Twenty-five years ago this week I stood on the White House lawn and watched the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as President Bill Clinton nudged them toward each other. The occasion was the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, mapping a path to a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living peacefully side-by-side.
The Oslo process failed, with plenty of blame on both sides.
Yet President Donald Trump has rashly pledged a “deal of the century” that he says will produce Mideast peace. His negotiators — led by First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner — keep promising to unveil their plan soon, but the thrust is already clear: A series of punitive U.S. measures against Palestinians (the latest: the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington this week) appear aimed at forcing them to abandon the Oslo promise of statehood.
Trump’s coercive diplomacy has been rejected by Palestinian leaders (and has yet to receive buy-in even from Arab leaders friendly to Israel). And it ignores the demographic reason a reluctant Rabin and subsequent Israeli premiers — until Benjamin Netanyahu — accepted the premise of Oslo: If Palestinian sovereignty is ruled out, a majority of Israeli Jews will retain permanent control over a disenfranchised majority of Arabs. This is the road to an apartheid-style Israeli state.
Yet the Trump team seems determined to dismantle every premise of the Oslo Accords and reshape a peace framework that parallels Netanyahu’s demands.
“The Trump moves can’t be seen in a vacuum,” says Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center and an adviser on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Trump’s “broader objective,” Miller says, “is to reframe U.S. policy for a two-state solution.” Trump wants to dismantle three core elements of the Oslo process: Jerusalem, the issue of Palestinian refugees and the division of territory into two states.
In recent months, the president has made the following unilateral moves:
On Jerusalem: Trump declared that this critical issue has been taken “off the table” — meaning little or no possibility that the Palestinians could have their capital in Arab areas of East Jerusalem in an undivided city.
On Palestinian refugees: Trump is trying to limit the definition of Palestinian refugees to those who fled or were driven out of Palestine in 1947-48, not including their descendants. He has ended the U.S. contribution to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the Palestinian refugee agency. These moves are meant to end discussion of any “right of return” for millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
In truth, no solution was ever possible unless the Palestinians reduced this demand to a symbolic “return;” Palestinian refugees should have been resettled long ago. But U.S. diktats aren’t going to resolve the problem of hundreds of thousands of refugees who still live in camps in Arab countries that are drowning in new waves of Syrian refugees. With no Palestinian state to return to, where will the refugees go? And Trump can hardly request third countries to resettle these Palestinians when he is trying to zero out American acceptance of any refugees at all.
On the two-state solution: The most basic White House rejection of Oslo is its redefinition of a two-state solution. Kushner appears to have bought into Netanyahu’s concept of a “state-minus.” This means that Palestinians would only be given local autonomy over around 40 percent of West Bank land — in disconnected chunks — which means they could administer local services but would have no broader sovereign rights. Gaza would nominally be under control of Palestinian leadership, but Israel would control security; most land, sea and air access; electricity; and trade.