Assessing the Contours of the ‘Middle East Peace Plan’
IndraStra Global

Assessing the Contours of the ‘Middle East Peace Plan’

Responses from Palestine and the Arab World

Assessing the Contours of the ‘Middle East Peace Plan’: Responses from Palestine and the Arab World

By Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal and Matthew R. Sparks

The United States President Donald Trump unveiled the long-awaited Middle East Peace Plan in January 2020 and the initial responses suggest that the prospects of the deal are largely lopsided. The plan has been dismissed by the Arab world and was immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership. However, a closer look at the deal and the responses evince a more complex geopolitical imbroglio which questions the future of Palestine amid an ambiguous Arab opinion. 

Theoretically the Trump-Kushner Deal of the Century posits that a proactive path towards a sovereign Palestinian state is tenable by enacting land swaps, connecting Gaza to the West bank via an integrated transport network, granting port access to Palestinians, and stimulating the Palestinian economy with western investments. On the Palestinian street, the terms of this deal, particularly with regard to the final status issues of the Oslo Accords, forebode catastrophic consequences for Palestinian dreams of national sovereignty and a robust Palestinian economy. “By signing the Oslo accords they have given hope and aspiration to the Palestinian flag and Palestinianism…It’s like letting someone smell the steak and then giving them a falafel sandwich” says Nasser Abdel-Hadi, a Ramallah businessman.[1] The disapproval from Palestinians remains strong and the public opinion over the plan remains crucial for any prospect for stability.

Amid such responses, it becomes important to understand the provisions of the Peace deal and its larger implications for Palestinian people.


Deconstructing the 'Middle East Peace Plan'


In removing the question of Palestinian refugees and an undivided Jerusalem from the negotiating table, the Peace to Prosperity deal makes intriguing provisions regarding asymmetrical land swaps in the Negev desert and Wadi Ara Triangle. Under the new plan, the entirety of the Wadi Ara region and two undeveloped areas in the Negev along the Sinai border will be ceded to the future Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel will annex the West Bank Settlements (Area B) and the Jordan Valley (Area C). As a result of these land swaps the state of Israel would recognize roughly 70% of the West Bank’s current borders. Nevertheless, the land swap policy raises many existential questions concerning the future residents of the Wadi-Ara Triangle and the Jordan Valley, as well as the value of the Negev cessations.

Negev Cessations

The Negev cessations, encompassing two undeveloped parcels of desert land allocated for Palestinian industrial and agricultural projects are the most perplexing of the proposed land swaps. The areas in question, flanking the Nitzana/Auja al-Hafir area, have historically been a thorn in the side of Israel due to acts of infiltration and terrorism from Sinai. “The Negev desert—I mean what we have agreed as Palestinians, and that was demonstrated by the first election…the Palestinians said that we agree to recognize the state of Israel next to us. The Negev lands belong to Israel proper”, says[2] Abdelhadi. “They (The Negev cessations) aren’t really that historically or symbolically important in any way”[3] opines Leen Barghouti, a resident of East Jerusalem. “I just think it is a way for Israel to say that they have conceded something as well as providing a buffer zone against Sinai and therefore, Israel again is outsourcing the irregularities and the terrorism threats from Sinai…it is not necessarily relevant to any Palestinian demands. It has never been a part of the Palestinian demands either.”, she further added.[4] 

Wadi Ara Triangle

The Wadi Ara triangle, a concentration of several predominantly Arab-Israeli villages bordering the “Greenline”, will also be ceded to the West Bank as a part of the Trump Deal. Approximately 300,000 citizens of this region are Israeli citizens, the descendants of Palestinians who remained inside Israel after 1948. “They are part of the national insurance, they are part of the education system, and to have Israel just strip them of their citizenship and basically let them be annexed into another state that they have no say in…It just goes to show you that Israel has a long-term strategy of minimizing the Arab population and maximizing the Jewish population by annexing areas with high settlement populations”[3], says Barghouti. It is not certain what future lies in store for the region once it is annexed by the proposed Palestinian State under the Trump-Kushner Deal, however, what is certain is that its population will no longer retain any of the privileges of Israeli citizenship.

Jordan Valley

Perhaps the most controversial of the propositions in the Trump-Kushner deal is the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley (Area C) of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley, cradling the Jordan river and blessed with abundant deposits of valuable Dead-Sea minerals, was poised to be a major center of tourism, trade, and telecommunications in the West Bank. Housing numerous sites sacred to the Abrahamic religions, as well as a fertile agricultural region, the Jordan Valley, according to a World Bank study, could potentially generate an estimated $918,000,000 in revenue from the exploitation of its potash, bromine, and magnesium reserves in Dead-Sea [3]. As such, its loss is perceived by the Palestinian street as a staggering blow to the economy of a future Palestinian State. 

“There was a lot of potentials and the Palestinian Authority probably could have obtained over one billion dollars of revenue per year if they were able to develop the Jordan Valley and all of Area C.”, [3] remarks Barghouti. The Israeli boycott of Palestinian agricultural produce from the Jordan Valley, and its blockade of Palestinian exports to neighboring Jordan, only further tightens the economic strain on the citizens of the region.[3] “Because 66% of the export of agricultural goods goes to Israel, the rest goes to Jordan. So, it is a big issue, it is a sensitive issue. And I think Israel understands the economic and strategic value of the Jordan Valley, so it has decided to go for it.”[3], she further added. By all indications, it seems that in spite of opposition to the Trump-Kushner Plan, the Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley is proceeding slowly, but surely as outlined in the Trump Deal.[3]  

An Ambiguous Arab Opinion: Reflections from the Arab world


Palestine has remained one of the most important geopolitical issues shaping the regional dynamics in the Middle East. Despite the fact there have been several instances of divided Arab opinion among various US allies in the region, largely the Arab leaders have backed the aspirations and demands of Palestinians. 

The Trump administration’s Middle East Peace Plan was immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership, with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responding by severing all ties with the US and Israel including on the security front. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in a joint statement, also rejected the plan, calling on all member states not to cooperate with the US in implementing the plan. The member states also recognized that the plan does not meet the minimum rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. A similar outcome was observed during an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo where the pan-Arab bloc, in a largely symbolic gesture, rejected the US-Israeli ‘deal of the century’. These calls for Arab-Palestinian solidarity belie an era of increased engagement between key Arab states and Israel, which will invariably affect the future prospects for Palestine. 

Israel’s links with Jordan and Egypt


Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states who have signed peace treaties with Israel. Both countries have over time increased cooperation with Israel, despite certain divergences. To Jordan, Israel remains a vital security buffer and water source. The Palestinian question, however, remains as a litmus test of the Wadi Araba Treaty securing Israel and Jordan’s uneasy peace. Moreover, some recent surveys indicate the Jordanian public is less receptive to increased engagement with Israel. At the backdrop of these developments, the Jordanian response towards the peace plan has been negative.

Israel’s engagement with Egypt has also made strides in recent years. The strategic importance of Egypt’s Suez Canal, the most vital maritime trade route connecting the East and the West, creates a unique position vis-à-vis other countries in the region. The 1979 Peace Treaty and Egypt’s accentuated engagement with Israel during the Mubarak era signaled Egypt’s increasing reliance on the US. Though their bilateral relationship has seen highs and lows, Cairo has more or less adapted to the new realities in the region where the role of Israel has become crucial. Recently, Egypt and Israel have accelerated their economic and trade engagement, especially with respect to the export of natural gas from Israel. Israel became a major energy exporter after signing a permit to export natural gas to Egypt via the vast Leviathan offshore gas field. Egypt and Israel have also cooperated closely in combatting the Sinai insurgency. This has been evident from airstrikes conducted by Israel in Sinai with the approval of the Egyptian military.

Responses from the GCC


The wealthy monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council play a decisive role in the region. Although none of the GCC member countries have established diplomatic relations with Israel, the backchannel ties between several GCC countries and Israel have become apparent. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has been keen on showing the world his intention to formalize relations with GCC countries. At present, several GCC countries surreptitiously engage with Israel, while publicly maintaining their status quo position. Both Israel and GCC member states have converging interests in the region. In the aftermath of the “Arab-Spring”, the increasing instability with Iran and the lack of a collective security framework has created a vacuum which needs to be addressed in light of waning US’ entanglements in regional conflicts.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has signaled a change in the traditional position of Saudi Arabia with respect to Israel. This was evident when he urged the Palestinians to consider Trump’s proposal. Later, during an interview with The Atlantic, MBS said that he acknowledged the right of the Jewish people to their own land like the Palestinians. The popular young prince is seen as a reformer and a patriot, with his influence in the region serving as a bellwether for public opinion in Saudi Arabia. 

A similar change can be observed with respect to the UAE. As seen with the Israeli Minister for Sports and Culture, Miri Regev’s invitation by her UAE counterpart to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The minister of state for foreign affairs of UAE has also publicly stated that relations between Arab states and Israel need to change in order to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.

Bahrain’s position towards the issue has also been a case for scrutiny. In recent years, Bahrain sees Iran as a major threat to its own stability, having experienced protests directed towards the royal family from Tehran supported Shia factions. Bahrain also prides itself on its reputation for religious freedom, being the only country in the Southern Gulf with an indigenous Jewish community under protected status by King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa. As host to the strategic Fifth Fleet of the US Navy, The US too is keen on monitoring any turbulence in Bahrain. Hence, any response from Bahrain should be read in conjunction with larger strategic in keeping the US and Bahrain closely aligned. As such, Bahrain’s recognition of Trump’s efforts can be understood as a matter of political expediency.

Qatar remains an important actor within the GCC. Despite efforts to ease frictions between Qatar and its GCC co-members in light of the Qatar Diplomatic Crisis, the equation within the GCC has become tense to a large extent. Historically, Qatar has been one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause. Over the years, Qatar has provided millions of dollars in aid to Gaza, and hosted Hamas leaders. Ultimately, Qatar’s response to the plan was one of calculated caution. Qatar called on both sides to hold direct negotiations and, unlike the responses from Riyadh or Cairo, the Qatari statement also implied a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (including East Jerusalem and the right of return).

The Omani response remains unique, and especially relevant after Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October 2018. By virtue of its position, Oman has historically mediated between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Oman has also been engaging with Israel for several years, and much like other Gulf states, US support becomes vital in securing the strategic interests of the state in the region.

Kuwait also is an interesting case, as its foreign ministry initially expressed optimism w concerning the Trump Plan. However, later the Kuwaiti speaker of Parliament, Marzouq al Ghanim, tossed the document into the dustbin in a symbolic gesture stressing that he is doing so on behalf of all Muslims and Arabs. This illustrates the larger conundrum of most of the Arab states. Publicly the leaders of the Arab states have to recognize Palestinian national aspirations, as they still remain an issue of the larger Arab and Islamic world. On the other hand, the Arab states have also succumbed to regional political dynamics requiring the US to address their strategic interests.

The Way Ahead


The responses from the Arab world are viewed as unprecedented to a large extent. The Trump administration, with all its means, has sought consensus from the larger Arab world rather than involving the Palestinians in negotiations. Although most of the responses from the Arab world have been calculated rejections of the plan on international platforms, the future trajectory could be unpredictable. 

The hard reality of realpolitik remains the primary concern for Palestinians in their way ahead. The fact that there is no strong power backing the Palestinian cause and the reasons for such a scenario sow further division within Palestinian politics. The only strong voice for Palestinians in the international community so far has come from the Arab world. However, as the responses from the region are divided and ambiguous, the possibility remains that there could be a more overt role for Turkey, Iran and/or Iraq in backing Palestine to counter their regional rivals. 

The strategic interests of many Arab countries lie in aligning with US policy and slowly warming up to Israel. The tense relations between the Sunni monarchs and Iran will further reflect the prospects of Palestine, as it remains a vital issue for the Arab world in the international community. Iran banks on Islamic solidarity, remaining optimistic about creating a larger consensus in favor of the ruling regime in Tehran, to counter the influence of the Saudi-led coalition in the region. This certainly creates certain changes in the whole dynamics. The upcoming US elections could also further impact the regional dynamics as several US presidential candidates have opposed Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. 

About the Authors:

Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal (ORCID: 0000-0001-8209-1628) is a former Middle East and South Asia analyst at Jane's. He is currently a Dr.T.M.A Pai Fellow and a Doctoral candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India.

Matthew R. Sparks is a Ph.D. student at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His research interests include oral history, social history, geopolitics, and political economics among cultural and religious minorities. He is currently working on a social and economic history of the Sinai-Naqab Bedouin between 1948-1967. He also writes frequently on issues related to his native Appalachia.

Cite this Article:

Moonakal, N.A., Sparks, M.R., "Assessing the Contours of the ‘Middle East Peace Plan’", IndraStra Global Vol. 06, Issue No: 02 (2020), 0018, https://www.indrastra.com/2020/02/Assessing-the-Contours-of-MEPP-006-02-2020-0018.html, ISSN 2381-3652

Footnotes:

[1] Interview with Nasser Abdel Hadi, Ramallah Palestine Feb. 2. 2020
[2] Interview with Nasser Abdel Hadi, Ramallah Palestine Feb. 2. 2020
[3] Interview with Leen Barghouti, South Sinai Egypt, Feb. 10, 2020.
[4] Ibid.

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