The price of peace negotiations: Stormy Daniels for Israeli settlements?

Is Trump’s comment that Israel might pay a ‘higher price’ in future negotiations because of his moving the embassy to Jerusalem somehow tied to his mounting legal woes?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, 2018 (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, 2018
In February 2004, just a couple months after prime minister Ariel Sharon unveiled his dramatic plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, right-wing National Union MK Zvi Hendel used a phrase that since then has been recycled on many different occasions: The depth of the withdrawal will be equal to the depth of the investigation (K’omek ha’hakira, kach omek ha’nesiga).
Hendel’s point was simple: Sharon at the time was under investigation for alleged bribery in the Greek Islands Affair, and as a result wanted to create a smoke screen and deflect attention with a dramatic diplomatic initiative.
Since that time, the Right has used similar language to describe Ehud Olmert’s peacemaking efforts when he was negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007-2008 while under police investigation. It has also used this phrase to articulate fears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – also under investigation – may at some point in time offer major concessions of his own to win over the Left and get them to forget about allegations of his wrongdoings.
This week, however, that line of reasoning was taken to absurd new heights when the airwaves were filled with politicians and pundits being asked whether Hendel’s aphorism could be applied to US President Donald Trump, and whether the president’s comments in West Virginia on Tuesday about Israel having to pay a “higher price” in future negotiations with the Palestinians because of his moving the embassy to Jerusalem was somehow tied to his mounting legal woes.
Trump – in a long, stream-of-consciousness speech at a campaign rally in West Virginia that swung from talking about pressing “Jean-Claude” and the Europeans to pay more for their own defense, to how his mother used to make Thanksgiving turkey – listed some of what he believes to be the key achievements of his tenure.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy there – he said to loud cheering and applause – was among them. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem, he said, was a “good thing to have done” for the cause of peace, because it took the Jerusalem issue – which has so long hamstrung negotiations – “off the table.”
“So I said let’s take it off the table,” he declared. “And you know what? In the negotiation Israel will have to pay a higher price because they won a very big thing.” He then added that the Palestinians will now “get something very good because it’s their turn next.”
Those words, which came in the 69th minute of a 75-minute speech, were understandably highlighted the next day in the Israeli media.
But it was clear from the context of the speech – at a campaign rally for a Republican senatorial candidate – that these words were not part of a well-thought-out Trump doctrine on the Middle East.
Bolton: There was never quid pro quo for Jerusalem embassy move, August 22, 2018 (Ziv Sokolov/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)
Rather, as visiting US National Security Adviser John Bolton said during a press conference the following morning, these words reflected the president, as a businessman, articulating his deeply held conviction that there are no free lunches, and that if you get something in negotiations, you are obviously going to have to give something else up in return.
“I don’t think there is change of policy,” Bolton explained. “As a deal maker, as a bargainer, he would expect, you would expect, I would expect, that the Palestinians would say, ‘So we didn’t get that one, so we’ll get something else, and we’ll see how it goes.’”
This was not the first time Trump had articulated this way of thinking – he tweeted a similar comment in January – and as a result it did not take anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office, in constant contact with the Trump administration, that much by surprise.
As US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, US Ambassador David Friedman, White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt said in a statement nine days ago about their much-awaited but long-delayed peace plan, “No one will be fully pleased with our proposal, but that’s the way it must be if real peace is to be achieved. Peace can only succeed if it is based on realities.”
Trump’s comment, however, led to the head-scratching use in the Israeli media of Hendel’s line, as if Trump’s legal woes – which seemed to peak Tuesday – somehow triggered his comment about Israel having to pay a “higher price” down the line. How else, this reasoning goes, could one explain that these statements were made on the very same day that Trump aide Paul Manafort was convicted, and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen “started to sing”?
But, despite what some of us like to think, it is not all about us, all the time. Not everything in the world revolves around, or is connected to, Israel and the Palestinians. There is no trade-off here – this is not Stormy Daniels for Yitzhar, Cohen for Hebron.
Tuesday afternoon’s dramatic legal developments are not what prompted Trump to make his off-the cuff comments about the Middle East peace negotiations that night. Hendel’s line does not apply here.
WHICH DOES not mean, however, that Trump’s legal situation will not impact on the US administration’s peace plan, or when to roll it out. It’s just that there is no cause and effect; Trump will not now demand major Israeli concessions to deflect the investigations against him.
The recent legal developments will add even more to Trump’s already full plate. In addition to everything else vying for his attention – North Korea, Iran, trade wars, the wall with Mexico, other domestic issues – the legal issues that have dogged him from the very beginning will now be taking up a lot more space. Which means that Trump will have less room, energy and attention for the Middle East.
What Trump’s legal entanglement has done immediately is make it imperative for him to make sure that if the Democrats – as many predict – recapture the House of Representatives in November, they will not also be able to win the Senate. This is no longer just an issue of what a Democratic-led or split Congress would do to the political agenda Trump is trying to push, but what it would mean for the possibility of impeachment.
A simple majority in the House, but a two-thirds majority in the Senate, is needed to impeach a US president, meaning the upcoming election is, conceivably, a campaign as well for Trump’s political life. Though the odds of impeachment are extremely long, retaining Republican control of the Senate has taken on a new urgency for the president. That, and not the Mideast, will be where his attention is channeled.
The second major point of impact on the Middle East relates to when the plan will be rolled out. For months there has been talk of an imminent rollout, with reports in May saying it would happen after the end of Ramadan in June. Ramadan came and went, but there was no plan. There is a political dimension to the rollout; actually, a number of political dimensions – both American and Israeli.
As far as the American election season is concerned, there are those arguing that Trump will not present the plan before the November midterm elections, since he will not want to do anything to alienate any part of his base – a base he will need to come out in full force and vote.
And this base includes Evangelicals, for whom Israel is an important issue. Trump received a rousing ovation in West Virginia when he spoke of the Jerusalem embassy move – he was speaking to his base, and that base very much approves of that step. How would they react, however, if the plan he presents includes Israeli concessions opposed by the Israeli government? How wise is that electorally? In a critical election, why test it?
There is, however, an opposite argument to be made as well – and that is that the Trump base loves when he fulfills campaign promises. He said he would cut taxes, he cut taxes. He said he would withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal, he withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal. He said he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he moved the US Embassy. It is precisely that type of action that has enamored him to his base. So what happens if he says he will present a Mideast peace plan, and then doesn’t do so?
There are also Israeli electoral considerations to be mindful of. How will the rollout of the plan, if it includes deep Israeli concessions, impact on the Israeli voters who will be going to the polls sometime next year? Does Trump want to see Israel go to the polls in the wake of a US plan that calls for concessions that will not make much of Netanyahu’s core constituency happy? Does this matter to Trump? How badly does he want to see Netanyahu remain in office?
Trump’s legal problems also impact on the Mideast diplomatic process in another way – they influence the Palestinians.
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, during instant commentary on Trump’s West Virginia speech, said in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday that it was obvious the US president was trying to win his way back into the hearts of the Palestinian Authority so that they will see his plan as a basis for negotiations. So far the PA has rejected the plan sight unseen.
Come back to the table, Trump was saying to the Palestinians – at least according to Hanegbi’s interpretation – because you have a lot to gain.
The PA’s characterization of Trump’s statement as “worthless,” however, shows that it is not going to be easy for Trump to win back the confidence of the PA, which views this administration as heavily and unfairly tilted in Israel’s favor. Trump’s legal entanglements will not make an already difficult job any easier.
The Palestinians’ rejection of the US plan – again, without having seen it – and the PA’s absolute refusal to deal with Greenblatt, Kushner and Friedman, show that they are biding their time; that they have concluded that they can wait out this US president, and that in another two years, if not sooner, Trump will be out of office, and a more sympathetic Democratic president will have taken his place.
The courtroom troubles Trump faced this week only reinforced that way of thinking.