Snap elections may put Trump’s peace plan on back-burner until summer
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AnalysisNetanyahu likely to use AIPAC confab to stump for votes

Snap elections may put Trump’s peace plan on back-burner until summer

White House does not want April 9 poll to become a referendum on its ‘ultimate deal,’ or a platform for PM’s right-wing rivals to attack him over proposal’s concessions

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

White doves rest on a rooftop in Jerusalem's Old City, at sunset, on December 24, 2018. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
White doves rest on a rooftop in Jerusalem's Old City, at sunset, on December 24, 2018. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

Israel’s early election will significantly delay the publication of the US administration’s much-awaited proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, experts said Monday, as the White House keeps the plan on the back-burner for fear of influencing the vote.

White House officials working on the plan are said to be wary of turning the elections into a referendum on the peace plan. And the concessions it will require from Israel would offer parties close to the settlement movement a perfect platform from which to attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others who might be seen as in favor of it, something the administration is apparently keen to avoid.

The snap elections, scheduled for April 9, will likely also affect Netanyahu’s travel plans, as he balances his pursuit of diplomatic breakthroughs with the need to orchestrate his Likud’s party’s campaign.

“I cannot imagine that anyone in the White House would think about releasing the plan at this volatile time,” said Marc Zell, the head of the Israeli branch of the Republican party and a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump.

Calling early elections “virtually ensures” that Trump’s peace will not be put forward until after a new government is formed in Jerusalem, said David Makovsky, who directs the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s program on the Middle East peace process.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (second left) and US President Donald Trump’s special envoys Jason Greenblatt (left) and Jared Kushner (center) meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem, June 21, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that the chances the administration would attempt to clinch the so-called ultimate deal before April 9, 2019, are close to zero.

“The conditions for the publication of the plan are currently not favorable — not only in just Israel, but in the region as a whole,” he said. Saudi Arabia was supposed to be play an important role in the effort, offering carrots to the Palestinians, but the country’s de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is currently in hot water, due to his alleged role in ordering the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he said.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, left, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on August 24, 2017. (courtesy, WAFA)

“Even without new elections, the coming weeks would not have been a good time for issuing the plan. Now that Israel is headed to the polls, there are even fewer incentives to do so.”

It would not be the first time the plan — formulated by three of Trump’s closest advisers: his son-in law Jared Kushner, his special assistant for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — is being delayed.

The president started speaking about the desire to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal soon after his inauguration. The plan hit a major stumbling block when the Palestinian Authority disqualified the US from having any role in the peace process, in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital a year ago.

During Trump’s last meeting with Netanyahu, on September 26, at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, the president said he would like to release the plan “over the next two to three to four months, something like that.”

About two-and-a-half months later, on December 11, Kushner told Fox News in a rare interview that he hoped to release the plan “in the next couple of months.”

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

On Monday evening, Hadashot news’s diplomatic analyst Dana Weiss reported that the US had agreed to Netanyahu’s request to delay releasing the peace plan until after the elections.

“The US would like to see Bibi [Netanyahu] reelected and understands that the plan, which calls for the division of Jerusalem, would be ammunition for [Jewish Home party chair and Netanyahu rival] Naftali Bennett to attack the PM,” she tweeted.

Makovsky, too, said on his Twitter account that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Trump were to wait until after the elections in the hope of a “new configuration of parties (of course under Bibi) that wouldn’t make him so dependent on settlers.”

A senior White House official on Monday acknowledged that the April 9 election “is one of many factors we are considering in evaluating the timing of the release of the peace plan.”

It usually takes several weeks for coalition negotiations to conclude and a new government to be sworn in, so the administration might not want to release its peace plan before the summer.

AIPAC and the White House

The new elections also pose some challenges to Netanyahu’s diplomatic schedule. The prime minister, who may continue serving as foreign minister until a new government is in place, will travel to Brazil later this week to participate in the inauguration of incoming president Jair Bolsonaro.

But will he also allow himself to be absent as the election campaign picks up steam? He usually attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, which takes place in late January.

Last month, he also vowed to go to Chad “soon” in order to announce the resumption of diplomatic relations with the African Muslim-majority nation.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Monday did not respond to questions about Netanyahu’s upcoming travel plans.

On the one hand, Netanyahu can be expected to want to spend as much time as possible in Israel campaigning.

On the other, he may not want to pass up opportunities to rub shoulders and shake hands with foreign leaders, especially since he is likely to make what he has described as the “unprecedented flowering of Israel’s diplomatic relations” a cornerstone of his election pitch.

In this respect, it seems almost certain that he will head to Washington in late March, about two weeks before Election Day, to attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference and to powwow with President Trump.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center, March 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

There is no friendlier crowd than the pro-Israel lobby, and the standing ovation he is sure to receive at AIPAC will make for excellent campaign material.

In 2015, Netanyahu famously addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress exactly two weeks before the Knesset elections, which he won handily.

Fuming at Netanyahu’s agitation against the US-backed Iran nuclear deal, then-president Barack Obama refused to meet the visiting prime minister during his March 2015 trip to DC.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said at the time.

The postponement of his peace plan notwithstanding, Trump is unlikely to do the same. Indeed, he will probably warmly welcome the prime minister to the White House, handing Netanyahu another opportunity to show to his electorate the strong ties he built with the leader of the free world.

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