A demonstrative shrug by a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entourage on the plane home from his visits to Washington and Moscow pretty much said it all on Thursday.
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Reporters aboard the plane asked what had changed between the bombastic statements about annexing all the settlements as early as next week’s cabinet meeting, and the ice-cold water poured on it by the White House on Wednesday. “I hope nothing has changed,” he replied.
Later, a tortuous explanation was offered. It was all just a “technical problem.” According to another senior official aboard the plane, who was asked to explain the confusion, Israel wanted to annex the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and the West Bank settlements as a kind of first instalment, and then, in a second wave, the areas around those settlements, for a total area of 30 percent of the West Bank. “But the Americans only want it all in one go, and this will take time.”
Obviously, this “technical” explanation doesn’t reflect the whole reality. In numerous briefings and interviews in recent days, senior U.S. officials – including current and former members of the “peace team” headed by Jared Kushner – made it clear that there’s a more fundamental problem: Netanyahu’s rush to annex is ruining the launch of the plan on which they labored for three years. Immediate annexation wasn’t their intention. And the announcement wasn’t even coordinated with them.
The story gets even more intricate. According to Israeli and American sources, the person urging Netanyahu to annex straight away was none other than U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – a generous donor to the settlement enterprise, who has often seemed more like Netanyahu’s ambassador than Donald Trump’s. According to these officials, he did this without Kushner’s knowledge, and not for the first time.
Friedman, Netanyahu and their associates briefed Israeli journalists about the plan in a way that emphasized annexation while downplaying elements altogether less satisfactory to the right – like the establishment of a Palestinian state in the remaining 70 percent of the West Bank, connected to the Gaza Strip, with its capital in East Jerusalem. For the next four years at least, Israel will be forbidden to change the status quo in that area, in order to give the Palestinians time to change their mind and enter negotiations.
It looks like Trump, as he once told Netanyahu – a remark dismissed in Israel at the time as a slip of the tongue – really does like the two-state solution better.
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To sell the plan to rightists when, despite its clear tilt toward Israel, it has Palestinian statehood as a foundation, required a little bit of magic. Playing up annexation was the necessary sleight of hand.
Only thus could Netanyahu recruit settler leaders, who, until the very last moment, vehemently opposed even the slightest prospect of a Palestinian state. The evening before the launch, they laid siege to Blair House, where Netanyahu was staying, until the wee hours of the morning to make sure he got the message.
But Netanyahu’s spin shattered their resistance. Rightists literally sang and danced after hearing Trump’s speech, even though it was, eventually, also about Palestinian suffering and dividing the land they want whole.
The illusion continued during a briefing for journalists right after the White House launch, with Netanyahu promising to bring an annexation proposal to the cabinet the very next week. The brakes the Americans publicly applied the next day hurt Israel’s right far more because the prime minister made this explicit promise. Had Netanyahu not rushed, as usual, to brag and commit to a specific date, the disappointment might have been less intense.
A new talking point has now been introduced. It says that rightists should be satisfied with the “enormous achievement” of American recognition — in principle — of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements. “As if, without immediate annexation, nothing has been achieved,” Netanyahu’s aides scoff, rebuking anyone who dares to complain that he sold them a bill of goods about the upcoming cabinet meeting. “What difference does it make whether it’s this week or afterwards?”
The Trump administration is now pondering how to get out of the corner into which Netanyahu and Friedman has them backed. The plan does propose that all the settlements remain under Israeli control, but the administration apparently intended this to happen as part of a comprehensive agreement, or at least appear to be, in order to retain the Arab cooperation Kushner worked so hard to secure.
Trump himself said a committee would be established to delineate the borders, and Kushner has already said its work won’t be finished before Israel’s March 2 election. Maybe they’ll give Netanyahu a consolation prize – a mini-annexation to tide him over. But other sources say the Trump administration is leaning against compromising on this issue; it would rather wait and see who forms the next government.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s rival, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, is accumulating some mileage with Washington; he has been cooperating with the White House on the plan for some time. His visit to the U.S. capital this week was seen as a success, and they’re preparing for the possibility that he’ll be the one to implement the plan.
In a rather clever maneuver against Netanyahu, Gantz has already announced that he’ll bring the full plan in front of the Knesset to seek its approval. After all, the right won’t be able to approve it in full – and that will maybe prove the hypocrisy of it all.
The United States Embassy in Israel refused to comment on the claims regarding Ambassador Friedman's involvement in the matter.