Israel’s Trumpian Unilateralism
Under the cover of a sham "peace plan" put forward by the Trump administration earlier this year, Israel is rushing to seize occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The Netanyahu government's cynical strategy not only violates longstanding international law, but also undermines Israel's own long-term interests.
AMMAN – Since the end of World War II, the international community has embraced a simple but powerful principle: No country, no matter how powerful, may take land from its neighbors by force. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, the world voiced few objections to the United Kingdom’s military intervention to retake its territory. When Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations authorized military action to expel them. And when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the UN imposed heavy sanctions that remain in place today.
For 53 years, Palestinians have placed their hopes in this principle. In 1967, it was codified in the preamble to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which established a roadmap for peace between Israel and Palestine, and further affirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Although living under occupation has always been unacceptable to Palestinians, it was made tolerable by the hope that right would overcome might, and Israel’s “inadmissible” occupation eventually would end.
Moreover, unlike the Falklanders, the Kuwaitis, or the Ukrainians, Palestinians have shown flexibility in trying to negotiate an acceptable settlement with Israel. But instead of being rewarded for this good faith, Palestinian offers of land swaps (equal in size and quality) have been twisted by policymakers in Israel to legitimize the theft of occupied Palestinian territory.
And now Israel is moving to annex much of the West Bank. Of course, the Israelis would never be this brazen on their own. They are exploiting an opening created by the sham “peace plan” unveiled in January by US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Conceived by the Israelis and presented by the United States, the plan would give large parts of the occupied territories – including the strategically vital Jordan Valley – to Israel. Palestinians will be left, literally, out in the desert.
While the Americans have stated that their “vision” must be accepted fully or not at all, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, facing a court trial on multiple charges of corruption, has been happy to pocket whatever political handouts Trump offers him in the meantime. With the unconditional support of the world’s leading superpower, Israel can now pursue land grabs without any regard for past agreements with the Palestinians, Jordanians, or Egyptians, let alone objections from the rest of the world.
To be sure, at the poorly prepared Camp David II summit in 2000, the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, accepted the basic idea of land swaps; but Palestinians have since made clear that any such exchange must be equal in size and quality. And this year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas informed the Quartet (the UN, the US, the European Union, and Russia) that Palestinians acknowledged the need for some slight border modification so long as an independent Palestinian state is actually established.
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Palestinians have accepted that some of the more populous illegal Jewish settlements that have been built on Palestinian land just across the 1967 Green Line could be incorporated into Israel in exchange for, say, a land corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank. The problem is that the Israelis and some American officials regularly misrepresent this position by claiming that Palestinians have rejected peace offers and refused to negotiate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In recent years, as former US Secretary of State John Kerry explained in April 2014, the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians primarily reflected Israel’s greenlighting of new settlements in Palestinian territory. And, since 2018, when the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (in violation of UNSC resolutions), Palestinian leaders have boycotted negotiations sponsored by the overtly pro-Israel Trump administration, while remaining open to multiparty talks.
In fact, the Palestinians have already indicated that they would participate in negotiations sponsored by a “Quartet-plus” group that could also include US allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan. Picking up on this opening, Russia has invited the Palestinians and Israelis for talks in Moscow. Netanyahu has repeatedly refused.
Moreover, in June, Palestinian officials submitted a four-page counter-proposal to the Trump plan, wherein they agreed to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state with minor border adjustments. But the pro-Israel hawks in the White House have ignored these offers.
In their rush to annex Palestinian lands, Israeli officials are justifying their illegal behavior on the grounds that they are only seizing territory demarcated in the Trump administration’s plan. But even the naive Kushner, the architect of that plan, has rejected the idea that such transfers should occur unilaterally. The point of negotiations, after all, is to facilitate a give and take. If one side gets to take what it wants before talks have even begun, the process is pointless.
Such unilateralism is not only unfair and unjust; it is unworkable. Peace is achieved, and legitimized, not when political leaders sign some piece of paper (potentially under duress), but when the agreed terms have garnered support from the populations that will be affected by them. Without broad-based buy-in, peace will not endure.
Netanyahu’s attempts to annex Palestinian occupied lands unilaterally will only create the conditions for more bloodshed, anger, and bitterness. No wonder most American Jewish leaders, a majority of the US Congress, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and hundreds of Israeli foreign-policy and security experts oppose the Netanyahu government’s reckless approach.
The situation demands a return to talks on clearly defined, mutually agreed terms, with the aim of producing a settlement that both sides can live with now and in the future. Short of that, unilateral acts will make the possibility of peace only more remote.