When is Trump going to roll out his Middle East peace plan?

Dateline Washington: Between peace, Washington and Israel’s elections

Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R) at a press conference, March 21st, 2019 (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R) at a press conference, March 21st, 2019
 It was nearly impossible to walk in the hallways outside the House Foreign Affairs Committee this Wednesday without being asked about the upcoming elections in Israel. Members of Congress, staffers, journalists and think-tankers alike are trying to speculate on who’s going to win. Israel is a small country with a population of nearly nine million, but for the last few weeks you could see people on the Hill interested in the small parties which are fighting to pass the threshold or in reading the latest analysis about the chances that Yair Lapid will give up the rotation with Benny Gantz.
The elections in Israel are highly anticipated – not only because of the natural curiosity and the charged atmosphere, but also because of the long-awaited peace plan. The plan was expected to be made public a few months ago, but in December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections, a move that stirred things up. Since then, US President Donald Trump recently signed a proclamation that recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a decision that caused countless speculations regarding the administration’s next step.
It’s hard to see a scenario in which the administration rolls out the peace plan before a new government will be in place. First, because it could be seen as interference in the formation of a new government. Second, because of the busy holiday schedule: Jews will celebrate Passover right after the elections, between April 19 and 27 – and Ramadan, which is sacred to Muslims, will take place between May 5 and June 4. Revealing the plan before or in between the two holidays could make the plan lose momentum on day one.
Dan Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel and a senior fellow at INSS, told The Jerusalem Post that formal announcement of the peace plan during the formation of a new government is less likely. “I think that’s a very difficult thing to do and be successful,” he said. “The attention of Israeli politicians immediately after the election will be on forming the coalition – and even if it’s a clear victory for Netanyahu, that’s a very complicated period of time in Israel politically, with many demands being made by different parties. Having an American peace plan injected into that time frame only adds to the complications.
“I expect that after the election, the administration will probably decide to wait until the coalition is formed,” Shapiro continued. “And then, if they’re going to present their peace plan, they will know the political backdrop before presenting it, rather than use the period of coalition formation to present it.”
Ilan Goldenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told the Post that to the best of his knowledge, the option of presenting the plan during the formation of the new government is still on the table. He added: “The elections are going to absolutely drive where the peace plan goes, whether the Kushner team even puts down a peace plan or not.”
Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, also won’t rule out a scenario that the plan will become public during the coalition formation process. “That’s possible,” he told the Post, “but it very much depends on what the winner of the elections asks [for]. So if Netanyahu wants the peace plan to come out shortly after so it will allow him to create a centrist coalition – maybe bringing Gantz or others from the Center in – then the Americans might do that.” 
However, he doubts that this is going to be the case: “There is, of course, a strong logic for Netanyahu to not want a national unity government. Besides the fact that he said he wouldn’t go for it, he needs to pass immunity for himself in the next Knesset – ‘the French Law’ – and the Center cannot support that; the right-wing maybe can. There’s an advantage for him to go for a right-wing coalition – and in that context, the release of the peace plan might not fit his plans so well, in which case we might expect that it be somewhat postponed.”
GOLDENBERG AGREES that the most likely scenario is that if Netanyahu forms a right-wing government, as recent polls show, the plan will be out in the summer or the fall, “after the coalition has formed.” Furthermore, he is not sure if we will ever see the “deal of the century.” He told the Post that, “There’s also a possible scenario where the peace team takes a proposal to the president and says to him: ‘This is what we want to do.’ And he says, ‘is it going to work?’ And they’re honest and say, ‘probably not.’ And the president says, ‘well, why do I even want to do this’ – and then does not put out a plan at all. I do think that they believe that what they are going to put out there is serious. I think that is their intention.”
“However,” he says, “I also believe that the fact that they haven’t even been talking to the Palestinian leadership for a year and a half is pretty indicative of the reality that whatever they put out is almost certainly going to be rejected – and frankly is going to not be acceptable to Palestinians. That’s the reality. It’s going to not meet Palestinian basic minimum requirements, even if they think it’s serious. And at that moment, I think what they will have caused, whether they mean to or not, is an opportunity for those arguing for annexation to say, ‘see, you can’t deal with the Palestinians. Let’s go annex the West Bank’ or Area C – and Donald Trump supported the annexation of the Golan, and he’s not going to oppose this.”
Goldenberg estimates that there are disagreements within the Trump administration itself, which makes it hard to predict what would be the administration’s next step. “I think that [Jason] Greenblatt and [Jared] Kushner are both interested in a serious plan. I think David Friedman is interested in annexation.”
Michael Koplow, Policy Director at the Israel Policy Forum, told the Post that “even if Trump releases a peace plan under a new Netanyahu government, its near certain rejection by the Palestinians will lead many on the Israeli Right to argue that the Palestinians will never accept any deal, and that Israel should move toward annexation as a way of breaking the failed peace process cycle. It is difficult for me to foresee a Netanyahu government that does not quickly propose annexing Ma’aleh Adumim, and perhaps Gush Etzion and Ariel as well.”
Koplow thinks that in the less likely event of a Gantz-led coalition, the chances of seeing a final agreement are still meager: “If Gantz wins, annexation is unlikely. But no plausible Israeli government is going to work toward a final status negotiation resulting in two states in the current political environment, where Israelis believe that they have no partner on the other side and lack any sense of urgency to leave the West Bank in order to establish a Palestinian state.” He noted that “A Gantz government is more likely to lessen Israel’s footprint east of the security barrier and preserve the conditions for a future deal, but not to rush into negotiations aimed at actually getting to two states.”
WHICH COALITION would the Trump administration like to see after the elections? Koplow told the Post that there is no doubt in his mind: “Every signal points to the administration preferring the current Netanyahu-led government. Aside from the obvious close relationship that exists between Trump and Netanyahu, and Netanyahu and other members of the Trump team such as Kushner and Friedman, the administration’s timing on the Golan sovereignty recognition seemed designed to give Netanyahu a political boost so close to the election. While the administration will undoubtedly be able to work and get along with Gantz, the closeness between Trump and Netanyahu gives the administration every incentive to want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the FDD think tank in Washington, offers a different perspective: “We cannot discount the notion that when a right-wing government makes peace, it is one that can hold. Look at Begin-Sadat as a prime example. If a right-wing government prevails in these elections, some could argue that the Right can make a deal that would represent a broader spectrum of Israelis and with tougher security demands.”
Schanzer recalls a meeting he had early in the Trump administration with a senior official. “He told me that the thinking behind the administration’s Middle East approach was that Israel would be more willing to make compromises for peace if its leaders know that America is behind them. [A] stronger Israel is more willing to make compromises down the road. I believe that this is still the guiding principle [more] than some of these most recent decisions.”
When asked if he means that after Trump recognized Israel sovereignty in the Golan, in Jerusalem and moved the embassy, it would be easier for Israelis to trust him that any peace plan will not compromise Israel’s security needs, he approves: “Yes, exactly – and this is of course without knowing what’s in the peace plan. The peace plan could still go farther than anyone in Israel is ready to go. And that it could be a very short story. But if the peace plan is reasonable and takes into account Israel’s security concerns – and Israelis are comfortable with what is on the table and they’re also comfortable with what the president is offering – it’s possible that Israel will be prepared to make those compromises. Having a president that Israelis trust is a big part of the success of the plan. This gives him an advantage. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it gives him an advantage.”
Finally, Schanzer suggests that one should consider what he calls “the X-factor” – the reaction from the Arab world. “The Palestinians seem to oppose any deal that will be put on the table because it is a Trump administration initiative and because of the other moves that Trump has made,” he clarifies. “The real question in my mind is whether the Arab world will be willing to push the Palestinians. And what’s interesting is the strength of the friendship between the Trump administration and the Arab world, which has been fairly consistent.
“However, it weakened a bit after the killing of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi last year. And I think it weakened perhaps a little bit after the Golan. The question is, how strong is it still? Can Trump still prevail upon his friends in the Sunni-Arab world to push the Palestinians? And also, will the Arab world signal to Israel that if they make certain compromises, there’ll be benefits for them as well? In other words, this is the first time where the Arab world could have a real significant role to play. Not a minor role, but a significant role.”