The unusually detailed 80-page proposal to resolve decades of conflict fulfilled a wishlist of Israeli demands made over the years. As the president glided through its highlights, the White House audience of American and Israeli officials could barely contain their delight until they rose as one in a standing ovation when Trump announced that the Jewish state will retain control over an undivided Jerusalem. That put paid to the longstanding acceptance that at least part of the east of the city would be a Palestinian capital.
And so it went on, with Israel to get sovereignty over the Jordan Valley – the intended breadbasket of a future Palestinian state – and the principal Jewish settlements, widely considered illegal under international law. In compensation for loss of West Bank territory, the Palestinians would get a large chunk of desert linked to Gaza near the Egyptian border.
What would remain under the plan, spearheaded by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a series of cantons linked by bridges and tunnels but entirely surrounded by Israeli sovereign territory – with the exception of a small strip of Gaza. Israel is also to retain “security control” over the entire area west of the West Bank border with Jordan which appeared to suggest it would have a military presence inside whatever is left of a future Palestine.
As Trump spoke, Netanyahu could barely contain his excitement at what looked very much like the rump of a Palestinian state at best, and more than once he grasped the president’s hand in a show of approval. Perhaps what will have pleased the Israeli leader most is Trump’s assertion that creation of a Palestinian state is “conditional” on a series of highly subjective tests including whether its leadership is doing enough to combat terrorism and end “incitement” against Israel, which Netanyahu appears to regard as any criticism of his policies.
Trump praised the Israeli leader for “having the courage to take this bold step forward” in embracing the plan. It would have been surprising if Netanyahu did anything else and his enthusiasm spilled out as he called it a “great plan for peace” that will change history, and described Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House”.
Few in the room were likely to dispute that, given the backslapping and cheers greeting the announcement as Trump effectively blamed the Palestinians for being occupied.
But the absence of any actual Palestinians in the room spoke volumes, and criticism of the plan was swift and damning from many quarters.
Khaled Elgindy, a former peace negotiator and adviser to the Palestinian leadership in the 2000s, said the intent was not to end conflict but to legitimise Israel’s occupation.
“It’s a plan that has nothing to do with peace. It’s not about two states,” he said. “It’s about completely changing the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to move away from ending the occupation, to move away from two sovereign states. It’s consecrating the status quo. It’s really about normalising Israeli occupation on a permanent basis.”
Elgindy compared the Palestinian state envisaged in the plan to the nominally independent black homelands of apartheid South Africa, known as bantustans, but said it has been years in the making.
“It’s too easy to say Trump killed the peace process and the two-state solution. It was pretty much dead when he got here. He’s just now trying to bury it,” he said.
There was also plenty of criticism from American politicians, too.
Senator Chris Murphy called the plan an abandonment of longstanding principles and criticised Kushner for a proposal that was “negotiated with no one but the Israelis”.
“It’s also no coincidence this plan supports recognising illegal settlements and unilateral Israeli annexation, while discarding any notion of a two-state solution,” he said.
Elgindy said there was little doubt about the Trump administration’s intent because it has long signalled through its actions in endorsing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and cutting off aid to Palestinian refugees.
“Land for peace is gone. Settlements are fine. Annexation is perfectly acceptable. It’s just a matter of how much and when. That’s a radical transformation of the terms of how we talk about this issue,” said Elgindy, author of the recently published Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.
Aaron David Miller, a peace negotiator for several US administrations, was equally damning of the proposals.
“I worked in administrations from Carter through Bush 43. However misguided some of our efforts have been they were always linked to the objective of trying to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more tractable,” he said. “This plan is completely untethered from any desire to create an environment for negotiation, narrow the gaps between the parties, condition each party to accept certain realities that might, in fact, produce a negotiation.”
Miller described the proposals as a political document intended to win support for Netanyahu as he goes into an election in March, under indictment for corruption.
Elgindy said that the question now is not whether the plan will be implemented, because “the Israelis are implementing it on the ground through slow de facto annexation”, but whether other governments end up tacitly legitimising the proposals. The Americans have been working hard to win the support of other governments in the region, particularly Egypt and Jordan, which already have peace treaties with Israel, and Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf states, to buy into the process and pressure the Palestinians to do likewise.
“Are we going to see people saying clearly this falls short of the most minimal requirements for a peaceful settlement?” said Elgindy. “Are we going to hear it from the Arab states, from the Europeans, from the rest of the international community in clear terms? Or are we going to hear sort of the diplomatic gobbledygook about seeing if there are elements we can work with?”
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and one-time Middle East peace envoy, gave an early answer, in calling for the Palestinians and Arab governments to negotiate.
“The Palestinians do not need to signal acceptance of the plan, but to engage with the American government and demand the improvements to it they wish to see,” he said. “The risk of non-engagement with the American administration is that the possibility of realising the two state solution becomes ever more distant.”