In preparation for the release of his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan, US President Donald Trump invited the leaders of both parties to the White House next week to discuss his proposal.
“They both would like to do the deal. They want to see peace,” Trump told reporters Thursday on Air Force One.
To be clear though, “both” wasn’t referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but rather to Netanyahu and his domestic political rival, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.
With the PA all but having severed its ties to Washington after the Trump administration’s 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — followed by the shutting of the PLO representative office in Washington, moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the slashing of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians and the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees — the Trump administration no longer has an address to communicate with in Ramallah.
Asked by reporters if he had even been in touch with the Palestinian leadership regarding his proposal, the US president appeared to balk. “We’ve spoken to them briefly. But we will speak to them in a period of time.”
So why go forward with a wedding when only one partner is present?
That question is only relevant if one assumes that the marriage is meant to be between Israelis and Palestinians. The Trump administration, however, appears to have other ideas in mind.
By inviting Netanyahu and Gantz to the White House on Tuesday, Trump sets the stage for the latest round of Israeli unity government negotiations, which failed to bear fruit after the April and September elections and thus forced another election this coming March.
Polls indicate that the results of the parliamentary vote in six weeks will result in further political gridlock, with neither the Blue and White-led center-left bloc nor the Likud-headed right-wing bloc predicted to become large enough to form a coalition on their own.
Gantz over the past year has stood by his word not to sit in a government with a Likud leader facing criminal indictment, while Netanyahu has refused to step down or join a coalition without his reliable right-wing, religious bloc.
But in presenting its peace plan now, Washington may believe that Netanyahu and Gantz will be willing to shift their respective red lines, rather than risk saying no to what widely is regarded as the most pro-Israel White House in decades.
The exact details of the peace plan remain under wraps, but a senior settler leader confirmed widespread Hebrew media reports that the deal is expected to result in Israeli sovereignty over all existing settlements while offering the PA a demilitarized state in what remains of the West Bank, if it meets certain conditions.
Despite being the ostensibly most generous offer for Israel ever put on the table by an American president, some settler leaders and many of their representatives in the Yamina party have rejected the rumored deal outright, saying they welcome the idea of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, but not if it is coupled with a Palestinian state — no matter how small, noncontinuous and conditional that state may be.
On the left, Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz similarly dismissed the deal, saying Thursday that while there is room for American involvement in the peace process, a deal needs to come as a result of direct talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah, not Jerusalem and Washington. Moreover, Peretz asserted that any agreement must be based on the more traditional two-state formula that requires evacuation of isolated settlements beyond the so-called major blocs closer to the Green Line.
While accepting the Trump proposal risks putting both Netanyahu and Gantz in a bind with their respective right and left-wing flanks, it is the Blue and White chairman who faces a bigger dilemma.
To appease his base, the Likud leader can explain that a “yes” to the peace plan allows Israel to move forward with its West Bank annexation plans while not really having to worry about the possibility of a Palestinian state because Ramallah has already rejected the proposal out of hand.
For Gantz, saying “no” to the plan would satisfy the left-wing parties that recommended him for premier after the previous elections, but it would risk alienating the Trump administration while also putting kibosh on his efforts to appeal to moderate, right-wing voters as he has sought to do thus far in the campaign. Netanyahu would almost certainly use a Blue and White rejection to brand Gantz as a leftist.
Changing the election agenda
The timing of next week’s White House summit appears to further work in Netanyahu’s favor, falling on the same day that the Knesset is set to vote on forming the committee that will debate the premier’s request for immunity over a series of corruption charges.
Labor-Gesher-Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz speculated that therein lies the true reasoning behind the timing of the White House invitation — to shift public discourse away from Netanyahu’s legal woes, and also from the Senate’s impeachment proceedings against Trump, which could climax next week, too.
Gantz indeed appeared to have been somewhat of an after-thought in the plans for next week’s summit, with US Vice President Mike Pence stating on Thursday that the White House had only invited the Blue and White chairman upon Netanyahu’s recommendation.
Apparently recognizing the predicament he is in, Gantz has yet to announce whether he will make the trip next Tuesday to Washington, and instead has scheduled a press conference for Saturday night where he will discuss the issue.
A rejection of the American invitation would be yet another about-face from Gantz, who on January 8 said a peace plan rollout by Washington before Israel’s election would be “a blatant interference” in Israel’s elections, only to reverse course on Tuesday when he called on Trump to move up its release. The shift reportedly followed US pressure.
If he decides to fly to Washington and accepts the deal, it may not serve as a basis for peace with the Palestinians, but it could lay the groundwork for the unity government that would break the Israeli political deadlock.
Regardless of whether the Blue and White leader makes the trip, however, the publication of a plan that allows for Israeli sovereignty over its West Bank settlements will ensure that the annexation train leaves the station.
The Blue and White chairman appeared to recognize this when he came out this week in favor of enacting sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, although he did condition it on being done in coordination with the international community.
That coordination is not expected to come, as the US seems to be the only world power willing to back such a move. But once American policy officially supports Israel’s annexing of all West Bank settlements, it is difficult to expect a Netanyahu-led government to start work on anything less.