Applying 'Deal of the Century' and annexation put on ice - analysis

Flying from a sun-dappled Washington winter to a freezing, snowy Moscow seemed apt after the couple of days that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had.

A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the West Bank April 7, 2019 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the West Bank April 7, 2019
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
MOSCOW – Flying from a sun-dappled Washington winter to a freezing, snowy Moscow, seemed apt after the couple of days that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had.
Netanyahu went from a very sunny disposition, making euphoric promises to annex settlements in a matter of days, to apparently putting his plans on ice indefinitely.
Chalk it up to mixed messages. Word from the White House was inconsistent, and Netanyahu went with what was best for him.
Immediately after US President Donald Trump rolled out his “Peace to Prosperity” plan in a celebratory ceremony in the White House’s East Room, Netanyahu said he would bring annexation to a cabinet vote on Sunday.
The plan means “Immediate American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley... and all settlements,” Netanyahu said in remarks to the Israeli press at the Blair House, the White House’s guesthouse.
“We will once and for all set Israel’s eastern border,” Netanyahu said, palpably excited that the moment he had been calling “historic” had finally arrived.
The first vote, Netanyahu said, would be on annexing the settlements on lines that would be determined by his staff in the coming days. Then, the staff would work on the precise lines of the broader annexation plan of 30% of the West Bank, as delineated in the Trump plan.
The next morning, Netanyahu’s staff said Sunday was a stretch, but the vote would be next week.
In line with Netanyahu’s message, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman briefed journalists similarly before and after Trump’s rollout, saying Israel was “free” to begin annexation immediately, though he also mentioned the need for a team to work on the exact parameters. He encouraged Israel to present a sovereignty plan to enact as soon as possible.
Then, son-in-law and special adviser to the president Jared Kushner went on a media blitz, putting an end to Netanyahu and Friedman’s party.
American media focused on Kushner telling CNN that the Palestinians “screwed up every opportunity they’ve had in their existence” – a less eloquent version of Israeli diplomat Abba Eban’s adage that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
But Israeli media fixated on something else Kushner said in the same interview, when asked about annexation: “I don’t believe that’s going to happen this weekend, at least not as far as I know.”
Kushner was even more explicit in an interview with Gzero World. “The hope is that they’ll wait until after the election, and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something.”
First, Israel needs to turn America’s “conceptual map” into something more detailed and implementable, with clear parameters, Kushner said.
“I think we’d need an Israeli government in place in order to move forward, but we’ll see what happens,” he added.
But there’s yet another side to this story. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Channel 13’s Barak Ravid: “The Israelis will proceed under Israeli law and [to] begin to work with what is consistent with this vision... We will see where we lay out the barriers and boundaries carried out in this vision.”
There is no time frame – immediate or not – in Pompeo’s statement. But there is an invitation for Israel to proceed.
If even the Trump administration doesn’t have a consistent idea of what its peace initiative means, it’s easy to see how Netanyahu got into this mess.
“He didn’t lie! He didn’t lie!” Netanyahu’s spokeswoman Shir Cohen said to a frustrated and confused press corps in the back of Netanyahu’s plane to Russia, demanding an explanation. But she was unable to clarify in which direction developments were moving.
In light of the situation, it seems that Netanyahu did not intentionally lie.
There‘s clearly a dispute in the Trump administration, with two different interpretations of the plan from two of the leading figures drafting it, Kushner and Friedman. The latter has been pushing for immediate action for at least the past week. The former kept a lower profile ahead of the plan’s presentation, which gave the impression that he agreed with Friedman – but that impression turned out to be false.
Amid all this confusion, a senior source in the prime minister’s delegation then briefed reporters on the plane back to Israel that the Trump administration wants the annexation to take place all at once and not in two stages, which makes it too complex to get done next week, but they left the door open to it happening before the March 2 election.
That still doesn’t explain Netanyahu’s haste in making bombastic declarations, especially ones with a definitive time frame.
Netanyahu isn’t new to statesmanship. He’s usually a master at purposeful vagueness. And he should have known to check and check again that his vision of how the Trump plan would be implemented aligns with how Kushner, the person in charge of the plan, sees it.
Now, Netanyahu is facing a public that feels like it’s been lied to, and a not-insignificant portion of his right-wing base that feels betrayed, because it seems that the prime minister’s immediate annexation promises are as frozen as Siberia in January.