There’s no way to know for sure, because the plan hasn’t been publicized
In the weeks leading up to Israel’s election last April, the Trump administration was unusually active. The president invited Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the White House two weeks before election day (concurrently with an invitation to AIPAC), to announce his decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan. The Likud, for their part, hung up massive posters featuring Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands over Highway 20 in Tel Aviv and the Menachem Begin Expressway in Jerusalem.
In the second round of elections in September, the administration was far less involved. Trump did release a statement expressing his willingness to negotiate a joint Israel-US defense pact two days before the election, but this was small peanuts compared with recognition of the Golan. Trump had obviously picked up on the extreme sensitivity of the political situation in Israel, and decided to keep away until the smoke cleared.
So will the third round of elections in March 2020 see the White House heavily involved (and supporting Netanyahu), or will the administration remain at a distance? Last week, that question was partially clarified when new Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz visited Israel for a low-profile, even classified, round of talks.
To be clear, neither the White House, nor Ambassador David Friedman, nor the press offices of Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, both of whom Berkowitz met, released a statement regarding their discussions. We know about the meetings from Israeli and American sources, but no one will divulge exactly what was said.
But we know this: The administration is seriously considering releasing the peace plan before the upcoming elections. Benny Gantz made his feelings on the subject known when he declared that releasing the plan before the March 2 ballot would be “a harsh interference in Israel’s electoral process.” Nevertheless, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told Axios regarding the plan’s release, “We’re not focused on the Israeli election calendar or when the Palestinians end up having an election.” The rationale is simple, sources in Washington explain: White House senior advisor Jared Kushner spent three years on the initiative. He met senior officials from Saudi Arabia to Israel, from Bahrain to Egypt. And then, just when the plan was ripe for publication, Israel went to an early election, forcing Washington to put the plan on hold. The administration waited patiently — not for one election campaign, but two. And who knows? After the third, there may be a fourth or even a fifth election.
In that event, the American presidential contest would be just around the corner, and the administration, occupied with Trump’s reelection, wouldn’t have time to move the peace initiative forward. For that reason, say those in the know, the administration doesn’t really have a choice. It’s either now or never.
But there’s another theory about the peace plan. Some on the center-left are convinced that Trump and Netanyahu are in close communication, and that the possibility of the plan being publicized before the election indicates that it contains something beneficial for the prime minister — for instance, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley or the settlement blocks — which could be seen as an achievement for Netanyahu, and might help him at the ballot box. Netanyahu could campaign on his record as the prime minister who secured American recognition of the settlements.
Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, because the plan hasn’t been publicized. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the plan has nothing particularly favorable toward Netanyahu and isn’t an attempt to influence the elections. Why, in that case, is there any hurry to present it at all? The Palestinians have made it clear they’ll reject it outright. No one thinks the plan will lead to an immediate breakthrough. It might redraw the terms of the debate or break the assumptions prevalent for 25 years since Oslo, but the bottom line is that no one seriously believes the plan will lead to changes overnight.
No one can blame Trump for the predicament. The United States has stepped into a maze of conflicting interests in a country stuck in a loop of endless election campaigns. But though the administration isn’t responsible for the current situation, it may end up being responsible for the consequences of an early release of the peace plan. The administration will have to make some tough decisions over the coming weeks that will be sure to annoy one side of the political divide in Israel. Let’s hope the politics of the moment don’t jeopardize Israel’s most prized asset, its security.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 794)