WASHINGTON — With the heat on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensifying by the day, there is a new shroud of uncertainty surrounding one of the key players in US President Donald Trump’s quest to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace.
After Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Ari Harow agreed to turn state’s witness in two cases involving suspicions of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, Israelis have braced for the possibility that their longtime prime minister will be indicted.
But what does that mean for a president who has made renewing peace negotiations a “top priority” and who has said, in no uncertain terms, that he will “get it done”?
According to two veteran US diplomats with extensive experience working on the Israeli-Palestinian file, Netanyahu’s legal situation is not something that, in and of itself, disrupts America’s peace efforts, because there is no process currently in place.
“The administration has to take this seriously, but it’s not like it’s going to derail anything that they’re locked into at this time,” David Makovsky, a Middle East peace negotiator during the Barack Obama administration, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
If anything, Makovsky said, Palestinian leadership could say it doesn’t want to make interim agreements or come to understandings with the Israeli premier when his future is cast in such doubt. “It’s possible they could try to do that,” he said.
But the former State Department official also stressed that remarks Jared Kushner made to a group of congressional interns last week, which were leaked to the press, revealed that the White House has not “settled on any discernible strategy before the latest turn of events with Ari Harow turning state’s witness.”
Likewise, Aaron David Miller, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican alike, said that without a “framework for negotiations,” if a key figure were to exit the stage, nothing would really be lost.
“If you were to tell me that [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was to be murdered in November of 1995, a month after signing Oslo II, I may have made an argument to you that there was a reasonable chance, as I did at the time, when I was working [for the US], that the so-called peace process and much of the interim structure upon which it was based would survive, assuming the United States was willing to throw a lot of band aids on it,” he said.
“Whether it would come to fruition or not is another matter and we know the sad story of what actually happened,” he added. “But now you don’t have any foundation. You don’t have agreements that are being even marginally respected.”
While the likelihood has increased that Netanyahu will be indicted, legal scholars debate whether he can remain in power under such conditions.
But it is not clear whether his current coalition could survive. Over the weekend, a Channel 10 poll found that 66 percent of Israelis say the PM should resign if he’s indicted.
The possibility of Netanyahu’s ouster leaves Makovsky warning that there is no guarantee who the replacement may be, who could potentially be either more averse or more amenable to peacemaking.
“When things are stuck, people always wonder what could shuffle the deck? But it could go in one of two ways. It could be a battle royale on the right to succeed Netanyahu, or, is this going to lead to new elections where parties that might be more open to moving forward might have an opportunity that they didn’t?”
“Nobody really knows what would happen,” Makovsky stressed.
Miller, for his part, doesn’t see any potential successor emerging who could change the trajectory of this seemingly intractable decades-old dispute.
“The odds of coming up with a transformative leader on the Israeli side, who is prepared to be bold and decisive and move ahead on a peace process that’s acceptable to the Palestinians, let alone tackle the six core issues that define the conflict and resolve it in ways that Palestinians would accept — borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews and ends of claim and all conflict — those six issues, the odds of any Israeli who is now in politics having the moral authority, the credibility, the security credentials to do that stretches credulity to the breaking point,” said Miller.
Longtime observers of Israeli politics say that Netanyahu should not be counted out. “Netanyahu is so skillful as a political survivor that no one in Washington is going to be writing his obituary just yet,” Makovsky said.
Nevertheless, Trump’s hopes of renewing peace negotiations will still take place as Netanyahu faces extraordinary legal and political pressure at home. Even if he is indicted, as his fiercest critics and others are now speculating, what ensues will be a long, drawn-out process.
Despite Netanyahu’s referring to the controversy as “background noise,” the investigation and legal proceedings that ensue will likely take much of the prime minister’s time and focus. That is a reality, Makovsky said, the United States will have to recognize when working with a man they are trying to mediate a peace deal with.
“They will now be dealing with a prime minister who, whatever he tells the media, is bound to be much more preoccupied with his legal dilemmas,” he said.