With 10 months to the presidential election in the US, President Donald Trump's administration is considering presenting its peace plan in the coming weeks, even ahead of the March 2 Knesset election.
The Trump administration’s reasoning is clear. If there’s an Israeli election in March, there probably won’t be a government until May, bringing them very close to the presidential election. It’s not likely that Trump will actually be able to bring about the “Deal of the Century,” as he called peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he would want to present himself in as positive a light as possible so close to his reelection bid. In addition, he will want to focus on his campaign and not put any more challenges in his path.
So while the White House held back on releasing the deal for the first two election seasons in Israel, waiting for a third to end may be too much to ask. Deputy Assistant to the President Avi Berkowitz was in Israel this week and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to talk about pushing the plan.
Still, Berkowitz and Trump’s Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, the plan’s top proponents, are very closely coordinated with Netanyahu and with Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. It also seems clear that Trump would like Netanyahu to remain prime minister, going so far as to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan shortly before the first election in 2019 – even if the president has been keeping his distance lately after two losses for Netanyahu.
As such, any rollout will probably be coordinated with Netanyahu for maximum benefit – or at least minimum fallout – from the pre-election timing.
If the Trump administration releases the #DealOfTheCentury #PeacePlan before Israel's March 2 election, would you consider it election interference? #Israelex2020— The Jerusalem Post (@Jerusalem_Post) January 7, 2020
Of course, there is someone else in this political equation: Gantz. Sources close to the Blue and White leader said that while he is open-minded about the plan itself and is waiting to see it before he judges it, he hopes that the US will not release the plan before the election, because doing so would be counterproductive.
The question of how the plan could impact the upcoming Israeli election is an interesting one – because from what is known about it, its nature appears to be unprecedented.
Normally, a US-proposed peace plan requires major concessions from Israel, including evacuating tens of thousands of Israelis from the West Bank – or giving up on security arrangements that are a near-consensus in the Israeli political spectrum, like maintaining an IDF presence the Jordan Valley.
But Kushner and Berkowitz are working on the principle of no daylight between Israel and the US, and the plan is likely to ask for few, if any, concessions from Israel. They are likely to agree to have Israel annex parts of the West Bank, perhaps even all of the major settlement blocs.
THERE IS a chance the plan would have little impact on the election in Israel, because the Palestinians have made it clear that they have rejected it sight unseen. The fact that the plan won’t have much of a real-world impact could mean that it will be seen as political spin and therefore not move the needle much towards either Netanyahu or Gantz.
But past experience shows that even plans that didn’t get off the ground have thrown Israel, and certainly its media, into a frenzy.
If the plan does call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, for example, the parties to Netanyahu’s Right could try to use that to get more votes. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett attempted that ahead of the first election of 2019 with little success, warning that Trump will demand major concessions from Israel. Someone like Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich could easily argue that any plan that doesn’t include Israeli sovereignty over the whole West Bank is dead on arrival. And some Likud voters especially West Bank residents, might bolt.
The Left would probably criticize any plan that does not include a Palestinian state, and point to the rejection from Ramallah as a sign that greater concessions need to be made for true peace.
Despite those criticisms on both sides, Netanyahu could use a plan with few demands on Israel to say that, due to his close relationship with the Trump White House, it has put forward the best plan Israel could ask for – in addition to US recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan, and that settlements are not illegal – and attract votes from the center and the center-right.
Blue and White would likely be in a bind as a centrist party: not wanting to reject the plan – because Gantz will need a good relationship with the White House – but still wanting to find a way to attack Netanyahu.
Berkowitz spoke with Netanyahu and Gantz, and is probably aware of all of these considerations.
At the end of the day, though, Trump will look out for his own interests. It’s true that a plan that is overwhelmingly pro-Israel will likely help him with his pro-Israel Evangelical voter base. But a prolonged news cycle about the plan not being taken seriously or not having a dramatic impact could hurt Trump, and he will not want the plan to detract from his reelection campaign.
Which means that, despite many false starts in the past, the “Deal of the Century” looks likelier than ever to be made public soon.