It was a historic day, on two fronts. At the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his peace plan, which almost outflanked Likud’s platform on the right. In Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted, joining Ehud Olmert in the small but very nonexclusive club of Israeli prime ministers who have faced trial.
Only the ramifications of the White House events remain unclear; it’s clear that Netanyahu can no longer evade prosecution.
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Tuesday morning, the Israeli media were still agog over Trump’s rare meeting with opposition leader Benny Gantz. But the ceremony Tuesday evening (Israel time) showed where Trump’s real sympathies lie.
The plan’s unveiling was delayed two years, but it’s not clear why. After all, Trump adopted the vast majority of Netanyahu’s positions. Netanyahu repaid him with lavish praise that will be recalled endlessly when Trump courts evangelical voters in the November election.
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The U.S. proposal was also Trump’s last attempt to rescue Netanyahu from his political bind. Before Israel’s April election, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Now, judging by his statements on Tuesday, he’s also apparently willing to recognize Israeli sovereignty over much of the West Bank. And Netanyahu may annex this territory even before the election in early March.
If so, this would be a real revolution, far more important than a peace plan that will never be implemented. But it entails serious risk.
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Aside from some pertinent statements about his vision for regional peace, Trump’s speech was simplistic, reflecting little knowledge of the details but enormous self-love and pride in his achievements, whether real or imagined. The audience applauded wildly.
The Israeli right will have to swallow some frogs (a Palestinian state with a capital in some of East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods), but they’re so theoretical as to be easily digestible. True, the Yesha Council of Settlements voiced objections, but for most rightists, the proposal is a dream come true – not that of two states coexisting peacefully, but of Israeli annexation and sovereignty that effectively blocks any possibility of a viable Palestinian state, creating a collection of Bantustans with no real territorial contiguity.
Netanyahu made a great effort to sell Trump’s plan as a historic event, likening it to the U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948. He and his hosts can claim in their favor Britain’s statement welcoming the plan and the presence at the press conference of three Gulf State ambassadors.
The big question for Netanyahu is whether Trump’s show of support will help him win votes in March. At the White House, standing beside the president, he looked like a victorious statesman. His indictments weren’t mentioned.
These are the two images that will compete with each other until March 2, the podium in Washington and the dock in the Jerusalem District Court. In a little over a month, we’ll find out which better describes Netanyahu’s situation.
But even before the election, perhaps as early as this week, a decision will made on whether to exploit America’s support to annex territory. Did Trump give Netanyahu a green light? Gantz’s team left his meeting with Trump with the clear impression that he did not. But Channel 12’s Amit Segal reported that Netanyahu will on Sunday approve the annexation of not just the Jordan Valley, but all West Bank settlements.
In a briefing for Israeli journalists, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman took the middle ground: Israel can apply sovereignty, but only to limited areas of the West Bank. If the Knesset is asked to approve such a step before the election, the opposition will face a dilemma. Yisrael Beiteinu will have trouble opposing the move; Kahol Lavan MKs will probably split their votes.
It’s important to remember that this whole debate is taking place ex parte. Not only did the Palestinians take no part in the festivities, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Trump’s peace team for two years. However, he did speak by phone Tuesday with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, ending a long rift.
Moreover, in contrast to the Gulf States’ implied support for Trump’s plan, Jordan is terrified of it. Annexing the Jordan Valley would cause a crisis in Israel’s relations with Jordan and endanger the peace treaty, even if it isn’t immediately annulled.
Wednesday has been declared a day of rage in the territories, but Trump’s plan won’t translate into an immediate wave of violence. Most West Bank Palestinians are mainly concerned about earning a living and are in no rush to risk themselves in a national struggle.
But any real-world step like annexing territory could be a very different story. It might well spark violent riots that could spread and continue for a long time.
In Washington on Tuesday, we saw the pretty side. But some Israeli defense officials are even more worried than usual right now.