1. Benny on the jets: Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have arrived in Washington for their respective meetings with US President Donald Trump ahead of Washington’s expected release of its long-awaited peace plan.
- While Trump had said last week that he planned on releasing his big plan “sometime prior” to his sit-downs with Netanyahu and Gantz, the White House has remained mum with just hours to go until those respective meetings, allowing Israeli media to continue to speculate regarding the proposal’s details.
- Several Hebrew media outlets run unsourced reports ostensibly leaked by Israeli officials, stating that the Trump administration’s peace plan would curb Israeli settlement growth, initially hand Israelis and Palestinians about one-third of the West Bank each, recognize a Palestinian state in the Palestinian-held areas, and set in place a four-year “preparation period” during which Palestinians would — so Washington hopes — come around to the plan and possibly negotiate control of the remainder of the territory.
- Impressively, the Kan public broadcaster’s Michael Shemesh is the only reporter to follow Gantz to Washington with the rest of the press corps sticking with Netanyahu and missing an opportunity for intimate time with the Blue and White prime ministrial candidate.
- Gantz tells Shemesh that while he is prepared to accept the Trump plan, he hopes that no elements of it — i.e. annexation — will be implemented before the election.
- After dodging a three-way meeting with Trump and Netanyahu that would have likely cast him as a second fiddle, Gantz’s next objective is to avoid any further trap that might be waiting for him in DC, Shemesh reports.
- Haaretz’s Amir Tibon reports that Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer was behind that three-way White House meeting US Vice President Mike Pence originally invited Gantz to last week. Recognizing that the envoy is Netanyahu’s man, the Blue and White chairman bypassed Dermer in order to nail down his private meeting with Trump.
2. Race to get there first: Gantz initially appeared to have one-upped Netanyahu in announcing on Saturday night that he would be meeting privately with Trump today. But that victory was short-lived with the PMO quickly announcing that Netanyahu would meet with the US president both before Gantz on Monday and after Gantz on Tuesday.
- Those details are confirmed by the White House, which releases the president’s schedule for today, showing that Netanyahu will actually meet with Trump at 11 a.m. (6 p.m. in Israel) for two meetings, including one without aides, and then Gantz will arrive at the White House at 12:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.) for a 45-minute discussion.
- Netanyahu and Trump are set for a higher-profile meeting Tuesday, which is expected to include the official roll-out of the plan, as well as a joint statement from the two leaders.
- Reuters reports that Trump will tell Netanyahu and Gantz that they have until the Knesset elections to work on the administration’s long-awaited peace plan, potentially throwing the high stakes diplomatic gambit into Israel’s domestic political stew.
- “You have six weeks to get this [plan] going, if you want it,” is what Trump will tell the two, according to a US official.
- The US source, who is familiar with the administration’s deliberations on the matter, tells Reuters that by meeting with both Gantz and Netanyahu, it was hoped that Trump’s announcement of the proposal would not be seen as a political move.
- “The rationale…is it depoliticizes this to the point that, no matter what happens on March 2, the two leaders of the two largest parties can potentially be supportive,” the source said.
3. You used to call me on my cellphone: Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reports that Trump sought to reach out to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of his Netanyahu/Gantz peace meetings but that the latter refused to take his calls.
- Several senior Palestinian officials either denied or were unable to confirm the report, which if true would have likely included an invitation to the White House for the plan’s roll-out.
- Analyst Shimrit Meir speculates that in avoiding the reported White House phone calls, Abbas evades having to officially reject the invitation. Moreover, it allows him to remain in the dark regarding the details of the plan and prevents the Americans from claiming that they’ve updated the Palestinians.
- However, Meir argues that not talking to Trump was a mistake, as it would have been one last opportunity for Abbas to try and convince the president that the plan should be shelved.
4. Consequences be damned: Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren addresses the possible reasons behind the Trump administration’s decision to move forward with its dead-on-arrival (as far as the Palestinians are concerned) plan, but asserts that what’s more important is what the proposal will mean in terms of concrete changes on the ground.
- “If the ‘Deal of the Century’ supports annexation, no Israeli party that wants to win the election can oppose it; no aspiring prime minister can be less pro-Israel than the American president,” Ahren writes, predicting that Gantz will support it.
- On the non-US diplomatic front, the consequences of an Israeli annexation would be far-reaching and mostly negative, with the EU likely to consider sanctioning Israel as it did when Russia annexed Crimea, he says. The United Nations Human Rights Council would no longer hesitate to release its currently-shelved “blacklist” of Israeli companies that do business in the settlements.
- The International Criminal Court could feel emboldened to prosecute Israelis for the “war crime” of building settlements in occupied territory. Jordan and Egypt could consider downgrading their diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, or cancel their peace agreements altogether. The much-hailed rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states would return into a deep freeze, Ahren says.
- Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose support will likely be crucial for the plan’s success tells local politicians that Amman is against any parts of a US proposal that negatively affects his country.
- Asked about aspects of the proposal that may come at Jordan’s expense, such as Israeli sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem, Abdullah said that the kingdom would oppose it. “Our position is very well known. Absolutely not. This is clear to everyone,”
- Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tells Army Radio that “Israeli citizens should take into account that in less than a year there could be a new, Democratic administration — if not in a year than in five years… Trump won’t be president forever. It is important to know that any Democratic candidate will oppose this plan and that no Democratic president will be bound by it.”
- Balad MK Mtanes Shihadeh tells 103 FM radio that Gantz can kiss the possibility of receiving support from his faction or any part of the Joint List goodbye due to his willingness to cooperate with the Trump plan. If he follows up on the threat, the Blue and White chairman will have a much more difficult time garnering more recommendations than Netanyahu following the March election.
5. Settling in for the ride: Netanyahu has invited a group of senior settler leaders to join him this week in Washington for today and tomorrow’s meetings, a Yesha settlement umbrella council spokesman tells The Times of Israel.
- The West Bank mayors will stay at the same hotel as the premier, where they will be able to consult with him in person and receive updates in real time regarding the contents of the White House discussions, the spokesman said.
- Israel Policy Forum analyst Michael Koplow speculates that “there are two possible reasons to do this, both very politically shrewd: Either Bibi expects the plan to be so tilted in Israel’s favor that he wants to capture the benefits in real time, or he wants to preemptively neutralize criticism from settler right.”
- Uri Keidar, from the Israel Hofsheet organization that promotes religious pluralism, laments on Twitter that Netanyahu only invited right-wing settler leaders as opposed to mayors of towns in the Gaza periphery who will be no less impacted by the fall-out of the peace plan’s roll-out.
6. Losing a legend: Just about all major newspapers in Israel dedicate space on their front pages for coverage of the tragic death of former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant.
- Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on a remote, steep hillside in Southern California.
- Netanyahu, who was traveling to Washington, tweeted (well, it was likely his spokesman Jonathan Urich) that Bryant was “one of the greatest basketball players in history,” and called his death “a sad day for all sports fans.”
- But then the premier went on to tweet out unconfirmed reports that Bryant had been with all four of his daughters when his helicopter crashed. The prime minister’s mouthpiece Israel Hayom made the same error, reporting the deaths of Bryant’s four daughters as a fact. Both went on to delete the tweets, but only hours after it became clear that only Gianna was in the helicopter with Bryant.
- In Tel Aviv, news of Bryant’s death came through during a game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and crosstown rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv. Fans from both teams stood and applauded in tribute to Bryant as the Maccabi announcer said the club was “shocked and devastated.”