In the fall of 2011, a group of US congressmen decided to block $200 million in State Department funding from reaching the Palestinian Authority. The money, designated for healthcare, state building efforts and food programs, was withheld to try and discourage President Mahmoud Abbas from taking his unilateral bid for statehood to the United Nations Security Council.
At the time, the Israeli government remained quiet.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak didn’t say a word. They wouldn’t say if they supported the suspension of aid or if they were against it.
But then in mid-October, the IDF decided to act. It invited The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief at the time, Ethan Bronner, to a military base just outside the settlement of Beit El for an interview with Nitzan Alon, then the brigadier-general commanding the Judea and Samaria Division.
In the interview, Alon, who today serves as head of the IDF Operation Directorate, came out directly against the aid suspension.
“Stability in the region includes the ability of the Palestinian Authority to pay its salaries,” Alon told Bronner.
“Reducing the Palestinians’ ability to pay decreases security. American aid is relevant to this issue.”
The interview sent shock waves through the Israeli political establishment but it was done for a clear reason.
Israel didn’t want America to cut aid to the PA and there was no better way to convince pro-Israeli congressmen than by having it come from a senior military officer.
If that was the case, though, why couldn’t Netanyahu come out against the suspension? The answer – politics.
Netanyahu couldn’t be seen by his right-wing constituents as being in favor of aid to the Palestinians. Alon did the job for him.
I tell this story since a similar scenario is playing out now with the Taylor Force Act, a bill that Sen. Lindsey Graham is trying to push through the Senate to block US aid to the PA as long as it continues paying salaries to terrorists in Israeli prisons and pensions to the families of dead terrorists.
While the law is ethically and morally right, it couldn’t be more of a political land mine right now for Netanyahu.
On the one hand, he can’t come out against the bill since it would damage him politically like in 2011. He also can’t come out publicly and endorse the bill, since he does not want to be seen undermining President Donald Trump’s upcoming peace initiative. If Trump doesn’t support it, Netanyahu can’t either.
So what does he do instead? He slams the PA repeatedly for its “pay-to-slay” policy but always stops short of publicly endorsing the bill. Rhetoric is one thing. Lobbying the Hill on something that could torpedo the president’s peace initiative is another.
But what exactly is Trump’s peace initiative? That is the question that has the entire Israeli government on edge these days. No one, it seems, has a clear idea what Trump is going to ask of Israel when he arrives here in two weeks.
Trump’s trip needs to be looked at on two different levels.
On the one hand, he has a genuine desire to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He has called it the “ultimate deal,” and is someone who is motivated to do things that are the best and the biggest; achieving the most elusive peace in the world definitely falls into that category.
He also wants to distinguish himself from Barack Obama who in 2009 made his famous trip to the region with stops in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt but not Israel. Trump is coming to Israel on his first overseas visit.
That itself sends a message.
Domestically, the trip is meant to give him a break from the challenges he is facing in Washington. The probe of his campaign’s ties with Russia has him on edge as was demonstrated this week by the firing of FBI director James Comey. In Israel, he might find some comfort in meeting with Netanyahu, another head of government under a criminal investigation.
Practically speaking, here is what is likely to happen during the trip: Trump will meet with Netanyahu and Abbas – maybe he’ll try to get them together – and then he will announce the resumption of peace talks. Some predictions are that he will also limit the talks by time.
Neither side has much faith in the other and anyhow the overwhelming assumption in Jerusalem is that the maximum Israel can give the Palestinians will never meet the minimum that they can accept.
That is why both sides are maneuvering now so as to be able to put up a strong defense when the blame game starts. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu want to be blamed for the failure of the talks and get on the bad side of the most unpredictable American president in recent history.
Abbas is already sending the right signals. During his meetings in Washington last week he gave the clear impression that he is prepared to reach a peace deal more than he has ever been in the past.
“He said he understands that he is 82 years old and that time is running out,” explained one US official familiar with the talks Trump held with Abbas.
Since the meeting, the PA has made sure to publicize a steady stream of news reports demonstrating its purported newfound flexibility. If in the past, Abbas said he wouldn’t meet Netanyahu unless settlement construction was suspended, now he seems to be saying that he is prepared to meet with the Israeli leader without preconditions.
And if in the past, the PA was reluctant to agree to land swaps – a recognition that some settlements will remain Israeli under a peace deal – now it is saying that it is prepared for this, even for larger swaths of territory than before.
One of the people responsible for this change is Ronald Lauder, the American billionaire and current head of the World Jewish Congress, who is one of the closest people to President Trump. Lauder has known Trump for over 50 years and calls him a “great and true friend” of Israel.
Before Abbas met Trump last week, he stopped by Lauder’s house for dinner and got briefed on tactics to win over the president. He has spent countless hours with both Abbas and Trump advising them on ways to renew the peace process. In some ways, it seems that Lauder has bypassed Sheldon Adelson as the most influential Jew in Trump’s circle.
This is not Lauder’s first foray into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About two months ago, Lauder was in Cairo and met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ahead of the Egyptian leader’s visit to the White House. He has also held talks with King Abdullah in addition to other Sunni leaders from the Gulf. Lauder, sources say, seems to have been tapped by the president as something of a semi-official envoy to the region with an emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the surface this should be a good thing for Netanyahu.
Lauder and Netanyahu used to be the closest of friends and in the late 1990s, the American businessman served as the prime minister’s personal secret envoy to Syria.
The problem is that the two have not spoken in years, the result of a fallout they had after Channel 10 – which Lauder used to partially own – ran a series of stinging reports against Netanyahu.
So even though they know each other well, Lauder’s involvement has Netanyahu on edge.
The challenge for Netanyahu is huge. If Abbas has really made concessions, he will also need to, something that will be difficult within his current coalition. While Naftali Bennett is unlikely to bolt the government over the launching of talks, concessions – like prisoner releases or a settlement freeze – could push him to pull Bayit Yehudi out of the government.
So how do you prepare for an unpredictable president? For the most part, you remain quiet as Netanyahu largely has in recent weeks. You also don’t do anything – like announce new settlement plans – that could be interpreted as undermining the president’s efforts.
Abba Eban, the late articulate Israeli statesman, once said: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This is what Netanyahu, Bennett and the rest of the cabinet are hoping will happen once again.
The problems will begin if it doesn’t.