In the immediate aftermath of the September 17 Israeli general elections, as it became clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed for the second time in five months to win a Knesset majority, his firm ally in the White House acknowledged that the results were “very close.” Then US President Donald Trump added a comment that was brief, ostensibly obvious, but nonetheless quite significant: “Look, our relationship is with Israel,” Trump said.
At the weekend, with Netanyahu savoring the prospect of a White House meeting on Tuesday at which he and Trump would discuss the president’s proposed Israeli-Palestinian deal — with the prime minister’s rival Benny Gantz also present, at Netanyahu’s suggestion — Trump put some weight behind that September remark.
Realizing that Netanyahu was setting him up for the role of irrelevant bystander — the marginalized would-be leader graciously allowed to sit in the room with the big boys — Gantz was reported to be inclining to stay home.
But the Blue and White leader has evidently learned a little during his first year in politics. Rather than commit the unthinkable act of snubbing the president, Gantz reached out to the US administration.
The result, Gantz announced on Saturday evening, was that the president had invited him to a private meeting all of his own — at the White House on Monday.
No sooner had Gantz made his announcement than Netanyahu’s office revealed that the prime minister would be meeting Trump separately on Monday too, in addition to the previously scheduled public Tuesday session. And Netanyahu will doubtlessly continue to do his best to upstage his bitter rival Gantz as the Washington trip plays out, and may well succeed in doing so. The Trump-Gantz meeting will be entirely closed to the media; not so, the Tuesday Trump-Netanyahu session.
Nonetheless, Gantz can register a small but significant achievement in dodging what his party had regarded as a Trump-Netanyahu trap. It may not be a perfect solution for him, but it’s emphatically better than the two other alternatives — staying away or looking silly.
Trump, for his part, can be seen to have heeded concerns that releasing his plan less than six weeks before Israel’s March 2 elections constitutes meddling in the domestic Israeli political process. On Saturday night, after all, Netanyahu’s key domestic opponent hailed the plan as a potential diplomatic “milestone” — although Gantz was careful not to preemptively endorse it, warned that it would cause argument within Israel, and stressed that he aimed to use it as a basis for an “agreed deal” with the Palestinians. And now that same Netanyahu opponent was flying to Washington to discuss it with him.
As Gantz noted on Saturday, he heads the largest party in the Knesset. Nonetheless, for a US president to make time to meet with a would-be Israeli prime minister is highly unusual. In announcing the meeting — his first with Trump — Gantz hailed his ongoing relationship with the president’s team, including Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Israel TV reports on Saturday night suggested that Friedman had played a role in arranging Gantz’s trip, assuring the Blue and White leader that the administration was not seeking to undermine or humiliate him.
Gantz intends to be back home in Israel by the time Trump and Netanyahu hold their Tuesday meeting — the one where he might have felt like a third wheel. He will, he said, be leading the process by which he hopes to have the Knesset thwart Netanyahu’s bid to win parliamentary immunity from prosecution in the three graft cases for which he has been charged.
These dual processes will now dominate the run-up to March 2’s elections. Netanyahu will be seeking to portray himself as the irreplaceable prime minister, whose relationship with Trump has yielded a US-backed regional vision of unparalleled benefit for Israel. He may seek to move ahead with aspects of the Trump plan even before the elections; some leaders on the Israeli right are already pushing him to start annexing West Bank areas, as he has promised to do, and as the Trump plan reportedly provides.
Gantz, for his part, will be pursuing the only goal that unites his Blue and White party — ousting Netanyahu on March 2. And, ahead of that, seeking to block Netanyahu’s immunity request by getting it debated and voted on before the elections.
As of Saturday night, however, he will be doing so having indicated that he, too, sees considerable merit in the US plan. And that he, too, has a relationship with the US president.