It was a certainty that when the Trump administration finally released its Peace to Prosperity plan for an Israeli-Palestinian deal, Palestinian leadership would reject it out of hand. Whether or not that was tactically smart – and I’m certain it was not – is a question for a separate column, but there was no question about Mahmoud Abbas’s reaction. The Palestinian public’s reaction was the more interesting and less obvious variable. That reaction could have gone in a number of ways, running the spectrum from large-scale protests and violence to a giant collective shrug of apathy. Indeed, the reaction has fallen somewhere in between, with an uptick in violence and protests but nothing approaching a genuine uprising, and plenty of rhetorical denunciation of President Trump and his vision for the Palestinians but also a sense that this is just the latest machination of larger powers that will ultimately come to nothing concrete.
While the active reaction of Palestinians has been nebulous, their opinion of the plan is not. In the first survey since the release of the plan from prominent Palestinian pollster and analyst Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, it is clear where the Palestinian public stands. The results portend ominous storm clouds ahead, but also point to precisely where the Trump administration’s assumptions went off the rails and how a future administration – or a second term Trump presidency – might course correct if there is to be any chance of improving the situation rather than making it worse.
Unsurprisingly, Palestinians reject the plan nearly unanimously, with 94% opposing it and 4% supporting it. 95% reject the Jerusalem component on its own, and 91% reject the economic component of $50 billion in investment for a future Palestinian state if it is contingent on accepting the political component of the plan. 58% of Palestinians believe accepting the Trump plan will bring zero chance of ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state while another 21% think the chances are less than half. 60% of Palestinians do not view the Trump plan as one designed to bring peace at all, but believe it was created for the express purpose of garnering a Palestinian rejection and allowing Israel to then annex the Jordan Valley and all settlements.
More worrisome than the complete rejection of the plan are the ways in which Palestinians think and predict how they should and will respond. 64% of Palestinians support armed struggle or intifada as a response to the peace plan and 77% support ending security coordination with Israel, and 61% expect that a return to armed struggle or intifada will result. The plan has had an impact on how Palestinians think about the overall peace process divorced from the Trump proposal as well. 45% now support an armed struggle or intifada as a way out of the status quo of Israeli occupation – up 6% from two months ago – while only 39% of Palestinians support the concept of a two-state solution, which is the lowest number that this poll has recorded since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Aside from feeling despondent, there are a few other appropriate reactions to these numbers. The first is dispelling the fiction that Palestinians care only about quality of life and improving their daily routines, and are willing to sacrifice larger political aims or core principles if they can gain some utilitarian benefit. This has been the central bet of the Trump Middle East peace team, one that has been reiterated numerous times since the plan’s rollout by Jared Kushner in particular through interviews where he talks about the rapidly disappearing opportunity that Palestinians are missing to improve their lives.
It makes sense that this would be the animating philosophy of the Trump plan given the personalities involved, from David Friedman who obviously prefers the most minimal fulfillment of Palestinian nationalism achievable, to Kushner whose academic and professional background points toward a rational choice, balance-sheet driven view of the world. It is painfully evident, however, that Palestinians view things differently, which means that any plan with a nominal chance of success has to grapple with the existential historical and identity issues involved, rather than weighing in on them in the brusquest manner possible and hoping to distract Palestinians with shiny promises of cars in every garage and chickens in every pot.
Second, the public rollout and presentation of this plan could literally not have been worse. The non-involvement of Palestinians throughout its development and the bilateral U.S.-Israel meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz and then press conference with Netanyahu meant that Palestinians already suspected that this was a U.S.-Israel gambit designed to elicit Palestinian rejection. The comments from Friedman as soon as the plan was released greenlighting immediate Israeli annexation made the whole thing worse, and his Kushner-driven walkback that annexation had to wait until after Israel’s election did not mitigate the damage.
Some U.S. officials have been portraying the Trump plan not as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition but as an opening offer for Palestinians to respond to with negotiations; United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft did so forcefully and clearly yesterday, though one always has to take Trump administration officials’ statements with a grain of salt given the general track record of seesawing positions and contradictory opinions. Even if Craft’s position is the official administration view, it is hard to square the notion of a joint U.S.-Israel committee meeting to hammer out the precise parameters of Israeli West Bank annexation with a plan that is allegedly subject to negotiation. It is probably impossible to convince Palestinians at this point that negotiations over the plan are even a possibility, which is a missed opportunity to take the few positive aspects of the Trump plan and build on them as a negotiating framework going forward. And that missed opportunity is not another example of the Palestinians’ propensity for such things, but of the Trump administration’s creation of its own.
Finally, the increased support for and prediction of violence in response to the plan is disturbing, but combined with the lowest numbers ever recorded in support of two states points to a longer term problem than the risk of near-term bloodshed. There are two nightmare scenarios for Israel in the aftermath of this plan. One is a resumption of large-scale armed resurrection, and while I would not place the chances of that as very high while Abbas is still on the scene, it clearly is a more pertinent concern than it was a few weeks ago. The second is the end of Palestinian nationalism altogether and the transformation of the Palestinian struggle into a bi-national one.
If Palestinians remain convinced that the Trump-Netanyahu show was a misdirection play intended to draw attention away from the primary goal of annexation, then what may result is not one of these scenarios coming into being, but both. It remains true that no matter how much Israelis control the situation on the ground, the ultimate control over a bi-national future remains with the Palestinians and their rapidly diminishing acceptance of a two-state paradigm. If this latest survey is a harbinger of the future, the Trump plan may be the vehicle that in hindsight will be viewed as the decisive factor that tipped Palestinian opinion over the two-state edge and toward the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.