World

Palestine rejects Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’. Standoff between Indonesia and China over territorial waters. UN rapporteurs call for inquiry into Saudi hacking. New claims from John Bolton undermine Trump’s impeachment defence. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trump’s peace plan divides Middle East

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday.
Credit: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: On Tuesday, President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The plan would allow Israel to annex about 30 per cent of the West Bank, including most of its settlements there, and would grant statehood to the Palestinians across the remaining territory, including a capital that would cover the outskirts of Jerusalem but not the Old City.

Trump released the plan at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said it included “achievements that we never thought possible”. No Palestinian leader was at the ceremony, which was attended by representatives from Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Shortly after the plan’s release, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: “We say a thousand times, no, no, no to the deal of the century.” The Palestinians welcomed Trump’s early promises to reach an agreement but stopped co-operating with the White House after Trump declared the US would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The deal was released as Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, prepares for a third election in less than a year, following two polls in which his right-wing coalition failed to secure a majority.

Hours before the White House ceremony, Netanyahu was indicted on bribery and fraud charges. He insists he is innocent but appears to have little hope of avoiding prosecution, unless he wins the March 2 election. His main rival, Benny Gantz, a former general, met with Trump before the peace plan ceremony and promised to pursue the deal through negotiations with the Palestinians, but only after Israel has a “stable” government.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: China’s so-called nine-dash line, which marks the country’s claim over the South China Sea, stretches somewhat fancifully as far south as the waters near the Natuna islands off Indonesia. The claim has been rejected by Indonesia, whose president, Joko Widodo, three years ago renamed the waters north-east of the islands as the North Natuna Sea. But Widodo has tried to avoid tensions with China, which he views as a crucial source of funding for his major road and rail projects.

In recent weeks, however, ties between the two countries have frayed following China’s sudden move to assert its claim over the islands. In December, a Chinese coast guard vessel escorted Chinese fishing boats into the area. Indonesia deployed naval warships and F-16 jets to patrol the islands and issued a formal diplomatic protest. China said its conduct was lawful as the waters were off the Spratly Islands, which it claims, along with several other countries. On January 8, Widodo visited one of the islands, a move Indonesia said prompted the Chinese vessels to finally leave.

The standoff has prompted debate in Jakarta about how to handle China’s territorial ambitions. Widodo has previously suggested Australia could conduct joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea, a move that Canberra said could increase regional tensions.

But Jakarta typically shuns confrontation. Despite being the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia refused to sign a joint letter last year to the United Nation criticising China’s mass detention of Uygur Muslims. Still, avoiding tensions as a rising China wields its clout is proving increasingly difficult.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Saudi Arabia: In May 2018, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest person, received a seemingly harmless WhatsApp message from Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. The pair had met at a dinner in Los Angeles hosted by a Hollywood producer.

Several months later, bin Salman allegedly ordered the brutal killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime and columnist for The Washington Post, which Bezos owns. The Post has doggedly reported on Khashoggi’s assassination and fiercely criticised bin Salman’s alleged involvement.

In January 2019, in what appeared at the time to be an unrelated development, the American tabloid National Enquirer revealed Bezos was having an extramarital affair. Bezos wrote a blog post in which he accused the tabloid of trying to blackmail him by threatening to publish a series of photographs of him, including a “below the belt selfie”. He said the tabloid wanted him to call off a forensic investigation he had ordered into how it learnt about his affair. Bezos refused, and the investigation concluded that his phone had been hacked by Saudi officials.

Now, two United Nations rapporteurs have examined this saga, reporting that the Saudis accessed Bezos’s phone by sending him an infected video file in a WhatsApp message from bin Salman’s account. The rapporteurs, who viewed the forensic report commissioned by Bezos, called for further investigations into bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of Khashoggi.

The remaining question is how the Enquirer obtained its information about Bezos’s affair. David Pecker, who is CEO of the company that publishes the tabloid, has known bin Salman for years. The tabloid has strongly praised Saudi Arabia, including publishing a 100-page glossy magazine with bin Salman on the cover.

But Pecker’s company denied collaborating with Saudi Arabia, saying its source was the brother of Lauren Sánchez, Bezos’s partner.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said claims that bin Salman hacked Bezos’s phone were “absolutely silly”. According to a report last week in The Wall Street Journal, Saudi officials were aware of the hacking and claimed it was arranged by bin Salman’s media adviser, Saud al-Qahtani.

SPOTLIGHT: Bolton claims

United States: Until Monday, Donald Trump’s impeachment had largely been racing towards its inevitable conclusion: acquittal.

The Republicans, which control the senate with a 53-47 majority, have been pushing for a quick trial and have resisted efforts to call witnesses. A valiant effort by the Democrats to lay the case against Trump – “Give America a fair trial. She’s worth it,” implored Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor – won praise from Republicans yet swayed no votes.

But the trial’s course suddenly changed this week following the revelation in The New York Times that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, has written a book that alleges Trump told him he was freezing military aid to Ukraine until the country helped to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

This undermined one of the main pillars of Trump’s defence – that no first-hand witnesses of the president’s alleged misconduct have given evidence. The White House has blocked multiple such witnesses from testifying.

Bolton, a hawkish conservative, was sacked – or resigned – from the Trump White House last September. He has not commented on the Ukraine allegations but has said, if called, he will testify.

The Democrats have little chance of swaying the 20 Republican votes needed to secure a conviction, which would force President Trump from office. But they may be able to win the four votes needed to call witnesses.

Mitt Romney, a prominent Republican and critic of Trump, said it was “increasingly likely” Bolton would be called.

Trump’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, said the president’s conduct was not an impeachable offence, even if Bolton’s claims were true. Trump tweeted: “If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Trump’s peace plan divides Middle East". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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