Israeli Jewish population rising up because, ultimately, people don’t give up power by choice. They don’t give up their privileges by choice. We saw that in South Africa during apartheid. White South Africans didn’t one day wake up and say: Gee! I really want to give blacks equal rights.
No. They realized it over years of international pressure and, obviously, a very strong black movement led by the ANC [African National Congress] and Nelson Mandela who showed them that South African whites had a choice: you either accept blacks as equals or you become an increasingly global pariah and outcast society. And at the moment, Israel is a long way away from that, but that’s the future potentially unless there’s growing international pressure against Israel to change its policies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.