WASHINGTON — Jared Kushner couldn’t have chosen a worse time to come to Israel. His trip to the Middle East, which was planned long before Israel’s current political crisis erupted, was supposed to focus on one goal: Bolstering the economic peace conference that is scheduled to take place in Bahrain on June 25-26. Now, after the Knesset voted to dissolve itself, the Gulf workshop is no longer on top of anyone’s agenda.
Following the declaration of a new election in Israel on September 17, which Netanyahu rode off as a "little event," the first person to bring up the fate of Kushner’s Middle East peace plan was the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. He stated that the plan — known in the Middle East as “the deal of the century” — has now become “the deal of the next century.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also predicted that the plan might never see the light of day.
The Trump peace team, led by Kushner, is facing a difficult decision and a big credibility test. They promised to unveil the economic part of their plan in June, and sooner or later to also publish its political section. Now that Israel is facing a new general election, however, there is a question mark hanging over those commitments.
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Last September, at a speech before the UN General Assembly, President Donald Trump declared that the peace plan would be presented by February 2019 at the latest — yet when Netanyahu dissolved his own governing coalition last December and led Israel into the April 9 election, the White House chose Netanyahu’s political schedule over Trump’s own timetable and delayed the release of the plan.
No one will be shocked if the newly declared Israeli election will lead to another delay, regardless of what the administration may say in the near future.
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A State Department official said Wednesday that the Bahrain conference will happen regardless of developments in Israel. But does that mean the economic chapter will still be presented? And what about the political part? No one has any answers.
During the recent Israeli election campaign, the Trump administration was an active participant, seemingly doing everything in its power to help Netanyahu. Trump praised Bibi in public appearances; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights two weeks before Election Day; and sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tour the Western Wall together with the prime minister.
Trump’s political aid didn’t end on Election Day, though. Just this week, he blatantly interfered in the Israeli democratic process by tweeting that he hoped to see Netanyahu overcome the coalition crisis and form a government.
This kind of interference is not unique to Trump — previous U.S. presidents had done similar things before — but Trump, as usual, took it to extremes, setting new records for meddling in Israeli politics.
All of these actions have only strengthened the Palestinians’ suspicions over the administration’s peace plan. They believe the plan will be extremely one-sided and tilted toward the positions of the Israeli right-wing. Trump’s support for Netanyahu during the election campaign certainly didn’t help Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, convince anyone otherwise.
Kushner and Greenblatt could theoretically decide they have already done everything in their power to help Netanyahu and that now, after he failed to build a coalition, they will no longer delay the release of the peace plan just to suit his political schedule.
But such a decision seems very unlikely from an administration that seems more interested in receiving praise from Netanyahu (who is very popular among Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters) than in promoting its own peace plan.
On Tuesday, we warned that “the White House has allowed Netanyahu so far to set the schedule of its own peace plan; now the administration is finding out that Netanyahu’s own schedule is being set by Avigdor Lieberman.”
This turned out to be painfully true for the Trump peace team. If they are serious about their peace plan, they will not allow Lieberman — the leader of a small party that only won five seats in the April election — to dictate their schedule. But if they go for another delay, they risk losing momentum ahead of the Bahrain conference — and their own credibility in the long run.