Trump, Netanyahu Turn White House Into Election Campaign Stop
Trump’s new Middle East peace plan is primed to help Netanyahu, signaling to Israel voters that they should rehire him.
American and Israeli leaders have tried to help one another win elections in the past. But U.S. President Donald Trump took it to a new level Tuesday, turning a White House Middle East peace ceremony into a reelection prop for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and himself.
On the same day Netanyahu was formally indicted on bribery charges back in Israel, Trump tried to throw him a lifeline, announcing his long-awaited Middle East peace plan—complete with fresh territorial giveaways—with the Israeli leader at his side.
Netanyahu returned the favor, calling Trump, who is in the grip of an impeachment trial, “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” Israel, Netanyahu said, owes Trump and his chief negotiator and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “an eternal debt of gratitude.”
Netanyahu’s gratefulness was understandable.
The new 181-page plan—titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”—imposed few painful demands on Israel while allowing it to annex strategic occupied land in the West Bank.
Perhaps even more significantly, the White House plan would essentially discard a decadeslong U.S. policy consensus that a final political settlement would be roughly based on the borders between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967, before Israel claimed new lands in a war with its Arab neighbors.
For their part, the Palestinians were promised $50 billion in international investment if they agreed to Trump’s deal, which requires them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, accept limited Palestinian sovereignty, and pass a series of laws aimed at isolating Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and ending the practice of providing financial compensation to the families of jailed or dead militants.
“A realistic solution would give the Palestinians all the power to govern themselves but not the powers to threaten Israel,” the plan states. “This necessarily entails the limitations of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinians areas … such as maintenance of Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River.”
But almost immediately, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas slapped down the plan in a televised address from Ramallah in the West Bank. “I say to Trump and Netanyahu: Jerusalem is not for sale. All our rights are not for sale and are not for bargain. And your deal, the conspiracy, will not pass,” he said.
Trump used the White House event to make his case to his base, including evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. “As everyone knows, I have done a lot for Israel: moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights, and frankly, perhaps most importantly, getting out of the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”
One wildcard is what the reaction will be from other Arab states. Trump’s envoys on Middle East peace, Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, have spent years privately pushing Gulf Arab states and other countries in the region, notably Jordan, to support their long-delayed plan.
On the day of the ceremony, ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates attended, signaling at least some regional buy-in. But other ambassadors who were invited, including those from Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, were noticeably absent, according to a U.S. official involved with the planning.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi issued a carefully crafted statement on Tuesday, reaffirming support for a two-state solution. “Jordan supports every genuine effort aimed at achieving just and comprehensive peace that people will accept,” he said, stressing the urgency of launching serious and direct negotiations that solve all final-status issues within a comprehensive solution.
The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, issued a cautious statement, saying that the European alliance would “study and assess” the Trump plan—but only on the basis of its “firm and united commitment to a negotiated and viable two-state solution … respecting all relevant U.N. resolutions and internationally agreed parameters.”
Kushner is expected to brief foreign ambassadors in Washington at the State Department on Wednesday, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said. But in an interview with CNN, Kushner took a poke at the Palestinian leadership. “It’s a big opportunity for the Palestinians,” he said. “They have a perfect track record of blowing every opportunity they’ve had in the past.”
Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Wilson Center who advised multiple U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East, said the president’s plan essentially undermines the policies of the three previous U.S. presidents and is likely to hammer the last nail in the coffin of the effort to create a viable Palestinian state.
Miller said he once tried to warn Kushner that he couldn’t fix the Middle East conflict but that “he could make it worse.” In fairness, he said, “Donald Trump inherited a peace process that was all but dead and a two-state solution that was on life support.
“He may well bury it on his watch.”
But Miller suggested the plan would serve as a green light to the Israeli government to formally move to annex parts of the West Bank, which will likely worsen, not resolve, the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians.
Indeed, Israeli officials said later that Netanyahu would call for a vote in his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday on a proposal to annex 30 percent of the West Bank.
“This is a spectacle that has nothing to do with peace,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Trump is facing impeachment right now and so wants to appear statesmanlike and to secure support from his evangelical base, and Netanyahu is facing an indictment and trying to stay out of jail.”
Dan Arbell, a former senior Israeli diplomat and scholar at American University, said: “To me, it seems like an attempt by the administration to help Netanyahu in the polls, give him a boost.”
It’s not the first time that U.S. leaders have appeared to play a role in Israeli politics. In 1996, President Bill Clinton organized a peace summit shortly before an Israeli election in an attempt to boost support for Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. That bid failed, and Netanyahu eked out a win against Peres.
Clinton’s gambit “left a bitter taste in the mouth of Netanyahu,” according to Arbell. In 2012, Netanyahu faced allegations of offering political support to an old friend, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, in order to beat incumbent President Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential election. A few years later, Netanyahu accused another Democratic president of meddling in Israeli politics. In 2015, the Israeli leader accused the Obama administration of tacitly supporting organizations in Israel that would boost voter turnout for left-wing parties, underscoring a poisonous relationship between the two leaders.
The White House pageantry contrasted sharply with the more solemn events underway in the U.S. Senate. Trump is facing the prospect of a prolonged impeachment trial, as calls mount for government witnesses, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, to testify. Even as Trump and Netanyahu exchanged praise, Trump’s legal defense team presented its third and final day of opening arguments.
Several Republican lawmakers attending the White House event, including Sens. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Ted Cruz, had to leave early to attend the impeachment hearing.
Israel’s political divides are deeply entrenched, as the country faces its third election in less than a year. Analysts were divided over the impact the White House ceremony would have on Netanyahu’s political fate.
“This is an off-the-charts gift to Netanyahu,” Ibish said. “I think it will be enough to get him over the line.”
But Arbell said he doubted the release of the White House’s plan would help move voters on the left and center-left into Netanyahu’s camp.
The plan unveiled by Trump would recognize Israel’s right to keep occupied lands in the Jordan Valley and have full control of Jerusalem. The United States and Israel would establish a joint committee to translate the “conceptual map” detailing the state of Israel and Jerusalem into a more comprehensive one. The plan would guarantee that Israel is subjected to no “incremental security risks” and that no Israelis or Palestinians would be required to leave their homes as a result of the deal.
The Palestinians would be offered the promise of some $50 billion in international investment, which Trump claimed would create 1 million jobs and end the Palestinians dependence on “charity and foreign aid.”
The plan also calls for a four-year freeze on new Israeli settlement activity and identifies Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a Palestinian capital in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
Trump said he wrote Tuesday to the Palestinian president explaining that Palestinians would be given a four-year deadline to consider the plan. During that period, the territory reserved for the Palestinian state would remain undeveloped. It remained unclear what would happen if the Palestinians refused.
If the Palestinians embrace the plan, Trump has pledged to open up a U.S. Embassy in East Jerusalem.
“President Abbas, I want you to know that if you choose the path to peace, America and many other countries … will be there to help you in so many different ways.
“Your response to this historic opportunity will show the world to what extent you are ready to lead the Palestinian people to statehood.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch