In 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary made the memorable statement that many hold responsible for the century-old conflicts between Palestinians and Zionists. The statement, which came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, was in the form of a letter from Lord Balfour addressed to Walter Rothschild, the head of the British Jewish community. In the statement, Britain publicly pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
The ambiguous term “national home,” without precedent in international law, was deliberately used because the British cabinet was divided between those who supported the Zionist objective of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and those who opposed it. It appears that the former group assumed that in time the “national home” would metamorphose into a state.
Britain thus pledged to facilitate the immigration of European Jews to Palestine in disregard of the wishes of the indigenous population of Palestine. Lord Balfour made this clear in a subsequent memo he wrote in 1919 in which he clearly stated that London did not “propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” He justified this by adding that the great powers were committed to Zionism because “be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far more profound importance than the desires and prejudices of the seven hundred thousand Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
The process of turning Palestine into a Jewish “national home” and eventually a Jewish state was facilitated by the fact that Palestine came under British rule at the end of World War I in the guise of a League of Nations Mandate. The British began to implement the Balfour Declaration to facilitate the immigration of European Jews to Palestine. Consequently, between 1922 and 1935, the Jewish population in Palestine rose from nine percent to about 27 percent of the total population.
The demographic transformation of Palestine, despite some dithering by the British government in the face of Arab opposition, continued and was helped by the Nazi atrocities against German and other European Jews that culminated in the Holocaust. These atrocities led to the mass migration of Jews into Palestine, boosting the Jewish share of the population to 32 percent in 1948 when the British decided to terminate their mandate and leave Palestine unceremoniously without designation successor authority or authorities. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recommending the division of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state awarding the Zionists 55 percent of the mandated territory despite the fact that they were still a minority in Palestine.
The Arabs refused to accept the division of Palestine and the first Arab-Israeli War ensued which at the time of the armistice left 77 percent of the territory under Israeli control. The primary reason for this outcome was that the Jews already had an army that was formed out of the armed paramilitary groups trained and created to fight side by side with the British in World War II. Moreover, the Arab governments that intervened—principally Transjordan and Egypt—were more interested in checkmating each other than fighting Israel.
This status quo lasted until 1967 when in the Six-Day War Israel extended its control over the remaining portion of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, repeated attempts have been made by the international community including the United States and the United Nations to achieve a two-state settlement of the conflict with the states of Israel and Palestine existing side by side. These attempts failed in part due to the discrepancy in power between Israel and the Palestinians and in part due to discords among the Palestinians that eventually led to the separation of Gaza ruled by Hamas from the West Bank ruled by PLO.
However, throughout the past fifty years American administrations, despite their pro-Israeli tilt, which has protected Israel from international criticism because of its continued occupation of Palestinian lands, have at least in theory been premised on finding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has meant reigning in, to some extent, Israeli proclivities regarding building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and moving toward annexation of parts of the Palestinian territories.
The Trump administration has broken radically from this tradition and catered to the wishes of the most hardline and right-wing elements in Israel. On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered that the American embassy be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. In March 2019, the Trump administration recognized the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights by Israel.
For the past two years, the Trump administration had been busy publicizing that it was preparing a final deal that would solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for good. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, masterminded the effort. Finally, the Trump-Kushner Peace Plan was announced on January 18. The best way to describe it is that it has fulfilled Lord Balfour’s dream by allotting much of the West Bank to Israel and ensured that it would be in a position of overlordship as regards to the meager portion of the West Bank left under nominal Palestinian control.
While Netanyahu has enthusiastically embraced the plan, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as all Palestinian parties including Hamas, PLO, and Islamic Jihad, anticipating what the plan would look like, rejected it even before it was formally announced. The plan made clear that Palestinian fears were correct. It allows Israel to retain full sovereignty over Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, carves the future Palestinian state into several noncontiguous territories, and awards the Jordan Valley to Israel.
In addition, it locates the capital of the future State of Palestine in Abu Dis, a town adjacent to Jerusalem but not within the city limits thus denying the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem, with its Muslim and Christian holy sites, should be recognized as the capital of their state. Furthermore, it declares that Hamas must be disarmed and Gaza and the entire future Palestinian State must be demilitarized. While the plan states that there should be unfettered access to the Al-Aqsa mosque for Muslims it includes the caveat that they must “come in peace,” a provision that would obviously be interpreted at their discretion by Israeli authorities who control access to the Noble Sanctuary. Israel may continue to deny Muslims of a certain age access to Al-Aqsa on the pretext that they are unlikely to “come in peace.”
Furthermore, the plan requires that both sides recognize the State of Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish (not Israeli) people. The Palestinians and even a substantial section of Israelis reject the latter claim. The only restriction it puts on Israel is that it should not build any new settlements for four years on areas that are not envisioned to be part of Israel.
It is no wonder the plan is music to Netanyahu’s and Likud’s ears. Among other things, it seems to be an effort on the part of Trump to ensure that Netanyahu wins the Israeli elections scheduled for March by consolidating the right-wing vote behind him. The plan allows Israel to immediately annex all the settlements spread throughout the West Bank, in addition to the vast area of the Jordan Valley. Netanyahu declared on Tuesday that the interim government he heads would vote on this step early next weekend although this has been denied by other sources. Israel is awash with speculation that Netanyahu may annex the settlements and the Jordan Valley before the elections in March to increase his prospects for re-election.
As for the Palestinians, the Trump plan will not only validate Israel’s acquisition of a large part of the West Bank but also legitimize their long-term subjugation by the Jewish state. If ever a demilitarized and cantonized Palestinian mini-state came into existence it will exist at the mercy of Israel, which will control all access to such a state, and dominate it both economically and militarily. This is the reason why all Palestinian factions have rejected the plan out of hand.
Efforts to implement the plan by Israel by annexing Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley could have several major repercussions. First, they are likely to lead to the complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was created as part of the Oslo Accord that the Trump plan will now supersede. With the fiction of the PA removed, the Palestinian territories will return to the pre-Oslo status of occupied lands for which Israel will have to bear total responsibility under international law.
Second, it is likely to lead to violent reactions by Palestinians in the West Bank as well as rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The latter could lead to Israeli incursions into Gaza on a scale not witnessed since the Israeli Operation Pillar of Defence, which devastated Gaza in November 2012. Gaza, already traumatized by Israel’s economic blockade, is likely to descend into near-anarchy posing an even greater security threat to Israel.