Trump's Middle East peace plan: Good or bad?

Plus, Bernie Sanders' list of executive orders.

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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

A combo of “What D.C. is talking about” and a reader question, a story about Bernie Sanders’ plans for the presidency and some good economic numbers.

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Source: U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv

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Dave Chappelle.

The “world-famous comedian,” as he described himself to one voter, made his first campaign call on behalf of Andrew Yang this week. Chappelle endorsed Yang last week and is now hitting the telephones to help him collect support ahead of Iowa.


What D.C. is talking about and your questions, answered.

Note: In the interest of keeping today’s newsletter digestible, I’m combining today’s reader question with “What D.C. is talking about,” since they are well-aligned with each other.

Q: I'd love to hear you dive into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with as much objectivity as possible. Especially in light of the new Middle East peace proposal from yesterday. I try to stay informed but that issue is so politically charged that it's tough to know exactly what I'm reading. 

- Jimmy, High Point, NC

Tangle: Earlier this week, President Trump took a swing at the foreign policy issue that has vexed every president before him: establishing peace in the Middle East. His plan, constructed in large part by his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, is staunchly “pro-Israel” by any historical precedents. It’s an extremely detailed plan that will immediately change the state of Israel. Supporters of the plan say it gives a resounding endorsement of a “two-state solution,” i.e. establishes a sovereign State of Palestine with a capital outside of East Jerusalem alongside Israel. The plan also allows Israel to take control of over 30% of the West Bank, something no previous U.S. administration has supported (for context, Bill Clinton offered Palestinians 94-96% of the West Bank during negotiations in 2000. This deal affords them just 70%). It simultaneously calls for a four-year freeze on Israeli settlement construction or expansion in areas that would be a part of the future State of Palestine.

What’s new and unique about Trump’s plan is that is no longer pretends the U.S. is a neutral arbitrator in the conflict. Instead, it places the U.S. firmly on the Israeli side and puts serious pressure on a Palestinian leadership that has refused to negotiate with the U.S. or Israel for over two years. The plan also has some distinctive Trumpian elements: it focuses on the economics of the issue, offers $28 billion of investment in infrastructure and standards of living over the next decade to support Palestine and $22 billion of additional investment for surrounding Arab nations like Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. As Middle East expert David Makovsky put it in the Wall Street Journal, “What’s historic here is that it’s the first time, I think since the start of the conflict, that the Arab position has not been a replica of the Palestinian position.” Like any negotiation or plan for peace, Trump’s offer is not designed to be the final word. Instead, it’s something that is supposed to prompt the return of negotiations — a starting point for both sides to work from. Right now, that seems unlikely. Palestinians responded to the plan by scheduling a “day of rage” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the plan outright, saying a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital was unacceptable.


What the left is saying.

The plan is “laughable” if its intended goal is to establish peace. It’s essentially a bribe to the Palestinian leadership to give up the land and territory they’ve been dying for over the last few centuries, something that seems exceedingly unrealistic. It was a plan developed with zero Palestinian input and only released now to help Israeli Prime Minister and Trump supporter Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an indictment on bribery charges with another looming vote to sort out Israel’s government. Trump has now cut off funding for Palestinian refugee programs, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the Golan Heights as belonging to Israel, all moves that have inflamed the issues in the region and further suppressed the rights of Palestinians. Worse, this plan could do damage to what little stability currently exists. Previous peace talks led to a security agreement between the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF). The Palestinian Authority is already threatening to cut its security and economic relations with Israel. “The unilateral annexation of the Jordan River valley and existing settlements, deemed illegal under U.S. and international law, will set back the peace process decades,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said. “And it risks real violence and massive destabilization inside places like Jordan.” Medhi Hasan criticized the New York Times for saying Palestine was being asked to make concessions, noting “the idea that an occupied people who have had their land stolen from them are expected to concede that land to the people who have occupied them and stolen their land — it’s madness. It’s not the language we’d use in any other walk of life or any other conflict, we don’t use it in the context of Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.”


What the right is saying.

Trump has re-framed the conflict in the Middle East and given us the best shot at peace we’ve ever had. By dropping the veneer of impartiality and being honest about the state of affairs on the ground, Trump and his team have put forward a realistic, extremely detailed and flexible plan that could kickstart negotiations in the region. He’s got the support of many Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other nations in the region which reflects the changing dynamics on the ground. Arab nations that have long been supportive of Palestinian leadership have become exasperated with its lack of willingness to negotiate, and Trump’s plan takes advantage of that shifting landscape. Israel is winning the territorial war in the region by expanding settlements into the West Bank. This plan acknowledges that as well and gives Palestine an opportunity to stop the bleeding, even if it means giving up far more land than they would have 10 or 20 years ago. It calls for an immediate disarming of Hamas, a terrorist organization currently leading the Palestinian people, and calls for a transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority. This acknowledges the reality that Hamas is not a reasonable partner for peace. It freezes settlement expansion, even if it hands over land to the Israeli government, and draws clear lines about what nation-states will be where. It commits billions of dollars of U.S. money to build infrastructure, bringing Palestine into global trade, funding hospitals and schools, and even constructing things like train lines. And it’s not the handout to Netanyahu that many people think it is: calling for a two-state solution and forcing Netanyahu to accept such a plan is sure to enrage the right-wing factions of the Israeli government who want no such deal. In reality, this plan forces concessions on both sides of the aisle while introducing a totally new paradigm to the conflict.


My take.

I’ve pledged from the beginning that the point of Tangle is to be transparent about my own biases as a reporter while also ensuring that you get the best arguments from both sides on big issues. So it’s relevant to note here that I’m Jewish, I’ve lived in east Jerusalem and I have a deep connection to Israel as a whole. It’s also worth noting that I view Benjamin Netanyahu as an extreme actor, I do not support his leadership in Israel and some of the most impactful and formative moments I had in Israel were the times I spent talking to Arab-Israelis or Muslims who spoke candidly with me about their experience living in Israel. This issue is extremely complex and you’d probably get a radically different view on this from a Palestinian or ultra-Orthodox Israeli then what you’re about to get from me — and I recognize that I’m coming from a Jewish, Western view that for my lifetime has been the position of power in the region.

All that being said, I’ll start by saying I’m surprised by the plan. Not for its position — we all knew it would be staunchly pro-Israel. Jared Kushner is an Orthodox Jew and a family friend of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of the central issues in the Israel-Palestine battle is a religious one and the other is a matter of state and government. On both, Kushner comes down clearly on the side of viewing Israel as the Jewish homeland and agreeing that Israel is a sovereign, Democratic state that deserves to be recognized. I’m surprised because the plan is novel, it is thoughtful, and it is extremely detailed. It is not like the plan to kill Qassem Soleimani, or the exchange of love letters with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or the fumbling of relations with the United Kingdom, or the trade war with China that has cost American farmers billions of dollars. This is a different kind of Trump foreign policy we haven’t seen yet.

The decision to stop pretending America is a neutral arbitrator is equal parts evil and compelling. It leaves the Palestinian people, stuck between extremist rulers (Hamas) and its enemy combatants (Israel) in an exceedingly difficult place. But it’s also a more honest framework for a plan than the ones put forward by past U.S. leaders when we’ve been feigning neutrality while no such neutrality existed. Our hard and ugly truth is that Israel and the U.S. are in the position of power, and meeting Israel’s demands as a starting point — while also showing a clear path toward Palestinian statehood — is a realignment that creates an unknown outcome. I also appreciate the economic element of it. Trump and Kushner are business-minded, and while plans for “Dead Sea resorts” are nauseating and beyond parody, a vision of the future where the U.S. is supporting the economic development of Palestine the state is hardly the worst thing to imagine.

But to be clear: this isn’t really a peace plan. And it’s not really a two-state solution either. Both the far-left and far-right in Israel consider this plan the “death” of a two-state solution, and for good reason. The best framing I’ve seen of the plan came from The New York Times’ Micah Goodman, who wrote that the proposition this plan will create peace is “laughable.” Goodman notes, and I agree, however, that it does re-orient things in the Middle East in a way that could be productive. The plan as a foundation has potential, but serious changes need to be made. I admire the calls for Hamas to disarm, promote freedom of speech and promote government transparency. But the latter two are the only options that are reasonable. Asking Hamas to disarm in the midst of this conflict — no matter how extreme you believe them to be — is an unrealistic non-starter that kills the deal in its tracks. The plan also does nothing to address the Palestinian “right of return,” the ask that Palestinian refugees be admitted to Israel. In fact, in this plan, Palestinians don’t even have a right of return to the theoretical state of Palestine — leaving Israel in control of admittance. That’s an absurd and disgusting proposal and means the future state of Palestine is no state at all (what state doesn’t have control over who crosses its borders?).

Then there’s the question of Jerusalem. This is the toughest question to solve, and I don’t have an answer. But previous peace plans have divided the Holy City between the two states, and Trump’s peace plan forces a future Palestinian capital to the outskirts of east Jerusalem. Such a starting point for negotiations seems unfair and too far in Israel’s favor. Giving a future State of Palestine some measure of sovereignty over the Temple Mount holy site, which is currently under Jordanian custodianship, also seems like a reasonable ask that isn’t a part of this plan.

In the end, I’m not sure what “my take” here is. The plan is both heart-wrenching and intriguing. It’s unrealistic and so damn crazy it just might lead to something productive. It provokes in me both intense sadness — that perhaps there are no realistic options toward peace — and a cold feeling that perhaps this new framework is the only way to acknowledge the truth of the situation. It evokes competing urges to empathize with the Palestinian people and reject this plan outright while evoking urges to pause, zoom out, and coldly stare at the realistic options for the future. In the end, this is the end of the beginning of Trump’s plans for the Middle East, and we have to see how things play out before judging it with much authority. For a damning criticism of the plan, you can read this op-ed from The New York Times. For a detailed explanation of what it will do, from a decidedly Western perspective, TIME Magazine has you covered.


A view from Ukraine.

I’m very fortunate to have readers not just in the U.S., but from all over the world. One such reader works in the Ukrainian government. I reached out to them to ask about how impeachment was being viewed in Ukraine, given that the Ukrainian government is so directly involved in the controversy. To the average Ukrainian, they said, “it’s not really news at all,” given Ukrainians have plenty of other stuff to worry about.

“Ukraine has appointed a new government and is passing new laws hand over fist, before anyone can even read them,” they said. There’s still a war in the East and one of its airliners was shot down by Iran. Even if the intrigue were there, there’s probably not enough bandwidth to give this serious attention.” There’s also significant diplomatic effort going into ensuring that there is U.S. support for Ukraine on the left and right, and concern amongst some Ukrainian officials that the narrative military assistance was held up because of Ukrainian corruption is getting far too much play. Ukraine’s real priority is holding together a coalition of Republican and Democratic support in the U.S., and they mostly view impeachment as a domestic political matter.

“Zelensky was elected on an anti-corruption platform,” they said. “It’s the number one issue for Ukrainian voters. The fight against it happens in the open, by independent journalists, by civil society. Contrast that to Russia, where corruption is embedded, understood, and largely ignored.”


Rut Roh.

A portion of the newly installed border wall in California was blown over by high winds and landed on the Mexico side of the border. President Trump has built 100 miles of new border wall, the majority of which replaced existing barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.


A story that matters.

Bernie Sanders’ team is circulating a draft proposal with dozens of executive orders his administration may enact during its first days in office. The orders “matter” for several reasons: they address voter concern that Bernie could get nothing done, they reflect the expansive executive power the next president will have and they illustrate how much of Trump’s policy could be undone via executive action. Via Washington Post:

The list of potential executive orders includes unilaterally allowing the United States to import prescription drugs from Canada; directing the Justice Department to legalize marijuana; and declaring climate change a national emergency while banning the exportation of crude oil. Other options cited in the document include canceling federal contracts for firms paying less than $15 an hour and reversing federal rules blocking U.S. funding to organizations that provide abortion counseling.

There are also details that include “lifting the cap on the number of refugees accepted into the United States and immediately halting border wall construction.” The plan reflects Sanders’ growing chances at winning the nomination and his campaign’s effort to rollout tangible policy plans Democratic voters can get behind.


Numbers.

  • $70 billion. The amount of revenue brought in by Facebook in 2019.

  • 1 month. The rise in life expectancy from 2018 to 2019 for an American baby, the first time in four years life expectancy has gone up.

  • 4.1%. The drop in drug overdose deaths between 2018 and 2019.

  • 39%. Trump’s approval rating among adults, according to Reuters/Ipsos poll.

  • 41%. Trump’s approval rating among registered voters, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

  • $450 million. The valuation of Barstool Sports, which the gambling operator of Penn National bought a $136 million stake in yesterday.

  • $250 million. The amount of money Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for in 2013.

  • 2.1%. The rate of growth of the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter of 2019, settling back to the pace of growth that’s “prevailed during the decade-old economic expansion.”


Have a nice day.

A former police officer who worked on a drug task force has started a rehab facility in his daughter’s honor. Kevin Simmers said he used to think incarceration and handcuffs could solve problems, but when his daughter become an opioid addict he realized that was no longer true. Brooke Simmers always said that when she got clean she wanted to open a halfway house for women that elevated their dignity and got them on the path to recovery. After she died of an overdose, her dad decided to retire from the police force and make her dream a reality. After three years of work, the facility is up and running in Maryland. Click.


Reminder.

Tangle hits your inbox Monday through Thursday, around lunchtime (EST). That means there won’t be another Tangle until Monday, unless there’s cause for a special edition. Have a great weekend and enjoy some time away from the news.