An Arab-Israeli peace agreement is like a moderate Syrian rebel or rational leftist: It is possible to visualize, but producing one is daunting. Every attempt has failed. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan will be no exception.
Hardly the “deal of the century,” it proposes the establishment of a disconnected, truncated Palestinian state with limited sovereignty, covering Gaza and just three-quarters of the West Bank, surrounded on all sides by Israel. All of Jerusalem would be the undivided Israeli capital. In addition, Israel would annex the strategic Jordan Valley and an archipelago of settlements inside the Palestinian remnant.
The plan makes a lasting agreement less likely than at any time since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords. Not merely “pro-Israeli,” it is a pro-annexationist, anti-two-state solution. It may help Benjamin Netanyahu get reelected in March, and it may help Trump win some Jewish votes in November, but it will not bring peace.
Trump’s critics are listing these objections as if there was a more just, more balanced proposal on offer. They are forgetting that in the Holy Land we are facing an extreme form of politics as the art of the possible. There will never be a peace acceptable to the Palestinian leadership if it entails the recognition of a Jewish Israel—even within its 1967 borders.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is not essentially about borders, settlements, or Jerusalem. It is whether the Palestinian Arabs can recognize Israel as a legitimate entity. No Palestinian leader of any stature has ever denied that the final objective is a majority-Muslim Arab state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. No Palestinian leader has ever agreed to negotiate on “the right of return,” which would be tantamount to Israel’s destruction.
From the orthodox Muslim point of view, the struggle against Israel is more than a “war of national liberation”: It is an act of worship. Muslims do not see the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of power, territory, resources, and guarantees. For them no permanent peace is possible because it is against Allah’s will to relinquish land once controlled by the faithful, Dar al-Islam, to non-Muslim infidels, Dar al-Harb. Concern for Palestinian rights should not blind outsiders to the fact that rejecting legitimacy of infidel rule over formerly Muslim lands is mandated in Islam. While this has always been so, it is embraced with particular zeal by Palestinian politicians of every hue, not just the Hamas and Hezbollah hardliners.
The conflict in the Middle East is neither incomprehensible nor unprecedented, yet it is unique in that religiously informed “narratives” are invoked to support the parties’ claims more explicitly than anywhere else. The Muslim rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is mirrored by the Jews’ invocation of the Old Testament as a legitimate argument in political discourse. Both disprove the Western elite’s claim that religion is a declining influence in human affairs and a distraction from the business of politics.
Palestinian intransigence and Arab aloofness notwithstanding, the real trouble with Trump’s plan is that it will not help Israel mature into a “normal” nation-state. Instead of seeking to resolve the perennial problem of Jewish insecurity, the Jewish state remains beset by it. Its real and legitimate security concerns are aggravated by the reemergence of an Israeli outlook predicated upon the premise of an inherently hostile world. Annexing the western Jordan Valley and the settlements may prove to be comparable to Germany’s annexation of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871: The value of the territory west of the Rhine could not be matched by the political cost of having France as its perennial sworn enemy.
Like the Kaiserreich then, Israel can realize its maximalist goals now, but it may not be in its best interest to do so. Realism may emerge from the Palestinian side, as it has from Egypt and Jordan in the past. To that end an attractive carrot needs to be packed in Israel’s diplomatic arsenal. Trump’s deal would remove it permanently.
Arabs now outnumber Jews between the river and the sea. If there is no two-state solution, and if a single state with equal rights for all is incompatible with the maintenance of Israel’s character as a Jewish state, the only remaining alternative is an open-ended, unpleasant arrangement which cannot but erode Israel’s moral legitimacy and democratic credentials. That would be a minus-sum game for all concerned, the United States included.