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2018 Annual Assessment

President Trump has repeatedly noted his desire to strike the “ultimate deal” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The continued American role in leading the peace process gives Israel the opportunity to reach an accord via a sympathetic mediator. However, depending on the nature of the still-confidential American plan, it could also put the onus on Israel to make painful concessions, and possibly cast a shadow on its relationship with the Trump administration, however sympathetic the administration might be. Trump’s actions to date have reflected an intention to involve the moderate Sunni countries in a regional arrangement that would also include the Palestinians. However, the Arab countries have not publicly signaled normalization with Israel (they have made this conditional on substantive progress with the Palestinians), or to promise public support for Trump’s peace plan (they are demanding a plan that will not significantly depart from the traditional Arab consensus, as reflected in the Arab Peace Initiative). The American administration’s challenge is more difficult now that the Palestinians have rejected American mediation and refused to meet with Trump’s envoys. The administration has responded by bypassing Abu Mazen and appealing directly to the Palestinian public. Thus, President Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, warned in an interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds: “We have opted not to chase him [Abu Mazen] […] Don’t let your leadership reject a plan they haven’t even seen.”23 The American effort’s starting conditions are becoming harder still by the security and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This was reflected in a joint article signed by Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman that harshly criticized Hamas but also opened a door for change. The three called upon Hamas to acknowledge the reality of Israel’s existence and set forth three U.S. conditions for the organization: “… recognizing the State of Israel, abiding by previous diplomatic agreements, and renouncing violence […].”24 In this light, the Trump administration must decide if, despite the plan’s poor chances of success, it will put it on the table (Kushner stated in the Al Quds interview that the administration would likely make the plan public even without Abu Mazen’s cooperation). A situation in which the U.S. despairs of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and abandons its leadership role in the peace process could be dangerous for Israel, as international parties unsympathetic to Israel might try to take the place of the U.S. and promote problematic initiatives.

U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the announcement that its embassy would relocate there were perceived as signs of gross American pro-Israel bias. However, the Trump administration stated publicly that the move does not address the issues of sovereignty, the holy sites, or Jerusalem’s borders, which are to be taken up during negotiations. Trump issued a statement (December 6, 2017) affirming that “we are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”25 The question whether Trump’s Jerusalem move entails a price for Israel was clarified by Trump himself (August 21, 2018): “Now Israel will have to pay a higher price, because it’s [Jerusalem] off the table. The Palestinians will get something very good, because it’s their turn next.”26

The United States occasionally expresses reservations about Israeli settlement activity. Trump himself said: “The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.”27 Accordingly, the administration categorically denied (February 12, 2018) Netanyahu’s claim – in an effort to block proposed legislation calling for the annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria –
that he was talking to the United States about applying sovereignty in the settlements.

Affirmation that permanent borders will be determined in negotiations indicates that even Trump’s pro-Israel administration assumes the separation of Israel and the Palestinians via permanent borders in the context of an “ultimate deal.” Agreement on such borders entails addressing issues of great significance for Israel’s Jewish character, including the status of Jerusalem. Drawing Jerusalem’s boundaries touches on the heart of Jewish identity and sanctity. Ceding parts of Judea and Samaria to foreign sovereignty could involve leaving places where Jewish roots are most deeply entrenched (the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s Tomb, and other important sites). When one adds to this the probable need to dispossess tens of thousands of Jewish settlers of their homes, it becomes clear that such measures could drive a rift within the Jewish people and compromise Jewish solidarity, in Israel and abroad. On the other hand, continued Israeli control of the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria also fuels deep discord within the Jewish people.

In the debate over where Israel’s permanent borders should lie, security/geopolitical considerations intermingle with considerations pertaining to Israel’s Jewish identity. Two main arguments lead to conflicting conclusions:
The larger the share of non-Jews in the area under Israel’s control, the more likely that Israel will lose its Jewish character. In order to preserve the country’s Jewish character, Israel needs a solid Jewish majority, and therefore requires permanent borders that will shrink the territory currently under its control.

Israeli abandonment of Judea and Samaria due to demographic or other concerns would, in addition to intensifying the security risk, constitute a harsh blow to Israel’s Jewish character, as it is precisely those areas most closely linked to Jewish identity that would be abandoned.
Thus, should Trump prove determined to advance his ultimate deal plan, profound controversy may be expected to surface within the Jewish people regarding the Jewish implications of any proposed settlement.