Analysis

As the White House Holds Back on Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Concerned Senators Step In

The Trump administration is waiting for Israel's election dust to settle before releasing its peace plan; meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority threatens to collapse

Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, March 25, 2019.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Palestinian security forces in the West Bank this week arrested members of an Islamic Jihad squad that tried to build the infrastructure for manufacturing rockets. Three of the organization’s members were arrested in Tul Karm with a model of a homemade rocket in their possession.

This incident brings to light two truths that official Israeli and Palestinian Authority spokesmen prefer not to comment on publicly, in any detail. First, that the security coordination between the side continues to work well, despite political tensions, with the PA contributing in a meaningful way to Israeli security. Second, that without Israeli aid, there is a likely danger that the PA would collapse under the pressure being wielded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rests in large measure on Israel’s backing.

Only once in the past decade was that perception acknowledged openly by a senior Israeli figure. Gadi Shamni, at the time the head of Central Command, aroused the anger of the PA when he told the truth. Later, in 2014, Israel uncovered a network of almost 100 Hamas activists in the West Bank, who were aiming to carry out an ambitious plan to perpetrate extensive terrorist attacks against Israelis and to topple the PA. (According to foreign reports, when the Israelis displayed documentation from the interrogation of the network’s leader, Abbas toughened his attitude toward Hamas, just before the start of Operation Protective Edge.)

Behind the scenes, even when Netanyahu and Abbas argue over the PA’s financial aid to Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel, the facts of this cooperation are known to all, and the sides behave accordingly. That includes the U.S. administration, which doesn’t necessarily excel in its understanding of what’s happening in the territories.

The relevant people in the administration, in particular those in the Pentagon, are well aware of the danger of a security crisis erupting in the West Bank, but the White House is not fully attentive to it. The small team that’s in charge of the “peace process” was jolted earlier this month when Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, announced his resignation. This week Greenblatt held a series of farewell events in Jerusalem, which, as was the case with all his visits to the region in the past two years, did not include even a single meeting with Palestinian Authority officials.

The political crisis in Israel in the wake of the election has made it even less likely that the Trump administration will release its peace plan in the near future. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, had planned to spend these weeks after the vote in Israel in advanced preparations ahead of the plan’s publication. The last public opinion polls conducted before the election, which anticipated a very small gap between the parties that support the prime minister and those that oppose him, encouraged the White House to think the peace plan would be a post-election tie-breaker that would contribute to the establishment of a government in Jerusalem.

But in reality the results prompted the Americans to freeze their plans while they wait for the coalition picture to become clear. What they’re most wary of is revealing the plan during coalition talks, only to discover that their move changes nothing and also does not help to advance the peace process. The plan, which is already being ridiculed by many in Washington, would become a joke. So the White House prefers to wait for now and not be humiliated.

This is the third time in less than a year that Kushner and his team have postponed publicizing their plan because of the protracted political crisis in Israel. The first postponement occurred after an election was called last December, for April 9. The second came after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition after that vote. The White House is no longer committing itself to dates; this week, officials announced that “we will publish the plan at the most appropriate time.”

Irrespective of what happens in Jerusalem, Kushner is likely to be busy with another matter in the weeks ahead: the impeachment proceedings that were launched this week in Congress – the opening volley of the 2020 election campaign. Kushner is playing a key role in Trump’s re-election ampaign, and it’s not clear how much time, if any, he will have now to deal with Israeli-Palestinian issues. The person doing the team’s legwork at the moment is Avi Berkowitz, Kushner’s 30-year-old right-hand man, whose main experience is in dealing with the media.

In the absence of White House involvement, AIPAC went into action in an attempt to avert a deterioration in the security situation in Israel and the territories: Officials from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington were in contact with senators from both parties in recent weeks to ensure that U.S. aid to the PA’s security forces would be assured in the next budget – and those moves apparently had the quiet but emphatic support of senior security officials in Israel.

The Senate’s annual budget proposal, released this week, includes a $75-million allocation for the PA’s security units – double what the United States transferred to them in the previous year. Signing off on the proposal is Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), who is known for his consistent support of Israel. Graham pushed for this significant allotment for the Palestinian forces despite attempts during the past year by right-wingers in the U.S. to end all American aid to the Palestinians – even at the cost of an economic and security debacle in the West Bank.

“In the past, it was administration officials who ensured this support, no matter whether it was a Democratic or a Republican administration,” a source in Congress who was involved in drawing up the draft budget told Haaretz. “This year, if it hadn’t been for senators who are familiar with the region and understand the importance of these forces in maintaining stability, it probably would not have been included in the budget.”

Graham is also pushing a separate bill, which has bipartisan support, to transfer $50 million to organizations that promote economic development as well as coexistence and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. This proposal, too, has the support of AIPAC and of leading American Jewish groups. The original plan was for the legislation to constitute a “supplementary factor” that would bolster Kushner’s peace plan. At the moment, it looks set to be the only expression of American commitment of any kind to advancing peaceful relations between the two peoples in the near future.