Steinberg: As a sovereign nation, only Israel can determine its future

Whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan (a.k.a. “the deal of the century”) produces any lasting impact remains to be seen, but at least it re-awakened debate on borders, the future of Zionism, Israeli democracy, and long-term relations with Palestinians.

And while many analysts dismiss the plan as a political stunt to help Netanyahu win the third Israeli election on March 2, this is overly simplistic. The polls in Israel do not show any increase in support for the Likud and other right wing parties – if anything, they lost some ground.

In part, this reflects the confusion surrounding the questions of annexation of territory taken in 1967, which is the essential element in the Trump plan. Initially, the Americans seemed to give Netanyahu a green light to incorporate neighbourhoods near Jerusalem, and parts of the Jordan Valley essential for Israeli security. But then the United States pulled back;  presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner told Israel to wait until after the election, and then Ambassador David Friedman repeated this warning.

Also, Blue and White leader, and Netanyahu’s rival for leadership, Benny Gantz was also invited to Washington and announced that if he becomes prime minister, he too would proceed with annexation.

More importantly, what seemed like a friendly gesture from the Trump administration now appears to be another in a series of outside efforts to determine Israel’s future. But as a sovereign nation, Israel – not the United States, United Nations, or any other outside power – must decide. More than 50  years after the temporary “occupation” began, the uncertainty is no longer tolerable. And given the intensity with which Palestinians cling to the “return to 1947” myths, there is no realistic hope for a negotiated agreement.

At the same time, haphazard “facts on the ground” created a situation in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis beyond the pre-1967 “green line” are subject to laws which are different from the rest of the country.

The 1993 Oslo framework created a self-governing Palestinian Authority (or proto-state) which includes over 90 per cent of the Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza. In order to keep Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, this structure needs to be maintained and strengthened.

But to determine borders and all that accompanies this move, Israelis must decide on the details – not Americans or anyone else. It is up to us to take responsibility for our future and for the direction of Zionism, and to weigh the risks and benefits of the different options.

For example, Trump’s map includes “land swaps” in which the northern triangle area which has a large Arab population would become part of a Palestinian state, and its residents would no longer be Israelis. In exchange, two unpopulated zones in the southern Negev desert would become either Palestinian or jointly controlled – in either case, no longer part of Israel.

Land swapping is a 19th century international practice that has long since been rejected. A land and population exchange has complex implications and needs to be carefully debated, not simply accepted, sight unseen.

The implications of Palestinian statehood also needed to be considered carefully. Some Israelis argue that any foreign sovereignty over Judea and Samaria is unacceptable – this was Menachem Begin’s position when he negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

Begin rejected annexation of Judea and Samaria because the large Palestinian population would become full citizens, and then Israel would cease to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. Instead, he agreed to limited Palestinian autonomy, but this approach has reached a dead end.   

By returning these issues to the Israeli agenda, the American proposal has done us a major favour, regardless of whether the details go anywhere. It is now up to Israelis, and Palestinians if they are willing to accept Israeli legitimacy and enter into serious negotiations, to decide where to go with it.