WASHINGTON D.C. - US President Donald Trump on Tuesday proposed creation of a Palestinian state dependent on Palestinians taking steps to become self-governing, in an effort to achieve a peace breakthrough in their decades of military occupation by Israel.
Senior administration officials told Reuters that under Trump's proposed Middle East peace plan, announced at the White House, the United States will recognize Israeli settlements in the fertile Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank. Palestinians see the Jordan Valley as crucial territory for their future state.
In exchange, Israel would agree to accept a four-year freeze on new settlement activity while Palestinian statehood is negotiated.
"Today, Israel has taken a giant step toward peace," Trump said as he announced the plan at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, saying he also sent a letter about it to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"This is a historic day," Netanyahu said, comparing Trump's peace plan to former President Harry Truman's 1948 recognition of the state of Israel. "On this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel's sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage," he added, using the Biblical names for the occupied, Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump's long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders had rejected it even before its official release, saying his administration was biased towards Israel. The absence of the Palestinians from Trump's announcement is likely to fuel the criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel's staunchly Zionist vision for a peace settlement.
Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it was far from clear that the Trump plan would resuscitate them. US officials said they were braced for initial Palestinian skepticism but hoped that over time they will agree to negotiate. However, the plan places high hurdles for the Palestinians to overcome to reach their long-sought goal of a state.
And a US envoy said Tuesday that Israel is free to annex Jewish settlements on Palestinian land whenever it wishes, despite the new peace plan.
Asked if Israel would also have to wait to annex settlements that would be part of the Zionist state under the plan, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, told reporters: "No, Israel does not have to wait at all."
Under the terms of the “peace vision" that Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner - as well as Avi Berkowitz and former adviser Jason Greenblatt - have been working on for nearly three years, the future Palestinian state would consist of the West Bank and Gaza - minus strategic areas where settlements are located - connected by a combination of above-ground roads and tunnels.
Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian mission to Britain, said in London that Trump's peace plan was merely "political theatre" that promises "the 'bantustan-isation' of the people of Palestine and the land of Palestine." He added that Trump was endorsing "a full-fledged apartheid system."
Liberal Israeli group Peace Now called the Trump peace plan “as detatched from reality as it is eye-catching” and said it will not bring stability to the region.
“The plan’s green light for Israel to annex isolated settlements in exchange for a perforated Palestinian state is unviable and would not bring stability,” the organization said in a statement issued after the president’s announcement. The group restated its call for a two-state solution with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Any other proposal, Peace Now said, “will find its way into the dustbin of history.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal pro-Israel organization J-Street, responded on Twitter by calling the proposal a “scam.”
“People of good will hear Trump say two state solution and get excited. Need to understand what Netanyahu just outlined: Israel intends to move forward with immediate application of sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank,” he said.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the plan's release, said they expected negative responses from the Palestinians, as well as Turkey and Iran, but were hopeful that Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have peace treaties with Israel, would not reject it outright. The officials said they expected Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to cautiously welcome the plan.
The reaction of Jordan, which would retain its responsibilities over Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque under the plan, will be particularly significant, according to the officials, who said Kushner and others were reaching out to Arab leaders ahead of the rollout.
Asked what Washington was prepared to do to advance negotiations, officials said it was up to the Palestinians to come forward and to say they are prepared to negotiate. Israeli leaders have agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Trump plan and agreed to a proposed map, the officials said. Israel's agreement on statehood for Palestinians is dependent on a security arrangement to protect Israelis, they said.
Israel will also take steps to ensure Muslim access to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and respect Jordan's role regarding holy sites, the officials said. Palestinian statehood would be dependent on Palestinians taking steps for self-government, such as respect for human rights, freedom of the press and having transparent and credible institutions, the officials said.
"In doing the map it's incredibly difficult to try to create contiguity for a Palestinian state based on what's happened over the past 25 years so if we don't do this freeze now I think that their chance to ever have a state basically goes away," said one official in reference to the growth of Jewish settlements.
"So what we've done is basically we've bought four more years for them to get their act together and try to negotiate a deal for them to become a state, and I think this is a huge opportunity for them," the official said.
The official said the question for Palestinians is will they "come to the table and negotiate?" If they agree to negotiate, there are some areas that can be compromised in the future, the official said without offering details.
Trump's plan calls for Palestinians to be able to return to a future state of Palestine and creates a "generous compensation fund," the official said. It does not allow for the return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homes in present-day Israel.
About Israel retaining the settlements, which are internationally recognised as illegal, a US official said: "The plan is based on a principle that people should not have to move to accomplish peace... But it does stop future settlement expansion which we consider to be the most realistic approach.
"The notion that hundreds of thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, are going to be removed either forcibly or not from their homes is just not worth entertaining," the official said.
Before the Trump announcement, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City and Israeli troops reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank.
On Monday Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a viable, cohesive Palestinian state.
A senior Hamas official says the group rejects the "conspiracies" announced by the US and Israel and that "all options are open" in responding to the plan.
Khalil al-Hayya said: “We are certain that our Palestinian people will not let these conspiracies pass. So, all options are open. The (Israeli) occupation and the US administration will bear the responsibility for what they did.”
Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose occupied eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.
The Trump administration in November reversed decades of US policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.
Both Trump and Netanyahu face political challenges at home. Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.
On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Both men deny any wrongdoing.