Netanyahu and Trump’s three-month race for Israeli-Arab history – analysis

Annexation’s strength as a playing card is dependent on its viability.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on January 28 (photo credit: REUTERS)
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on January 28
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel and the United Arab Emirates might be wrangling over the sale of F-35 jets. For the last 48-hours, however, the future of the burgeoning Israel-UAE peace deal hinged on whether Israel’s government would fall, thereby sending the county into its fourth election in two years.
Without a government, Israel could have signed but not ratified any peace deal, including with the UAE. By the time it could, two of the deal’s key initiators – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump – might no longer be in office.
The Knesset drama to save the government – which ended at 10 p.m. Monday night with two hours to spare – underscored the race by these two men against the electoral clock, so they can enter the history books by forging Israeli-Arab peace deals.
It goes without saying that they have been bolstered electorally by their forays into the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts.
With an eye to the Evangelicals, Trump has mentioned Jerusalem in many of his campaign rallies. This week that connection will be elevated when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo makes his speech to the Republican National Convention from the Holy City.
Their efforts, however, are greater than ballot box hits. Pompeo was in Jerusalem to discuss the UAE, deal before heading to Sudan and Bahrain to push for agreements between those countries and the Jewish state. The UAE deal, once finalized and signed, will mark the beginning of the end to the peacemaking formula put forward in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which insisted that Israel must first end its conflict with the Palestinians if it hoped to make peace with the Arab world.
The Israel-UAE deal upends that formula and creates the possibility of a new regional paradigm that would allow for peace first with Arab states and then with the Palestinians. It’s a tantalizing possibility of a new future for Israel.
Trump is playing the long road gamble here, but will he have the four more years needed to complete it or will a November electoral upset keep him from finalizing his Middle East legacy?
An Israeli-Arab and/or an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is one of the golden geese of diplomatic achievement for a US president. Many have sought and failed to make their mark, putting forward plans that generated headlines but were ultimately shelved.
Those whose achievements are most lionized have either brokered a lasting peace deal and or changed the geographical map of the conflict. It hard to discuss Israeli Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace without talking about former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Trump unveiled his peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict late in the game, only in January 2020. This left him only 10 months until the US presidential elections in November to transform his plan, into something more than a speculative possibility. Former US President George Bush published his Road Map in 2002, but was never able to actualize it.
Former US president Barack Obama tried and failed from July 2013 to   April l2014 to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a set of principles to resolve the conflict. It’s a process that’s barely remembered and rarely referenced.
True, Trump’s plan redrew the boundaries lines of the two-state solution, but neither the Palestinians or the Israelis loved the map he published, not on the Left and not on the Right.
Just when it seemed that he was heading along the path of Bush an Obama, Trump appeared to rescue the situation earlier this month as he put forward the US-brokered UAE-Israel peace deal.
All Trump needs is one signed deal to go down in history, and any more would send him into a presidential hall of fame. Should he win the elections in November, he is likely well on his way. If not, it seems reasonable that in the three months left to November, he could finalize all the details so Israel could sign an agreement, at least with the UAE, given the deep desire between both Israel and the Emirates to make peace. In practice, he could even have until he left office in January 2021.
But Trump’s fate has been tied with Netanyahu, who has also courted both heads of state and the ballot box. Since collapsing the government in December 2018, Netanyahu has dazzled Israeli voters with one diplomatic achievement after the other, but none has benefited more than the Right.
Within in months, annexation went from a diplomatic taboo to an electoral necessity.
Netanyahu secured US acceptance of the validity of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. He topped that with Trump’s inclusion of Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements within the context of his peace plan, giving Israel 30% of the West Bank irrespective of the outcome of negotiations with the Palestinians.
But just like Trump has been tied to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister has been fettered to the fate of the US president.
First and foremost of course, Netanyahu needed a government to authorize annexation, or he couldn’t do it. Once he had a government in May, that government had to act prior to November to ensure Trump support. For months annexation seemed like an imminent certainty.
Then two weeks ago, together with Trump Netanyahu traded annexation for the UAE deal, suspending it at the Arab state’s request, thereby closing that window for annexation.
There were many reasons, of course for the UAE to come to the table, among them Iran, economics and the possibility of a better military deal with the US, particularly the F-35.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash clarified last week that the very real possibility of Israeli West Bank sovereignty helped sway his country to make a deal with Israel, so that it could prevent that kind of annexation.
In other words, annexation’s strength as a playing cards is dependent on its viability.
The Israel-UAE deal might have been in the works for a while, but it came out of the shadows only once Israel had a government that could annex.
This means that for the next three months, Netanyahu will have to play a very subtle game, in which he abides by the agreement with the UAE to suspend annexation, but still keeps the idea alive, so that it remains an incentive for other Arab states. It’s a move that helps him electorally as well, given that his strongest voter base has always been the right.
But it also means that he needs a government. Had the government fallen, that very important trading card of annexation would have fallen with it. The threat of annexation then could only have been revived as a diplomatic trading card with a Netanyahu and Trump electoral win. The stakes are particularly high on the US end, given that US democratic contender Joe Biden has already said he is opposed to annexation.
If Netanyahu wants to race into the history books with Trump over the next three months, his best bet, from now and through November, is to keep the government afloat.