Here are five takeaways, from short term to long term
fter three years of anticipation, President Trump finally presented his vision for Middle East peace this week. It is, by far, the most favorable of all the American-mediated peace offers Israel has ever received.
And as I’ve written more than once over the long wait, what the administration is aiming for is not necessarily success, but a paradigm shift in the approach to the conflict.
After decades in which the American mantra was “settlements in exchange for peace,” now the settlements are no longer called an obstacle to peace. Even if nothing else comes of this plan, its outline will remain the American position. The next president of the United States, whether in 2021 or 2025, will inherit it as the status quo. Any thought of reverting to the previous position will mean a downgrading of Israel’s status, a move even a hardened opponent of Israel would find difficult to pull off.
As expected, the plan includes Israeli control over large settlement blocks and the Jordan Valley. To gain a state, the Palestinians will be required to topple Hamas and agree to a country on a fraction of the West Bank.
Don’t hold your breath. The Palestinians have rejected the plan about 200 times so far, and they’ll reject it another 300 times going forward. The real ball is in Israel’s court. What will Jerusalem do in the absence of Palestinian cooperation? Here are five takeaways, from short term to long term.
In the very short term, it’s a significant boost to Benny Gantz’s prestige. A candidate who isn’t a sitting prime minister doesn’t often get a private meeting with the president of the United States. Contrary to initial reports, the White House was anxious to prove that the plan enjoys cross-party support in Israel, and is not a mere election gift to Netanyahu. If Gantz, the head of Israel’s largest party, had boycotted the presentation, an impression might have been created that the entire affair was a PR stunt meant to help Netanyahu, sending all the peace team’s efforts down the drain. Gantz, therefore, is now a force to be reckoned with. He’s not as popular in Washington as Netanyahu, but his view is taken seriously. Under the circumstances, given the evident close coordination between Netanyahu and Dermer, Pompeo and Kushner, Gantz can be satisfied that he made the best of a bad situation.
In the short term, Israel is going into defensive mode on the PR, military, and diplomatic fronts. Militarily, for fear the whole area will flare up; diplomatically, for fear that the Palestinians will turn to the United Nations to procure another condemnation of Israel. UN ambassador Danny Danon, who was expected to return to Israel this week, canceled his trip and will stay in New York to weather the diplomatic storm. Israel can of course count on an American veto to quash any hostile motion in the Security Council. But the Palestinians have proven that they’re quite skillful in manipulating the UN’s various bodies and committees to Israel’s disadvantage.
The more important question is how the Arab states will react. On the one hand, relations with Israel are flourishing behind the scenes, based on the shared threat from Iran. On the other, these states often have to pay “lip service” to the Palestinians on the world stage. Balancing those interests will be a challenge.
In the short to medium term, how will the plan affect the upcoming Israeli elections? From Benny Gantz’s perspective, he wants a public fixated on Netanyahu’s legal troubles. That’s why he hurried back to Israel immediately after his meetings with Trump to lead the debate on Netanyahu’s immunity in the Knesset. Gantz is also trying to distinguish himself from Netanyahu. If he’s on the same page as the prime minister on the most important policy issue of the election, how can he tell the public that Netanyahu is an illegitimate partner because of the indictment? And indeed, if you say “aye” to every proposal negotiated between Washington and the current government, why would a voter choose Gantz, a copy, when they can get Netanyahu, the original?
For Netanyahu, all he’ll want to talk about until election day in March is the peace deal. Bibi wants to make the election about international relations, and he has the power to do that. The carrots in the deal (annexing the settlements and the Jordan Valley) will serve as an incentive to bring his right-wing base to the ballot box. Given that neither the Blue and White or Likud bloc was able to reach 61 seats in two consecutive elections, turnout could be a deciding factor in March. The promise to annex territory will motivate Netanyahu’s base, but not necessarily Gantz’s, who come overwhelmingly from the center-left.
Longer term, the plan breaks the endless loop of Bibi/Not Bibi that Israeli society has been mired in over the past year. This next election is now about one concrete policy issue: Are you for or against annexation of the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs? The biggest challenge will be for Blue and White, which as a centrist party must keep one foot on each side of the political divide at all times. Yes to annexation, but only with international consent, as Gantz said a week ago. The release of the plan forces all the parties to adopt a more clear-cut position, which is in itself a welcome development.
The Trump administration has its own interest in generating momentum around the plan in the medium term as an attempt to distract from the ongoing impeachment trial and to convince evangelicals and some Jewish voters that Trump is better for Israel than any potential Democratic candidate. But for the subject to remain in the headlines and not fade into obscurity, the administration will have to continue promoting it in the months leading up to November 2020. For this to happen, they’ll need close cooperation from both parties, Likud and Blue and White, each of which will want to earn brownie points by acceding to Trump’s wishes.
Therefore, the administration is likely to urge the two parties to do as much as they can to demonstrate concretely their commitment to the administration’s vision. The White House knows that without agreement between the two largest parties — given that the hard right and the hard left will both oppose the plan — its chances of being approved in the Knesset are slim.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 796)