Diplomatic Affairs: Trump plan dead for now, could be resurrected in 2021

The US administration decided it did not want to release the plan during the campaign so as not to make the election a referendum on the plan, or to hurt Netanyahu’s chances of reelection.

June 6, 2019 22:58
QUEEN ELIZABETH II and US President Donald Trump participate in an event to commemorate the 75th ann

QUEEN ELIZABETH II and US President Donald Trump participate in an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in Portsmouth, Britain, Wednesday.. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS JACKSON)

The US is “not happy” about Israel going back to the polls in September, President Donald Trump said this week in no uncertain terms.

“Israel is all messed up with their election,” he told reporters, mincing no words, as he was just about to take off for Britain on Sunday.
“I mean, that came out of the blue three days ago. So that’s all messed up. They ought to get their act together. I mean, Bibi got elected. Now, all of a sudden, they’re going to have to go through the process again until September? That’s ridiculous. So we’re not happy about that.”

And why isn’t the United States happy? Because the decision to go to elections probably means that the clock will have run out on the Trump administration’s ability to unfurl its much hyped peace initiative until after the US presidential election in 2020, if at all.

Trump himself downgraded the plan during his comments before boarding the plane for London.

Asked by reporters to comment on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s downbeat remarks about the plan in comments he made to Jewish leaders that were leaked to the press, Trump said, “Let’s see what happens,” which is a very long step back from calling it the “Deal of the Century.”

Since it is Trump himself who hyped up the plan so heavily, it is Trump himself who – as his remarks about an Israel that needs to “get its act together” attests – is among those most frustrated by the sudden turn of events.

And, indeed, Trump has himself taken the lead in trumpeting this plan.

On November 11, 2016, just three days after his election, Trump discussed his hope to secure a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, something he talked about on and off during the campaign.

“That’s the ultimate deal,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “As a deal maker, I’d like to do... the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Speaking to The New York Times a few days later, Trump said he “would love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians.”

The ultimate deal then morphed into the “Deal of the Century,” and as recently as September 2018, he expressed the hope of getting the deal done during his first term.

“It is a dream of mine to be able to get that done prior to the end of my first term,” Trump said after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Asked when to expect the deal, he said, “over the next two to three to four months.”

But the deal wasn’t rolled out two, three or even four months later, though not because the plan itself was not ready – it has reportedly been ready for months – but because it was overtaken by events in Israel.

In November Avigdor Liberman quit the government, and in December the Knesset dissolved itself and sent the country to early elections. The US administration decided it did not want to release the plan during the campaign so as not to make the election a referendum on the plan, or to hurt Netanyahu’s chances of reelection by alienating the Right. The widespread assumption is that the plan will call for concessions from both the Palestinians and Israel, and that the Right would be opposed to the concessions that will be asked of Israel.

In April Israel went to the polls, and the administration made clear that it would not release the plan during the coalition-building process, so as not to make it even more complicated for Netanyahu to build a coalition.

In mid-May two of the plan’s main architects – Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – said the plan would be presented in mid-June. They then surprised many by announcing that the plan would not be released as one package, but, rather, that the first part of the plan – the economic chapter – would be rolled out in Bahrain at the end of June.

But then Netanyahu failed to form a government, Israel called new elections for September, and all the best laid plans of the Trump administration went awry.
If the administration did not want to bring out the plan during the election campaign five months ago, there is no reason to believe it will want to do so as the country enters another election campaign now.

Israel will go to the elections in September 17. Add on to that another two months for a new government – hopefully – to be formed, and the calendar reads mid-November. By then the US will already be in its own election cycle, gearing up for the party primaries that will begin in early 2020 – not a good time for Trump to bring out a Mideast peace plan.

Why not?

First, because any plan that calls for Israeli concessions will not be popular with a core constituency making up Trump’s base: the Evangelicals. And Trump will need that base enthused and active if he is to win again.

Second, because a plan calling for Israeli concessions may be unpopular with key Republican donors, such as Sheldon Adelson.

Third, because Arab leaders are unlikely to take a risk on the plan – something that will be necessary for it to succeed – not knowing whether Trump will be returned to office. If they do back the plan, they will be labeled by their detractors as traitors and sellouts to the Palestinian cause, and what leader wants to subject himself to that, if he does not know whether Trump will even be around in 2021?

And, finally, because the plan may fail, not something a president wants on his résumé just months before facing an election.

As one Israeli official put it, “The administration should have brought it out last summer. But they didn’t want to, because it was too close to the [US] midterms [elections]. Now it’s too late.”

Trump’s frustration at Israel’s political process – “all messed up” – is understandable in light of the realization that the new elections make it all but impossible for him to present the plan before the US votes in November 2020.

BUT THEN what? If Trump loses the election, he still could present the plan before leaving office, hoping that by so doing he would create new parameters and set a new marker for Mideast peacemaking.

There is precedent for this, as previous administrations took substantial steps on the Middle East as lame duck administrations. Ronald Reagan initiated “substantive dialogue’’ with the PLO in December 1988, as he was about to leave office, to break that taboo for his successor, George H.W. Bush.

Bill Clinton presented his Mideast parameters in December 2000, just after George W. Bush won the election and just a few weeks before vacating his office. And Barack Obama enabled a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for the settlements in late December 2016, just a month shy of his vacating the White House, and in stark contrast to what he knew full well would be the incoming administration’s position.

Yet, there would sure to be opposition to Trump presenting his plan in the waning days of his term – even by some who would like to see new Mideast parameters set – out of the concern that since the environment in Washington is so toxic, any successor to Trump will be unlikely to adopt his ideas – even if they are good ones – simply because he is the one who presented them.

But if Trump wins reelection, then the plan will get a new lease on life. First of all, it will be difficult for the Palestinians to continue to ignore this administration for another four years, hoping that it will somehow disappear. Secondly, other Arab leaders are likely to conclude that Trump is not just a passing phenomenon, and that his ideas need to be heeded.

Trump’s peace plan might seem dead now, but it is something that will be taken much more seriously by everyone – most significantly the Palestinians and the Arab world – if he retains his office in 2020. But that, of course, is at this time a very big “if.”

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