By Ty Joplin
Jared Kushner’s appearance on Sky News Arabia regarding the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was supposed to sell the deal before its scheduled release after Israeli elections in April.
Instead, it sent shockwaves through the Israeli political scene and forced the embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dispute Kushner’s claims regarding the deal’s substance and what Israel is willing to concede.
Central to the disagreement is any change to Israel’s current borders: Kushner’s statement that the goal of the deal was to “eliminate borders” signified to some Israeli politicians that Israel may concede parts of its control over the West Bank or some of its land to a potential future Palestinian state.
But actual details on the deal are sparse and difficult to verify. Its release date has also yet to be unveiled. The latest controversy surrounding Kushner’s comments suggests that the deal may be delayed yet again, as the U.S. and Israel struggle internally to solidify a cohesive agreement on the deal’s contents.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), meanwhile, appears largely in the dark during these negotiations and is positioned to reject the proposed deal.
What the Trump administration promised in 2017, a deal to conclusively end one of the most protracted conflicts in the world, has turned into a convoluted and never-ending diplomatic spat of its own kind.
Parsing the Details of the Deal of the Century
In an interview with Sky News Arabia, Jared Kushner, the U.S.’ special envoy to the Middle East who is in charge of negotiating and implementing the so-called deal of the century, gave a rare account of the deal’s inner-workings, but steered clear of providing details.
“The political plan, which is very detailed, is really about establishing borders and resolving final status issues. The goal of resolving these borders is really to eliminate the borders,” Kushner stated.
“If you can eliminate borders and have peace and less fear of terror, you could have freer flow of goods, freer flow of people and that would create a lot more opportunities,” he continued.
On its surface, Kushner’s comments indicate that the deal may modify the pre-existing borders between Israel and Palestine, and seek to establish normalized trade relations between the two entities.
Inside Israel, politicians immediately thought of Jerusalem and the prospect that it may be divided between an Israeli-controlled west and Palestinian-controlled east.
Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett boldly stated,“Netanyahu will divide Jerusalem,” and demanded the details of the deal be made public before Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9.
“Almost under the radar, a process is taking place that will change the face of the State of Israel and could spell disaster for us in the form of the establishment of the State of Palestine,” Bennett told a crowd in Tel Aviv University. “Trump’s ‘plan of the century’ is progressing and everyone knows what’s in it other than those who are most important, the citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu denied Bennet’s claims as “unfounded,” arguing “it’s natural that he is stressed and he’s a bit confused… It’s obvious that small parties do all sorts of strange things during the election, including saying things that are unfounded.”
But behind the scenes, Netanyahu seemed just as confused and alarmed as his critics about Kushner’s comments. Netanyahu has reportedly remained informed about the details of the deal, “But suddenly along came Kushner at the worst possible time, with the worst possible details, thus forcing Netanyahu on the defensive,” said an anonymous senior Cabinet member.
A senior minister also explained that Netanyahu has largely remained in-touch with Kushner’s team about the deal, but was caught off-guard by Kushner’s suggestions that the deal may include changes to borders. “Turns out that there are limits to even Netanyahu’s ability to control the White House,” the minister said. Netanyahu ordered all government ministers to withhold comments on the deal.
Another contentious detail of the deal is money.
A $65 Billion Trade: Money for Sovereignty
As it stands, the deal will likely try and curtail Palestinian political sovereignty in exchange for money. The PA is positioned to reject that deal.
Analysts estimate that the deal would include investments worth a total of $65 billion: $25 billion going to the West Bank and Gaza and another $40 billion to Egypt, Jordan and potentially Lebanon.
Martin Indyk, a former special envoy for Middle East peace under former president Barack Obama, explained that the deal would be “a very hard sell politically as well as economically.”
“If the bargain is we’ll put in $65 billion so you Palestinians and Arabs will back off your political demands for an independent state based on ’67 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, I don’t think they’re going to raise the money to pay for it,” Indyk said.
“The whole proposition appears to be based on false assumptions.”
Recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine has been seen as critical by Arab countries and existentially threatening to many Israeli politicians.
However, if Arab countries accept the investment money and withdraw their demand for East Jerusalem to be Palestine’s capital, but the PA rejects it; a brewing inner-fault line between the PA and those Arab countries would be revealed, with the PA newly isolated and the Arab countries firmly in Israel’s bloc.
Geopolitically, this fault-line has been widening considerably: the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has worked to cement an Israel-Saudi-Egypt-U.A.E strategic alliance to combat growing Iranian influence the region.
As a result, the Palestinian, who have long counted on those Arab nations for support in their quest for statehood, have been all but abandoned.
One of the deal’s many false assumptions may be that the PA would accept financial investments in lieu of tangible political power or sovereignty.
The PA’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has already called the deal the “slap of the century” and appears poised to reject it on arrival.
Politically speaking, the PA’s thin veneer of a mandate to govern over the West Bank rests solely within the Oslo Accords and its follow-up Gaza-Jericho Agreement, which established the PA as Palestine’s governing body. Its purpose is to serve as a transitioning government until the Palestinian state could be formally created.
The Oslo Accords legally tied Palestinian governance to a two-state solution. The lack of a two-state solution then undermines the PA’s legitimacy.
Since its creation in 1993, the PA has ruled with an authoritarian grip on power, losing support of Palestinians in the process. If the deal of the century goes against the terms of the Oslo Accords or a two-state solution, the PA would be pressed to reject it outright as the deal would subvert the PA’s very reason to exist.
Kushner’s proposition that the end goal is the elimination of borders indicates the West Bank’s sovereignty, and thus the PA’s mandate, may be threatened. Netanyahu’s dismissal of his Israeli critics that the deal would give any sovereignty to Palestine provides further evidence that it may evaporate the PA’s mandate if it were implemented.
Central to the vision of two-state solution is the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; another thing that may threatened.
A previous iteration of the deal of the century included a measure to recognize a tiny Palestinian suburb, Abu Dis, as the capital of Palestine rather than East Jerusalem.
While it is unclear if that provision remains, the proposition highlighted to many inside the Middle East that the deal was not designed to fulfill an equal political vision between Israel and Palestine, but rather serve the interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Waiting for a Deal That May Never Come
One reason to doubt the likelihood of a deal of the century coming in any viable form any time soon is its release date. There isn’t one.
Kushner said in his interview with Sky News that the deal will be unveiled sometime after April 9 election in Israel, but that election’s result may influence what inside the deal.
Currently, Netanyahu is in charge of Israel’s end of the deal, and has championed his closeness with Trump as a sticking point in his election campaign.
But amidst corruption scandals that threaten to unseat him, he is no longer the front-runner. According to opinion polls a newly formed Blue & White Party leads Netanyahu’s Likud Party, 35 percent to 30 percent. Blue & White is jointly led by Israeli centrists former General Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.
Though the party has yet to release its platform let alone a comprehensive account of how it will handle negotiations on the deal of the century. Both Gantz and Lapid expressed frustration with the notorious Nation State Law, which codified Israel to be a nation exclusively serving Jewish people’s right to self-determination, to the detriment of groups like the Druze and the Palestinians.
To combat emerging leaders from his left and shore up paties to his right, Netanyahu helped to merge three far-right Israeli parties together to form a united front. The new party is called the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and includes Jewish Home, Tkuma, and Jewish Power. This new party would, if it receive enough votes, bolster Netanyahu’s chances of forming a right-wing coalition government.
A damning Axios report called Netanyahu’s merger attempts “an unprecedented development in Israel’s history and is equivalent to a U.S. president cutting a political deal with David Duke, the former KKK leader.”
This is because Jewish Power was formed by followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an extremist ultra-nationalist who was convicted in the U.S. for conspiracy to make a fire bomb. Israel, the U.S. and E.U. labeled Kahane’s party, Kach, a terror group in 1994. Now Netanyahu is platforming the successor party’s ideology in a last-ditch bid to keep power.
If Netanyahu is able to form a coalition with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the substance of the deal of the century is likely to change. If Blue & White party win and form a more centrist coalition, then the deal is also likely to undergo revisions.
Kushner’s vague insistence that the deal will be unveiled after the election can be read as a way of stalling the deal indefinitely, or at least until the election’s victor can come to the negotiating table with the U.S.
Either way, the deal of the century appears doomed to constant, last-minute revisions; all of which may prove to be in vein, as the deal itself remains destined to be rejected.