For Netanyahu, Trump’s White House Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving

A U.S. peace plan seems designed mainly to get Bibi reelected. The Palestinians aren’t even invited.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on Jan. 23.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on Jan. 23. Yad Vashem - Pool/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—U.S. President Donald Trump has been talking for years about brokering the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, but now that the details are trickling out, it looks more like the gift of the century—to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump announced last Thursday that he would reveal the plan to Netanyahu and Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz in meetings in Washington this week. If getting the peace train back on track was the goal, the timing appeared to be less than ideal. Netanyahu is in the midst of a reelection campaign—the third in less than a year—while he also fights corruption charges. Trump faces his own challenge, with ongoing impeachment hearings in the U.S. Senate.

But to many analysts, that seemed to be the point.

Israeli press reports suggested the plan would allow Israel to annex a large swath of the occupied West Bank, incorporate most of the Jewish settlements there, and retain control over most of East Jerusalem. Netanyahu portrayed it over the weekend as a once-in-a-lifetime offer that only he could wheedle from the United States.

“Today, I depart for Washington to stand alongside an American president who is bringing a plan that, I believe, promotes our most essential interests,” Netanyahu said Sunday, just before boarding a plane for Washington. “Together with him, we will make history.”

Netanyahu seemed to benefit in other ways as well. His trip helps divert attention from an expected vote on Tuesday in a parliamentary committee pertaining to Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases. The Israeli leader prefers to put off any discussion until after the March 2 election, hoping he’ll win a solid majority for immunity.

“A prime minister who’s facing significant legal problems back home [benefits greatly from having], at a key point in time, a plan rollout, which he can take a lot of credit for helping to formulate,” said Yaakov Katz, the editor in chief of the right-leaning, English-language Jerusalem Post.

“It can be viewed as a gift to him because it can be a distraction and take the Israeli electorate’s attention away from the indictments.”

Israeli media outlets described various concessions they said were included in the initiative, with a consensus that Trump’s plan was much more favorable to Israel than peace formulas advanced by previous administrations:

  • Israel would be allowed to annex 20 percent of the West Bank, according to the news site Ynet. After a four-year period, Palestinians would be allowed to establish a demilitarized state in the remainder of the West Bank, provided they met some far-reaching conditions, including dismantling the Islamic Hamas group.
  • Israel would retain control of an overwhelming majority of Jewish settlements, according to Ynet and Channel 13 TV news.
  • Israel would cede no part of Jerusalem’s Old City, and little of the rest of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians demand as the capital of their state, according to Ynet and Channel 13 TV news.
  • Palestinian refugees would not be allowed “a right of return” to the Palestinian territories or to Israel, according to Ynet.

The White House would not comment on the leaks, saying only that Trump would meet with Netanyahu and Gantz in meetings on Monday and Tuesday.

The administration did not invite Palestinian representatives to Washington to hear about the plan, yet another sign that obtaining a deal might not be Trump’s primary motivation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would likely have turned down any invitation. He has been at odds with Trump over U.S. decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, expel the Palestinian ambassador to Washington, and slash U.S. aid.

“There’s nothing on offer for us,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee. “This is a partnership to destroy the chances for peace and hand over to Israel a shopping list of everything it wanted.”

More than two years in the making, the peace plan is the result of numerous rounds of regional diplomacy by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s appointed peace envoy who departed last year.

“Based on read outs of the preternaturally pro-Bibi Trump peace plan, no doubt Trump and Kushner are running Netanyahu’s re-election campaign,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who advised six secretaries of state.

“Releasing a plan (untethered from anything other than politics) 6 weeks before Israel’s 3rd election within a year and without regard to Palestinians, takes diplomatic malpractice to new levels,” Miller added.

Netanyahu said he requested Gantz be included in the meetings, which would force his political opponent to be far away from the action during the parliamentary hearing on immunity. Faced with the choice of missing the vote or spurning the invitation, Gantz managed to schedule a separate meeting with Trump for Monday. He has said he will fly back to Israel in time for the Tuesday hearing.

Israeli media reports have suggested that Trump will also allow Israel to annex the Jordan Valley, a strip of West Bank land long coveted by Israeli military planners as a buffer against a ground invasion from the east. Israeli commentators speculated that Netanyahu’s government might push through such a decision even before the election, making good on a promise from previous campaigns. Both Israeli and Palestinian analysts have speculated that a unilateral annexation could stoke unrest in the Palestinian territories.

“The plan plays into Netanyahu’s annexation discourse about the Jordan Valley and beyond,” said Nimrod Goren, the head of Mitvim, a foreign-policy think tank. The date for the meeting, and the Gantz invitation, “leads to the assumption that this is constructed A to Z in a political, electoral way.”

Israel held parliamentary elections in April 2019 with inconclusive results, forcing a second vote in September. That one also produced no clear winner. In the first round, Trump announced that the United States recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, another departure from long-standing U.S. policy. The move was seen as an effort to boost Netanyahu’s chances against Gantz, a former army general who heads the centrist Blue and White party. Polling ahead of the March 2 vote points to sustained deadlock.

Other than a comment by Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz that Amman rejects any unilateral changes to the status quo in the West Bank, there has been no official reaction from Arab governments to reports of the deal.

The initiative had enjoyed some buy-in in the region. Last June, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies of the United States helped promote the plan by attending an economic conference in Bahrain (albeit without the participation of the Palestinians).

It’s common for domestic politics both in Israel and the United States “to be the invisible element hovering at the edges of Middle East diplomacy,” said Scott Lasensky, a diplomatic advisor in the U.S. Embassy in Israel during the Obama administration.

In March 1996, President Bill Clinton arranged an Arab-Israeli regional summit that was widely viewed as an attempt to help Prime Minister Shimon Peres in his election campaign against Netanyahu. Peres went on to lose the vote by a small margin.

When U.S. President Richard Nixon faced the threat of impeachment in 1974, he toured the Arab states and Israel to promote negotiations—and deflect attention away from his political troubles at home.

But the current initiative lacks any momentum for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—which have been mothballed for nearly six years, experts say.

“The timing doesn’t have anything to do with the peace process. The timing is to help Trump and Bibi,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on U.S.-Israel relations. “The peace process is merely a tool.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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