For the Palestinians and Israel, the Trump peace plan is a lose-lose

History shows that radical overreach on the part of the 'strong' has grim implications for the 'weak', and for itself
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The 21st century is starting to look a lot like the 19th century. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have formed a joint American-Israeli committee to carve up the occupied West Bank with zero Palestinian input. It recalls the starkest days of predatory colonialism such as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, which regulated European colonisation and trade in Africa. It also echoes ancient tragedies.

Mr Trump's proposal, roundly rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab League, encourages Israel to annex vast tracts of occupied Palestinian land in stark contradiction to the United Nations charter and numerous other international prohibitions against the acquisition of territory by war, including all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

It shreds the 1993 Declaration of Principles which Israel and the US signed along with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Russia. Article V specifies "final status" issues to be decided only through direct negotiations, including borders and settlements.

So much for that.

Like an imperial power, Mr Trump is claiming the right to authorise Israel to disregard international law and its own treaty commitments. Further, he believes that the areas Israel may annex remain to be negotiated between Israel and the US, rather than with the Palestinians.

epa08222138 A general view of the Israeli settlement of Elon Moreh (back) as seen from the Palestinian village of Azmout near the West Bank City of Nablus, 16 February 2020. According to reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said an Israeli team will be working with US counterparts on 'sovereignty maps' including the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and all Jewish settlement in West Bank in light of the US President Trump's Middle East peace plan.  EPA/ALAA BADARNEH

So, the US and Israel have formed a joint “mapping committee” to determine, based on Israel’s territorial ambitions and Mr Trump’s political interests, exactly which areas Israel will annex and what will be left for a phony Palestinian state that would strongly resemble an apartheid-era South African Bantustan.

The brazenness and brutality of the plan was eloquently expressed by Mr Netanyahu during a February 16 speech in Jerusalem to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations.

He flatly stated that such annexations are “not conditional in any way on Palestinian acceptance of the Trump plan. Whether they accept it or not, it’s going to happen". “The weak don’t survive,” he declared. “Only the strong survive.”

Students of history will immediately recognise in this speech, and the broader plan, the attitude that the 5th century BCE historian Thucydides attributed to the Athenians in the Melian Dialogue: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

Mr Trump and his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner defend their annexation initiative by claiming it "recognises reality", meaning that Israel is simply unwilling to compromise and allow a meaningful Palestinian state because it does not have to.

“You, by giving in, would save yourselves from disaster; we, by not destroying you, would be able to profit from you,” the Athenians warned the Melians. That is also the clear message of Mr Kushner’s document and Mr Netanyahu’s comments.

When the US-Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David failed in 2000, it was clear that the most likely outcome was that Israel would eventually try to impose by force the kind of partial, highly circumscribed "statehood", combined with annexation, formula that the Palestinians rejected at the negotiating table. They would do this not because it was wise, reasonable, legal, just or logical, but because enough Jewish Israelis desperately want to keep hold of these territories for religious, historical, economic and/or strategic reasons – and Palestinians completely lack the leverage to compel them not to.

So, most of the era following the signing of the Oslo Accords – which came to a formal and ignominious end with the publication of the Trump plan in January – was characterised by steady Israeli settlement-building and deepening the matrix of control on the ground. It was also defined by adroit Israeli resistance to all international pressure to meaningful territorial compromises.

Even when then US president Barack Obama secured a partial settlement construction freeze from Israel for 10 months in 2009, settlement construction did not, in fact, slow, let alone stop. There were enough exceptions, grandfathering clauses and other provisions to prevent that. Had it been extended any longer, it would have started to slow the entrenchment of the occupation, but Israel refused to consider that despite extremely generous US inducements.

Yet Israel was prevented from formally annexing settlements or the Jordan Valley because the US was a signatory to the 1993 Declaration of Principles, and remained committed to a two-state solution. With Mr Trump, all of that has changed. Now Israel is dealing with an administration in Washington that does not feel constrained by international law, signed treaty obligations or human rights.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat (R) shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L), as U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between them, after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington September 13, 1993. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Mr Trump's administration enthusiastically embraces the logic of power that would enable Israel to conduct large-scale annexations precisely because it can.

But even if Israel seizes the settlements and the Jordan Valley, it will not have resolved the Palestinian issue. The logic of "the strong do what they can” therefore sets up an even more chilling future scenario. The Israelis will be more committed than ever to keeping hold of these territories but will be completely unable to politically incorporate the Palestinians.

For "the strong", there is an obvious solution that could well become irresistible. Mass displacement leaving a small remnant of Palestinians, at most, in the areas that Israel intends to permanently control would provide the elusive solution. This could be done in the name of self-defence or military necessity, particularly if, or rather when, another major Palestinian uprising against occupation erupts.

Can anyone still believe that the US, let alone the world, would do anything serious about it?

Yet it is worth considering how Thucydides implicitly interpreted the Athenian cruelty he depicted towards the Melians, who were completely massacred or enslaved. In his immortal account of the Peloponnesian Wars, this exercise of strength in the form of brutal cruelty certainly seems to have sown the seeds for a hubristic Athens' eventual defeat at the hands of Sparta.

The great Athenian historian illustrated not only the logic of unbridled power but also the grim implications that holds for the “strong” as well as the “weak".

Many friends of Israel are seriously questioning how anything resembling a “democratic” or even meaningfully “Jewish” state can be sustained if the Trump plan is realised. Palestinians clearly stand to lose everything in the short run. But by embracing brute force and radical overreach simply because they can, Israelis may too in the long run.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National