Netanyahu can now swing Right or Left on Trump deal

The deal may have saved the Trump administration’s peace deal by rescuing Netanyahu from what was shaping up to be a suicidal choice between the Israeli Right or the US President.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a strange way, Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz might have just given his political arch-rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a lifeline when it comes to his diplomatic legacy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The deal between the two men on Monday night didn’t just end the 17 months of electoral turmoil, during which Israel endured a historic, never-before-seen cycle of three back-to-back elections.
It has also possibly saved the Trump administration’s peace deal, by rescuing Netanyahu from what was shaping up to be a suicidal choice between the Israeli Right or the US president.
With regard to the former, Netanyahu could have lost his political base and possibly his government. With the latter, he could have lost the support of his chief diplomatic ally, US President Donald Trump.
It’s a Gordian knot of a dilemma, which has crystalized in the last three months. The Israeli Right has applauded the portion of the Trump plan that allows for the application of sovereignty over 30% of Area C in the West Bank. It has, however, simultaneously insisted that Netanyahu reject the part of the plan that supports the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the remaining 70%.
The Trump administration has linked authorization of sovereignty to Israeli support for a demilitarized Palestinian state.
Netanyahu had already agreed to the creation of such a state in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, but that was eleven years ago.
Former Justice Minister MK Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) in recent weeks has minced no words in issuing such a threat, stating that a right-wing government that supports a Palestinian state had no right to exist.
THE CONFLICT between sovereignty and statehood, between Trump and the Israeli Right, was evident almost immediately on Monday night. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman issued a congratulatory statement to both Netanyahu and Gantz. With Trump’s peace plan hanging in the balance, it's presumed that this was the outcome the president most desired.
The Yamina Party, headed by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, one of the initial architects of the sovereignty campaign, cynically noted that it was no longer politically relevant, stating that “Netanyahu is showing us the way out.”
Throughout the three election cycles from December 2018 until March 2020, Netanyahu campaigned for a right-wing government. He painted the right-leaning centrist Gantz as a left-wing radical.
At almost every turn, Netanyahu insisted that these elections were a choice between Left and Right, between annexation and concession, between Israel’s existential right to exist and the creation of a failed Palestinian state that would be led by terrorists, akin to the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Over the last 17 months, Netanyahu continually insisted that the only way forward for Israel was a right-wing bloc. He held to this even when, in each election, Likud and Blue and White represented the largest voter bloc.
Then, in a sudden turnaround, Netanyahu pivoted in Gantz’s direction, just as the Blue and White leader proved once again that he could not form a government. In addition, Gantz’s party split and a poll showed that his electoral support had plummeted.
According to the same poll, Netanyahu had strengthened his hold on power. The data showed that the Likud Party could receive 40 seats in a fourth election and a Netanyahu led right-wing bloc would gain enough support for a government with 64 seats. The last time the Likud had 40 seats was almost 20 years ago under former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
A fourth election would have been a gamble, sure. But Netanyahu has weathered so many such gambles only to prove his mastery of Israeli political chess.
ONE COULD ascribe high motives to Netanyahu and argue that he may have pivoted to Gantz over a sense of national responsibility in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or he may have been consumed by personal ambition and have feared Gantz’s legislative power when it came to passing laws that would have made it impossible for him to lead the country while under indictment.
But certainly, part of the equation was likely a new understanding of the diplomatic and political dangers that a totally right-wing government posed to him, particularly given Yamina’s opposition to portions of the Trump deal.
In a fourth election, Netanyahu might keep his mantle as leader of the Right, only to watch his right-wing government crash over the issue of Palestinian statehood. The placement of Gantz in Netanyahu’s coalition means that the prime minister is no longer bound by the narrow agenda of a right-wing government when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
True, the deal limits Netanyahu’s sphere of action to 18 months, opening the door suddenly to the possibility that Netanyahu’s 11-year prime ministerial reign may come to an end.
Expectations are high that Netanyahu will find a way to stay in power in spite of the agreement reached between him and Gantz on Monday night regarding a rotating premiership that would put Gantz at the country’s helm in 18 months.
If the agreement holds, then Netanyahu has just a year and a half to make a lasting mark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he has already played such a dominant role. It’s likely that he doesn’t need that long. Flexibility, rather than longevity, is likely more critical at this juncture.
According to everyone’s calendar, the next eight months – from now until the US elections in November 2020 – are the period that matters most when it comes to advancing a right-wing agenda vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: specifically, the annexation of West Bank settlements.
The Trump plan places all the settlements under a sovereign Israel. That sovereignty can be applied in the initial stage of a four-year peace process, but only upon completion of a joint Israeli-Palestinian mapping process and the approval of the White House.
FEARS THAT Trump could be voted out of office in November and replaced by the presumptive Democratic contender Joe Biden, a sovereignty opponent, makes this a make-or-break moment for what has been a 52-year dream for the settlement movement.
Polls showing that Biden is leading over Trump have only underscored the urgency on sovereignty. It has also increased the pressure on Trump to cater to the Evangelical voters by supporting Israeli sovereignty.
Netanyahu has enough votes in this government to approve sovereignty. His agreement with Gantz allows him to move forward on the matter. But without Gantz’s bloc, which would likely include the Labor Party, he would have had to cave in on Palestinian statehood.
If Trump had balked on sovereignty, a solely right-wing government would have had to go forward anyway.
But with Gantz, Netanyahu can lean Right when he wants to on sovereignty and Left on Palestinian statehood. He can afford to threaten right-wing politicians with a modified sovereignty or no sovereignty, unless they toe the line on statehood.
A Gantz union places Netanyahu back in the driver seat so he can leave his legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by crafting the peace deal that he wants.
It’s a situation that gives him maximum gain and minimal losses.
Even a Gantz premiership could be a win in this scenario. Netanyahu wouldn’t have to worry about the outcome, because with a four-year timetable, the execution of the deal would likely be left to Gantz. If Gantz succeeds, Netanyahu would claim the credit. If Gantz fails, Netanyahu could blame him for ruining his deal.
Either way, the Gantz union increases Netanyahu’s chances of entering the history books as the Israeli leader who applied sovereignty to the West Bank and approved the framework for a peace deal.