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US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum.(Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
What will come first - Elections or U.S. peace plan rollout?
By YAAKOV KATZ
11/09/2018
If the Palestinians refuse to come to the table, the parameters laid down by Trump would serve as a new starting point for any future administration looking to advance a peace deal.
Two clocks are ticking, one in Jerusalem and one in Washington. The problem is that for the time being, they are not synchronized.

With the midterm elections over in the US, President Donald Trump now has the bandwidth and time to shift his focus back to foreign policy issues, including the so-called “deal of the century” that he longs to broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The finishing touches are being put on the plan, and it could be rolled out as early as next month or in January.

The problem is that the US schedule doesn’t seem to match up with Israel’s schedule, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently toying with the idea of moving up the elections, scheduled now for November 2019. No one in the coalition believes the government will last until then, and almost everyone thinks something – either the haredi draft bill or Netanyahu’s criminal investigations – will prompt the prime minister to dissolve the government in the coming months.

This is important because if the government is dissolved in December, there would be no point in rolling out a peace deal that Israel will not be able to embrace. While Netanyahu is expected, according to polls, to remain prime minister after the elections, the Americans remember the sharp turn he made to the far Right during the 2015 campaign, when he said that under his watch there would never be a Palestinian state.

Did Netanyahu really mean what he said, or was it a last-ditch effort – which succeeded – to pull right-wing votes away from Bayit Yehudi and his nemesis Naftali Bennett? Either way, since being reelected in 2015, he hasn’t engaged in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

This scenario could easily repeat itself if the Americans roll out a peace plan as Israel heads to elections. If the plan calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Bennett could use that to his favor and attack Netanyahu, who would be caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he would be expected to embrace the plan that had been forged by an administration that he claims is the most pro-Israel in American history. But if he does embrace it, he gives ammunition to his political adversaries.
If, however, Netanyahu distances himself from the plan, this could also have far-reaching implications and create an unprecedented rift between him and Trump.

Since Trump’s election, Netanyahu has worked hard to forge close ties with the president and his administration. Part of this was an effort by the prime minister to show the Israeli public that after clashing with two democratic presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – he knew not only how to get along with a president, but also how to derive strategic assets from that relationship. If he says no to the plan because of political calculations during elections, he could be undermining that very relationship, a move that could also have political consequences.

It seems the Americans know this and are therefore going to wait a bit longer to see what is decided with the Israeli elections. If, for example, Israel seems to be heading to elections sooner rather than later, Trump will wait. If, however, elections appear to remain on schedule for the end of next year, the peace plan will be rolled out in the coming months.

WHILE THE plan seems to be in its final stages, what remains unclear is how the administration will succeed in getting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sit down for negotiations. Abbas’s feeling until now has been that the Trump administration is biased against him – it has cut funding to UNRWA, has passed the Taylor Force Act, moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and cozied up with his adversary Netanyahu.

It seems Trump’s thinking is that by lowering the bar, he could draw Abbas back to the table by offering him a few carrots with the rollout of the deal. It will be interesting to see if that works. But even if it doesn’t, there is still something to gain from unveiling a plan, even if predictions that the Palestinians will refuse to negotiate turn out to be right.

The first benefit is moving the goalpost. The content of the Trump deal remains a closely-guarded secret. Nevertheless, and based on the administration’s actions and public statements by its officials, it will be different from the Clinton parameters or the plan put forth in 2014 by then-secretary of state John Kerry.

For far too long, the world has been fixated on a framework for peace that has proven to be unrealistic, mostly because the most Israel could offer never meets the minimum the Palestinians could accept.

Will that change now? I don’t know. But even if the Palestinians refuse to come to the table, the parameters laid down by Trump would serve as a new starting point for any future administration looking to advance a peace deal. The goalpost will have been moved and when peace talks are finally launched – whenever that might be – the starting point will be different than it was before. If Obama and Kerry wanted 1967 lines, Trump’s deal might call for something else. And if Clinton wanted Israel out of almost all of the West Bank, the Trump deal might suggest a different idea.

The fact that Israel is warming up – in an unprecedented way – to the Gulf states creates conditions that could also help usher in a new deal. If Abbas rejects the deal, but Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates publicly say it has positive elements, the Palestinian leadership will find itself in a tough spot.

If Netanyahu is headed to elections, the pending peace deal could also play a role in the parties he decides to invite to join his new coalition. If, for example, he brings in Bennett and Bayit Yehudi, he will have inserted into his coalition an automatic opponent to a Palestinian state. If, on the other hand, he tries to establish a coalition with Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, he might have quiet inside the government, but he will be giving Bennett a platform – in the opposition – from which to attack him daily. As a result, it might be better to keep him inside the tent, even if he will be slightly adversarial.

After past deals were proposed by US administrations, Israel usually answered “Yes, but” and the Palestinians usually responded with “No, but.” Will that happen this time? Time will tell. The clock to the unveiling of Trump’s deal of the century is counting down.
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