Beyond the Trump Plan: How Can the International Community Advance Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking?

Trump’s vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace was supposed to be the ultimate gift to Binyamin Netanyahu’s electoral campaign rather than the ultimate deal for Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. The timing of its publication — a month before the March 2020 Israeli election — seemed highly motivated by political considerations. The content of the plan — reportedly closely coordinated with — and maybe even shaped by — top Netanyahu aides — was supposed to give a green light to Netanyahu’s aspirations to annex territory in the West Bank ahead of the elections. And the anticipated Palestinian rejection of the plan was hoped to pave the way for a bilateral breakthrough between Israel and a major Arab country — again, before the elections.

In the immediate weeks following the presentation of the plan, however, these things did not happen. The U.S. Administration stopped Netanyahu’s efforts for rapid annexation and, by doing so, created tensions within Israel’s right-wing bloc. Israeli voters’ intentions remained largely unchanged following the publication of the plan, according to multiple public opinion polls. Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, whom the prime minister tried to entrap by dragging him along to Washington for the presentation of the plan, managed to handle the situation and gain some political benefits from it. And Arab leaders kept refusing to meet with Netanyahu publicly, as they did prior to the two Israeli elections in 2019 and despite American pressure.

The Israeli mainstream, however, greeted the Trump plan with cheers. It was termed by many as the most pro-Israeli plan ever and was warmly embraced by Gantz’s Blue and White party, the main contender to Netanyahu’s Likud, although the latter emphasized its opposition to unilateral annexation. Voices against the plan came almost exclusively from the Israeli left, whose power is diminishing. But even among the left there were some who cautioned against aggressive opposition to the U.S. president and even congratulated him for the efforts his administration undertook to devise the plan.

International responses were also mild in nature. They reflected the general lack of involvement by the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian issue since Trump took office and a reluctance to challenge the U.S. president. Countries in Europe and the Arab world initially issued statements welcoming the American efforts and promising to study the content of the plan. Such statements were the ones that the U.S. Administration was pushing for. The American goal was to prevent a clear and immediate rejection of the plan, and this has been largely achieved, although there were exceptions such as Ireland’s quick response against the plan.

In the weeks that followed, multinational organizations (the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the African Union) issued joint non-binding statements opposing the plan. Within the European Union, internal divisions continued to prevent joint declarations by all 27 member states, as has been the case since 2016. Therefore, Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, issued a statement reflecting his own views, while the European members of the United Nations Security Council merely reaffirmed their traditional position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in support of a two-state solution.

Advancing Israeli-Palestinian Peace Should Be a High Priority

The overall nature of these responses reinforced Netanyahu’s narrative that the international community does not care much about the Palestinian issue. His claim is that Arab countries are willing to improve ties with Israel even without progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and that Europe is no longer a relevant actor now that some member states are willing to regularly block initiatives in Brussels on Israel’s behalf. Due to the weak international opposition to the plan, those in Israel who criticize Trump’s vision are often accused of being anachronistic and of not accepting the changes taking place. A common view among Israelis is: If the world does not care that much anymore about the Palestinians, why should we?

A further consolidation of this mindset might become a dangerous consequence of the Trump plan. Advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and a two-state solution should be a high-level priority for the next Israeli government. It is crucial for Israel’s ability to maintain both its Jewish and democratic character; to live in peace, security and prosperity; and to truly belong and integrate in its Middle Eastern, European and Mediterranean neighborhood. It is also the right thing to do in terms of fulfilling Palestinian national aspirations.

Doing so however will not become any easier. The Israeli public is largely indifferent to the issue; the Palestinian public is losing faith in the prospect of a real Palestinian state; settlement expansion in the West Bank is making the two-state solution more difficult to obtain and implement; and the ongoing split between the West Bank and Gaza casts a shadow over prospects for future progress toward peace.

These are major challenges that pro-peace Israeli, Palestinian and international leaders should tackle. Prospects for political change in Israel — even if not representing a clear ideological shift — might provide an opportunity to begin doing so. Should a different U.S. Administration take office in January 2021, even more opportunities will emerge. Pro-peace actors should already be planning for such scenarios and beginning to take action. For the past three years, their primary focus was on the release of the Trump plan, what it will include and how to react. Now, after its publication, it is time to move on, brush the plan aside and advance steps that can bring peace.

Steps International Actors Could Take

There is a variety of steps that international actors can take: Their primary goal should be to prevent Israeli annexation of territories in the West Bank by voicing clear opposition. Borrell, for example, has already warned that Israel’s annexation of territories would not go “unchallenged,” sparking a furious reaction from Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz. Several countries, most of them European, are engaged in policy planning regarding their possible reaction to any sort of formal Israeli annexation. Chances for such an Israeli move mostly depend on domestic politics, but it will be beneficial for the Israeli leadership and public to know in advance what the consequences can be.

International actors should keep the Israeli-Palestinian issue high on their agenda — especially when engaging with Israeli officials — even when they have more pressing priorities and when they do not envision immediate progress. Over the last few years, Israeli government officials repeatedly cited the fact that the issue rarely comes up in diplomatic meetings they hold with international leaders. They use this to make the case to the Israeli public that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become much less important 
or pressing. By constantly raising the issue in meetings with Israeli counterparts, international actors will be conveying a different message.

A counter-document to the Trump plan, including alternative principles for a final-status peace agreement, should be published so that the Trump plan does not remain “the only game in town.” The international community has made efforts in the past — especially during the final years of the Obama administration — to spell out agreed-upon parameters for Israeli-Palestinian peace. These efforts should now be resumed. Even if such parameters cannot reflect an international consensus, especially as long as Trump is in power, they will serve as a platform for cooperation among international actors and can help counter future claims that the Trump plan should be the major reference point when peace talks resume. Such parameters will also address the need to update the key documents related to the two-state solution — such as the Clinton Parameters, the Quartet Road Map and the Arab Peace Initiative — which are nearly two decades old and do not reflect current realities in the region.

In the EU, Borrell is showing willingness to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue back on the Foreign Affairs Council’s agenda and to seek conclusions supported by all 27 member states. Susanna Terstal, EU special representative to the Middle East peace process, is also working to find consensus among all EU members. This remains a difficult task, however, as political leaders of some countries —especially Hungary — regularly block European initiatives and statements that are critical of Israeli policies. While continuing to seek meaningful consensus, which goes beyond the recycling of previous EU messages, European countries should also work to bypass the paralysis caused by divisions among member states. The way forward can be through increased cooperation in smaller coalitions of like-minded states, including collective policy planning meetings, coordinated statements and actions in response to developments on the ground, and joint meetings with Israeli officials. Several European countries have already expressed support for such a course of action, and Borrell should be supportive of it as well.

Incentives and Support for Civil Society

Moreover, a new international mechanism to support Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should be set up — whether officially or unofficially — to enable different international actors (not only European) to coordinate efforts, with the participation of pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians. The Quartet (which includes the EU, U.S., UN and Russia) has been neutralized under Trump and, in any case, has an outdated composition. Arab representation in such a mechanism is necessary, as well as the participation of key EU member states. The newly established Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum can be regarded as somewhat of a model, although its focus is on other issues. It includes both European and Arab states, as well as Israeli and Palestinian representation.

Such a mechanism could introduce to Israelis and Palestinians a coordinated international package of political and economic incentives for peace. Incentives are an important tool in peace processes and have the potential to contribute to the advancement of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. International actors have already offered various types of incentives for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the most notable of which are the Arab Peace Initiative, the EU’s Special Privileged Partnership offer, and the U.S. security plan for the two-state solution. These incentives were offered at different times along the conflict timelines and in an uncoordinated manner. Their impact was lower than the expectations of those making the offers.

In 2016-2017, multiple actors in the international community agreed on the need to offer Israelis and Palestinians a global set of political and economic incentives for peace; however, since 2017 there was no international effort to develop this set of incentives or to engage with Israelis and Palestinians on its potential content. Reasons for this include the lack of an international mechanism to facilitate this process, a reluctance among the international community to plan for a final-status agreement when no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are taking place, and the divide among the international community since Trump came to power. Now would be a good time for the international community to change course, learn from Israelis and Palestinians about their needs and expectations and develop an incentive package accordingly.

Finally, increased international support and recognition should be given to pro-peace civil society groups so they can more effectively build positive interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, as spelled out in the 2016 Quartet Report. Peace NGOs are facing mounting hurdles to carry on their activities, including physical barriers, opposition within the two societies (especially the Palestinian anti-normalization movement) and limited funding. Fewer and fewer Israelis and Palestinians have the chance to meet one another, and this deepens the disconnect, fosters a lack of knowledge and awareness and limits channels for dialogue and policy planning. Dialogue and cooperation are still possible, however, when done in the correct manner and when focused on concrete needs and real policy issues.

The international community should emphasize the importance it sees in joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives and make an effort to increase their scope and help them succeed. It can also work to connect between the growing number of initiatives seeking to advance Israel’s relations with Arab countries and initiatives focusing on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This will emphasize that broader regional cooperation should not be used to bypass the Palestinian issue but rather to help resolve it.

These steps can generate hope, set up new dialogue channels, and craft innovative policy proposals — all of which are much-needed components on the path to peace. They will demonstrate how local and international actors can chart a real vision of peace and can take action together to advance its implementation. This would be the most suitable response to the Trump plan.

A shorter version of this article appeared in International Politics and Society.