In the Triangle, Trump Peace Plan Puts Arab Israelis in a Box


Kafr Qara, Israel — Here in the Arab Israeli towns that Donald Trump is thinking of moving to Palestine, it’s clear that he has opened a deep wound. Amid the bilingual Hebrew and Arabic storefronts in this Triangle Region, it’s hard to assimilate the fact that Trump’s plan “contemplates the possibility” of redrawing borders so that all of this, complete with its 260,000 residents, could become part of a future Palestinian state.

Kafr Qara has one of the highest ratios of doctors anywhere in Israel. Jewish culture has such an impact here that there’s a factory that makes that hemishe favorite pickled cucumbers — with rabbinic supervision. And in the bilingual Jewish-Arab school run by the Hand in Hand nonprofit, half the kids are Jewish.

In other villages and towns identities vary, but even in Umm al-Fahm, where hardline groups that are strongly antagonistic to the Israeli government have a foothold, there is a strong consensus that people don’t want to be recategorized as part of a Palestinian state.

I remember one occasion when I spent a whole day interviewing locals spanning a wide political spectrum, from people who accept conspiracy theories about Israel planning to demolish the al-Aqsa mosque to moderates, and all expressed their identity with different words.

Some said they are Palestinian Israelis, some Israeli Arabs, some Muslim Israelis and so on. But all agreed that they want to always live in Israel. The Trump plan calls their assumption about the future into question.

When I visited Kafr Qara last week, I encountered a frustrated population. The head teacher at the bilingual school, Hassan Agbaria, said the Trump plan is a “disaster” for his coexistence project — one that benefits from American philanthropic dollars. People at the old-age club said that they worry about their quality of life if moved to Palestine. And on the streets, people said that the suggestion makes them feel rejected by their country.

Humor was tempering the anger. Agbaria showed me a photograph of his car that he had changed to give himself a Palestinian license plate. Shopkeeper Muhammad Kiter told me: “Soon you’ll need to go to an exchange bureau to change money before you can buy here.” And in a cafe, Soed Bishra asked sarcastically: “Did you go through passport control to get here?”

What I didn’t hear was anyone giving a clear explanation for why Trump would include this suggestion for the Triangle in his plan. After all, the rationale that has often been cited for discussing such border-redrawing plans isn’t relevant when it comes to Trump’s deal.

The idea of “land swaps” became popular in recent years, especially after the Annapolis Conference of 2007, when negotiators were trying to figure out how to allow some Israeli settlements to remain in place under a peace deal.

Palestinians demand the land in Gaza, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem that Israel captured in 1967. The land swaps idea was introduced so that instead of Palestine covering the same exact land that was captured, Israel could hold on to some settlements, and cede some of its sovereign territory by way of compensation.

As Trump said, his peace plan is “fundamentally different” than others. One of the many differences is that it doesn’t aim at giving the Palestinians the same number of square miles they are asking for, or close to it. The plan is all about encouraging the Palestinians to make the best of the current reality, not hark back to 1967. Therefore the land swap idea, intended to get Palestinian land roughly equivalent to what lies over the Green Line, lacks relevance.

However, the Triangle proposal has huge advantages for the PR credentials of the “Deal of the Century” on the Israeli right. The fact is in today’s political environment there’s no more effective way to reduce the right-wing’s suspicion to a peace plan than to have Arab citizens campaigning against it. If Arabs are opposed, the logic goes, it can’t be so bad.

There is speculation that part of the motivation for the peace plan and the timing of its release is for Trump to give his friend Benjamin Netanyahu a boost ahead of the March 2 election. This can’t be proved, but what is inescapable is that riling the Israeli-Arab populations seems to have become a vote-winning strategy on the Israeli right.

In the 2015 election Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves,” in a bid to persuade rightists to go to polling stations and offset their influence. Recent election campaigns have been heavy on anti-Arab rhetoric. Now, Netanyahu has irritated Arabs by embracing a plan with the Triangle suggestion — a section that he reportedly requested from the Trump administration.

The Triangle suggestion does more than simply rile Arabs. It also involves a possibility of reducing Israel’s Arab population. The idea of 260,000 Arabs being placed beyond Israel’s borders is popular on the right-wing, where there is great interest in demographics and in ensuring Israel’s Jewish majority is strong.

With what seems like a big demographic impact, it’s easy to see why some politicians, especially Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, have pushed the idea of transferring the Triangle so hard. But the impact on Israel’s population balance is much smaller than it seems. Currently, around 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab; transferring the whole Triangle region to Palestine would reduce this only by about 3 percent.

Nevertheless, Trump has embraced the pet policy of Lieberman, a man who has been pushing the idea of Triangle transfer for years. And given that the last two elections made Lieberman the kingmaker — a kingmaker who refused to crown a prime minister and pushed the country back to the ballot box — the decision to discuss the Triangle in the peace plan could well be an early gesture to lure him in to a Netanyahu government this time, and help to promote the Deal of the Century.

So, by weighing in on the Triangle, Trump may have been giving his plan a boost on the Israeli right, heaping Netanyahu’s election chances, providing a path to shore up Israel’s Jewish majority, building bridges with Liberman, or a combination of these considerations. But one thing is apparent — with Israeli-Arabs opposed to transferring the Triangle, and the Palestinians unlikely to want an Arab population that joins a future state reluctantly, this idea wasn’t included to create the common ground between Israel and Palestinians that he would need to bring them together around his plan.