Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted the strategy of Donald Trump: Instead of military power, use economic force! From the moment of Trump’s election in 2016, he turned economic sanctions into his main tool to achieve what he wants in the diplomatic arena. This contrasts strongly with the approach of the last Republican president, George Bush (and his sidekick Dick Cheney), who thought that its military supremacy would enable America to reorganize the world. The resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound up costing the US a trillion dollars and thousands of dead, while contributing to an economic collapse that dragged the world along with it. Trump changed the diskette. He saw no need to sacrifice soldiers and dollars; one could get better results with economic levers, or so he thought.
Accordingly, the economic sanctions on North Korea were meant to compel its leader, Kim Jong-un, to give up nuclear weapons. Against China Trump imposed higher tariffs in order to improve America’s trade balance. Against Iran, Trump is tightening the economic sanctions, and he has recently cancelled exceptions enjoyed by eight countries that were allowed to import Iran’s oil, a measure that is worsening Iran’s situation and, as a side effect, choking the Syrian regime, which remains without a drop of petrol. In accordance with this approach, Trump has decided to cut aid to the Palestinians, aiming to make them accept the Deal of the Century cooked up by his advisors: Jared Kushner, David Friedman, and Jason Greenblatt.
Abu Mazen’s way of opposing the US plan has been to stick his head deep in the sand and refuse to meet with the Americans. In effect, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has imposed a boycott on the Trump Administration, receiving in return the cancellation of aid, which will remain in effect until Abu Mazen caves in and agrees to hear the plan. The Americans have revealed that they want to present their proposal after the month of Ramadan, which ends June 4, but several such presentation dates have been postponed in the past because the Best Man at the wedding, Abu Mazen, shows no interest.
Kushner has already procured the assent of the Saudi heir apparent, Muhammad ben Salman, who received from Trump, in exchange, full clearance from suspicion in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (while Netanyahu pretends complete ignorance in the matter). The question remains: how to bring Abu Mazen to accept the solution that is best for Israel, something that no previous American president has managed to do.
Trump took his first steps without hesitation. Exactly a year ago he transferred the US embassy to Jerusalem in order to wipe this controversial issue off the table. For his part, Kushner announced the cancellation of US support for UNRWA, after this organization was accused of corruption; this indicates that the issue of the refugees can likewise be wiped off the table as far as the Americans are concerned.
As for the third issue which was to be discussed at the talks on a permanent solution—the Israeli settlements in the West Bank—Netanyahu has announced his intention to annex them. With the three main issues solved in this way—that is, unilaterally—with the tacit approval of the Trump-dependent Arab dictators, the Deal of the Century is supposed to become a reality.
Only one little item remains: to make Abu Mazen open his arms and receive the document, then take his place on a Cairo stage beside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, while the white headdresses of the Gulf leaders ripple in the air behind them, and place his signature with trembling hand—though not before Sisi hisses, “Sign, you dog!” as Hosni Mubarak hissed at Yasser Arafat in 1993.
Rabin, Peres, and Arafat received the Nobel Prize for Peace. It’s doubtful whether Abu Mazen will get any kind of prize for a powerless Autonomy dependent on Israel’s graces. The Deal of the Century will create de facto apartheid.
If Netanyahu wants to compel Abu Mazen, however, what has he got? The Trumpian economic lever? In fact it’s already being tried. As part of the Oslo accords, Israeli customs normally collects each month around 460 million shekels (ca. $127 million) in duties levied on goods meant for Palestinian markets; it then transfers this money to the PA. Abu Mazen, in turn, pays a tenth of this to the families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel for what it calls terrorism. To show its displeasure with this arrangement, Netanyahu’s government decided to withhold one tenth from the customs duties it transfers. In turn, Abu Mazen has refused to accept any sum less than full payment. It’s our money, he points out, and Israel has no say in how we use it.
To compensate for the self-inflicted loss of vital funds, Abu Mazen has halved the salaries of 160,000 officials and policemen. In turn, the Palestinian banks have halved the amounts due on mortgages and loans. Yet the families of the prisoners continue to get their full allotments—and for one simple reason: The benefits keep all the “fighting families” dependent on the PA, lending it a measure of stability. If fulfilled, Israel’s demand would amount to a death sentence, no less than Trump’s Deal of the Century. Abu Mazen’s “nationalist” position is the result of coldblooded calculations of survival.
The Palestinian president’s refusal to take anything but the full sum places Netanyahu before a dilemma: Should he give in and permit the transfer of the full customs duties to the PA? Or should he risk the PA’s collapse? The issue parallels his dilemma concerning Gaza: whether to ease the siege—which includes the transfers of millions from Qatar—thus yielding to Hamas’s conditions, or whether to refuse and risk a humanitarian disaster.
Emulating Trump, in short, Netanyahu is playing a zero-sum game that threatens to bring the PA to economic collapse. There is a fly in the ointment, however: You cannot compare the relations between Israel and the PA with those between America and the countries where Trump plies his economic lever: China, North Korea, and Iran. The difference is easily stated: Israel can’t manage without the PA! If it were to collapse, Israel would have 3 million West Bank Palestinians on its hands—and no Abu Mazen to provide the sacred “security cooperation.”
As for Trump’s economic lever, it has so far achieved nothing. North Korea persists with nuclear armament, the trade negotiations with China continue to the latter’s satisfaction, and the immediate result of the sanctions on Iran has been a 30% hike in oil prices.
Apart from the problem of the PA’s money, another tough decision faces Netanyahu: whether to break his solidarity with Trump and ward off the Deal of the Century before it sees the light of day. In effect, the Trump Deal has hastened processes which, in Bibi’s view, were supposed to go on forever. Trump’s megalomaniac experiment, and Netanyahu’s no less megalomaniac ambition to rule the West Bank and annex the settlements, have brought Israel to a point of no return. Annexation will mean the end of the PA and the return of full, direct Israeli control over 3 million West Bankers. The opposite alternative, namely the division of the land into two sovereign states, has become unattainable both politically and economically.
Time after time Netanyahu has proved to be a magician with expertise in wriggling out of traps wise men would never enter. The people of Israel loves him and believes he’ll elude the hand of the law. It relies on him to continue steering an economy that benefits the middle class. It thinks Trump is good for the Jews, despite the rising tide of antisemitic attacks since his election. Above all, it thinks Bibi keeps it safe.
Nevertheless, during Netanyahu’s present term, the people of Israel is liable to end up sorry about its choice. The criminal proceedings will dog him. His good friend Trump has already received a beating with the loss of the House of Representatives. As for the PA, it has apparently decided, like Samson in Gaza among the Philistines, to bring the roof down on itself and the Jews.
From all this we can conclude that the recent elections amounted to a missed opportunity. The real issues did not come up for discussion. Of all the parties that were destined to pass the electoral threshold, not a single one rose to say No to the Deal of the Century. Not one (except the Arab parties) opposed the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. And none has had the courage to look reality in the face. Trump and Netanyahu have buried the idea of two states. All that remains is apartheid—or one democratic state for both peoples from the Jordan River to the sea.