As Trump prepares to unveil his ‘deal of the century’, Palestinians should prepare for a surprise trap, writes Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
The “deal of the century” that President Trump has promised will resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict may be easily dismissed in terms of its substance, considering the extremist views of its authors, but it will have to be dealt with eventually – one way or another.
For the past 18 months, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with his cohorts, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Middle East Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt, have been preparing the grounds for a great bargain between Israel and “moderate” Arab regimes, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia – one that would end the Palestinian problem, allow for normalisation of relations, and pave the way for a new strategic alignment against a surging Iran.
Judging by their smirks and statements, Kushner and Company have succeeded in tightening the noose around Palestine in complicity with Egyptian and Saudi leaders – and are now waiting for the right time to unleash a diplomatic blitzkrieg.
But how could such a trio of staunch supporters of Israeli settlement expansion come up with a deal that merits the moniker “deal of the century?” One that is comprehensive and acceptable to both Israel and the Arabs, who insist on a two states solution that includes East Jerusalem?
The answer lies in the timing, packaging and delivery.
The Palestinians should prepare for the day the Trump administration offers to be the first Western power to recognise “a Palestinian state” while simultaneously recognising Israel’s sovereignty over settlement blocks and accepting its security red lines.
The US will ensure Palestine becomes a full member of the United Nations with all the trappings of independence, even if it lacks full control over its borders, skies, ports and immigration. And Washington could also send an ambassador there, encourage Israeli and Arab governments to exchange ambassadors and sponsor joint projects with the two states.
The US may also recognise Palestine’s capital in East Jerusalem with special status for the holy Islamic sites, but leave it to the parties to draw the lines between East and West Jerusalem. Mind you, Israel has redrawn and expanded the borders of metropolitan Jerusalem several times since the occupation five decades ago, and will only agree to withdraw from east of East Jerusalem, if at all.
Neither the US nor Israel will object to the Palestinians using grand names and titles that connote authority and prestige as long as these don’t translate into reality on the ground. For all they care, the Palestinians may name their new entity “the Republic of Great Palestine” so long as it has little more than quasi-autonomy. Those with strong memories will recall how the US and Israel had accepted PLO chairman Yasser Arafat calling himself the Palestinian “rais” or “president” as long his jurisdiction never extended beyond the Palestinian authority.
On the face of it, this appears like a clever move. Or rather clever-clever. It accounts for both Arab and Israeli demands of statehood and security. And it counts on Arab and Western nations to sweeten the deal for the Palestinians with billions of dollars when the time comes.
And that time is approaching, albeit with a twist.
This type of shock diplomacy works best in the worst of times, which explains why the Trump administration has launched an all-out sadistic assault on the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, that cares for the survival and education of 4-5 million refugees and their descendants.
As Israel expands its illegal settlements, strangles the Gaza Strip, and passes new legislation that legitimises Jewish supremacy in the land of Israel, i.e. all over historical Palestine, as foreign aid shrinks, political divisions deepen, and the Arab world implodes in conflict, the Palestinians find themselves with fewer remedies every day. In this environment, any prescription that promises a new horizon for a healthier future may seem like a necessary medicine, no matter how bitter.
Indeed, the entire logic behind this new diplomatic drive is based on the tried but failed idea that economic security makes up for national insecurity and economic peace guarantees political peace.
It is no coincidence then that Kushner and Company are bypassing the Palestinian Authority and starting with the terribly impoverished Gaza Strip. In their recent Washington Post article, the trio offered US assistance to the Strip if the financially bankrupt, politically deadlocked Hamas agreed to step aside or accept a long-term ceasefire deal with Israel.
Enter Egyptian mediation for a separate deal between Hamas and Israel, promising aid and prosperity, just when the latter blockades, starves and cuts fuel to the more than two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.
All of which forces the question: what are the Palestinians to do?
And they can’t just object or abstain as the PLO has done in recent years. American diplomats have already warned President Abbas to either step up or step aside. And to add insult to injury, de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman has also warned the Palestinians to either accept the American proposal or “shut up”. Despite recent reassurances from his father King Salman, the Saudi leader, just like his Emirati and Egyptian counterparts, is likely to continue to coordinate with Israel, even if that means leaving the Palestinians behind.
So, the Palestinian leaders would need to decide when the time comes: accept and negotiate for more albeit within a new tighter framework, or reject and suffer the consequences – isolation, retribution, or worse, replacement.
But how could the Palestinian leadership accept a demilitarised half state on half of the West Bank and an isolated Gaza Strip, one that lacks contiguity and sovereignty – a state that looks more like Swiss cheese than it does the Swiss federation? And how can they forgo a fair solution for the millions of refugees?
Palestinian and Arab pragmatists argue, as they did in favour of the Oslo accords a quarter of a century ago, that inaction means isolation and irrelevance, and that there’s no choice but to take-and-build, engage and try to extract as many compromises as possible.
The realists counter that it’s the Oslo logic that led the Palestinians to the present dire circumstances, and that the biased Trump administration cannot be trusted as a sponsor of any deal.
But as the debate on the merits and mockeries of Trump’s “deal of the century” continues, the Palestinians must first and foremost unite and remain steadfast until the political shock waves of what appears to be a shockingly bad deal withers. Fingers crossed, Trump and Company could be gone in two years.
For decades the Palestinians were seen as the torchbearers in the fight against colonialism throughout the world. Today, their struggle for freedom and justice symbolizes the struggle against US-supported tyranny throughout the Middle East.
It is their historical calling. How will they answer?