In looming Israeli elections, Trump may find excuse to delay peace plan

In looming Israeli elections, Trump may find excuse to delay peace plan

The US president has promised to unveil his proposal by January, but if Israel’s snap poll becomes a reality, the timetable could change

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, on September 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, on September 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — Over the past two years, the White House has kept few things under tighter wraps than the contents of its Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal.

US President Donald Trump vowed in September to unveil the plan by January and finally reveal the details of a proposal that has thus far only been discussed in vague generalities.

But that moment may not come so soon. With elections in Israel now looming, Trump may have an excuse — if the snap polls do pan out — to withhold the plan, which will no doubt be met with extreme skepticism and resistance from various parties and could dent his evangelical support.

The Palestinian Authority has refused to even meet with Trump officials since the US president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there, claiming that the administration has forfeited its status as an honest mediator in any negotiations.

There also seems to be some daylight between Washington and Jerusalem over what the outcome of a peace agreement would look like. Trump said this fall, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, that he would prefer “two states.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said later he was not surprised by Trump’s comments, largely refrains from calling for Palestinian statehood.

What’s more, the conditions do not seem ripe for peace talks to begin, a week after some of the deadliest violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip since the 2014 war.

It would make sense for the Trump administration to cite elections in Israel — and the uncertainty it would cause over whether its political leaders have the mandate to respond to any offers — as a reason it won’t meet its own deadline for publishing the peace proposal.

In this Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks with White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner as he departs after a reception in the East Room of the White House, in Washington. (AP /Alex Brandon)

The White House team tasked with solidifying an accord — his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greeblatt — have already been instructed not to make any promises as to when they will release the plan.

Although they have said repeatedly that the proposal’s development is in the final stages, they have consistently refused to offer a timetable.

“We are going to continue working on the plan that is designed to benefit both Israelis and Palestinians and will release it when it is done and the time is right,” a senior administration official told The Times of Israel recently.

According to a report by Israel’s Hadashot TV news that quoted unnamed sources, the White House is pushing to release its plan possibly as early as next month, despite the growing possibility in Israel of the government’s collapse and the scheduling of early elections. But that may only be the administration’s position so long as there is merely a possibility of elections. If and when Israel’s early election becomes a certainty, that posture is likely to change.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry to celebrate the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Plus, Netanyahu, a close ally of the US president, is reportedly worried the plan’s unveiling could hurt the ruling Likud party’s electoral prospects in the upcoming national election.

The TV report, which quoted unnamed Israeli officials, said that Trump’s plan is all but finalized. The only remaining quibbles are over how to present it.

Early elections in Israel, however, can remove the urgency of the American dilemma. The suave diplomatic move may be to say that until Israel concludes its democratic process of electing its next government, the United States will not take any position on the matter.

And despite reports that Trump has told world leaders he’s wary of Netanyahu’s desire to make peace with the Palestinians, he has plenty of reasons to want to keep him around.

Trump’s closeness to Netanyahu, his moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal have been a boon for him with his evangelical base. As he’s heading into his reelection campaign, he likely won’t want to do anything to disrupt that support.

As demonstrated in the midterms — in which Democrats didn’t have a massive blue wave but still made serious gains, including retaking control of the House of Representatives — Trump’s conservative backers will need to show up for him strongly in 2020. In both 2016 and 2018, Democrats won the popular vote, including Hillary Clinton over Trump.

With so much at stake for the American president, it seems he would want to avoid creating a dispute with one of his most loyal constituencies.

New elections in Israel could give Trump the excuse he needs to back out of releasing an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal that runs the high risk of doing just that.

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