One of the most enduring truisms in the pro-Israel community is that when it comes to negotiating Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel repeatedly makes offers while the Palestinians repeatedly turn them down without making any offers of their own. Like many truisms held by one side in a polarized conflict, it is based in fact but requires a selective reading of history. Israel has either made its own offers to the Palestinian side, such as by Ehud Barak at Camp David, or has conditionally acquiesced to American initiatives. It is not true that the Palestinians have never engaged – the Palestinian side did make its own detailed proposal at Annapolis in 2008 – but they have more commonly turned things down, not responded, or walked away.
This tendency has shown up in stark relief since the release of the Trump plan in January. The Palestinians were placed in an extremely difficult situation from the outset, beginning with Trump policies weighted toward Israel while leaving the Palestinians out – such as the Jerusalem recognition and embassy announcements – and continuing through punitive measures such as cessation of humanitarian assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. This culminated in the Trump plan, formulated with Israeli input and presented as a bilateral U.S.-Israel agreement whose territorial components could be implemented as soon as possible in the form of Israeli annexation of as much as 30% of the West Bank, with Palestinians invited to then engage and negotiate over the rest. The Palestinians had consistently followed through with their announced boycott of the Trump administration following the December 2017 Jerusalem decision, and they maintained this position following the plan’s release. President Abbas’s stance has been that the Palestinians will not engage with the Trump plan, neither to negotiate over its parameters nor to offer a plan of their own.
From my point of view, this has been a grave mistake, though I fully understand the Palestinians’ rationale. Engaging with an administration and a plan that goes out of its way to accept nearly every Israeli position, whether it be security or Jerusalem or refugees, while also going out of its way to portray the Palestinians as fortunate to be granted anything at all – recall Jason Greenblatt’s UN speech arguing that Jews have rights to Jerusalem while Palestinians only have aspirations to it – legitimizes an approach and a set of policies with which Palestinians vehemently disagree. But refusing to dignify the Trump plan with a response allows two things to happen that damage the Palestinians further. First, it only hardens and perpetuates the narrative that the Palestinian leadership will never say yes to anything if they won’t even come up with their own version of a fair offer in response. Second, and following from the first, it makes it far easier for Israel to proceed with annexation. After all, as the argument goes, if the Palestinians won’t engage with existing plans or offer plans of their own, why should Israel and its desire to establish permanent borders be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence? And from the Trump administration’s viewpoint, if one of the objectives was actually to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, an outright refusal to do so removes any brakes on the process that the administration might have been willing to entertain.
Whether or not this was a tactical mistake by the Palestinians has been a matter of debate for months, but events of the past few weeks demonstrate why if ever the Palestinians were inclined to reverse course in an effort to prevent further damage, now is the time.
For starters, the signals coming from the Trump administration about whether Israel should move ahead on annexation are decidedly muddled. For every statement from Ambassador David Friedman comparing Beit El’s importance to that of the Statue of Liberty, there is a statement from the State Department or unnamed White House officials that annexation should not be rushed and must be considered in the context of the Trump plan’s wider vision for negotiations. The internal dynamics of the administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue have been perhaps the most leak-free zone across the entire government, so where the president’s thinking lies and who precisely controls the process moving forward is subject to a fair amount of guesswork. But were the Palestinians to either announce their willingness to entertain negotiations or even release a plan of their own, the evidence suggests that it would introduce a new element that would push the annexation issue farther down the road. At the very least, it would puncture the narrative of the Israelis always being in the position of trying to reach an agreement and the Palestinians always being in the position of trying to prevent one.
It is not only in Trump administration circles where the path ahead has become more complicated. The combination of the Palestinian Authority’s cessation of security coordination with Israel last week – an oft appearing threat that until this time had not been carried out – and the public warnings about annexation from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on top of the regular warnings from Jordan have created a new level of unease. While the Israeli security establishment’s reservations about annexation – embodied by the position of Commanders for Israel’s Security – are well known, in the last two weeks more well known and hawkish security figures including Amos Gilad and Poly Mordechai have publicly warned about the foolishness of proceeding with this course of action. It was reported yesterday that the IDF is preparing to declare a heightened state of alert in the next month due to the annexation issue, and that the Shin Bet and IDF Central Command are making plans on the assumption that there will be large scale violence.
In addition, the prospect of Trump plan annexation has sharply divided the settler leadership and the Yesha Council itself, with some prominent leaders such as Efrat mayor Oded Revivi urging support for the annexation of 30% of the West Bank called for by the Trump plan, and others such as Yesha chief David Elhayani and Samaria Council head Yossi Dagan organizing a campaign to reject the Trump plan for not going far enough. With opposition coming from security figures on one side and from prominent settler leaders on the other, it makes the political environment for the annexation plan that is currently on the table more difficult. If Netanyahu proceeds with what the Trump plan envisions, he will leave as many – if not more – people unhappy than if he does nothing.
If in the midst of this, the Palestinians decide to engage, it may have the ability to alter the dynamic. It does not mean that annexation will be off the table for good. It does not mean that the Trump administration will change its stripes or fundamental worldview. But for the first time in a while, it might give the Palestinians the ability to impact the trajectory of what happens next. But that can only happen if Abbas decides to become involved, rather than sit back with his arms crossed in effective protest that in actuality renders him completely ineffective.
Even if the Palestinians have no hopes for successfully negotiating with Trump or Netanyahu, coming up with their own proactive approach that acknowledges what the U.S. and Israel are doing is still a beneficial tactic. As demonstrated by people continuing to litigate what happened at Camp David in 2000 or parse statements made by various leaders decades ago, nothing happens in a vacuum or ends with one administration. The narrative that Israelis say yes and Palestinians say no informs the way people view both sides, irrespective of the details of any single proposal. Israelis smartly figured out a long time ago that agreeing to negotiate, even if it is with a mountain of reservations, is always smarter than refusing the process altogether. While Palestinians often argue that participating in fruitless talks allows Israel to keep things in a permanent state of limbo, it is hard to see how they are serving their ultimate goal of an independent state by watching in protest as the walls crumble around them. Annexation presents an unprecedented threat to this goal, and it is time for the Palestinians to discard a strategy that has not worked in favor of one that might.