U.S. President Donald Trump plans to publish his peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians by Tuesday and invite Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to the White House. We may now, with hindsight, decode some of what transpired in the past week.
It seems the prime minister and his Kahol Lavan rival both knew what Washington was cooking up. In Netanyahu’s case, this would be no surprise, given his close bond with Trump. But it’s clear Gantz was in the loop as well.
This explains Netanyahu’s bid to outflank Gantz by again raising the proposal to annex the Jordan Valley. Kahol Lavan had to respond, but it seemed forced and awkward – Gantz’s party was ready for annexation if it was coordinated with the international community.
On Wednesday Barak Ravid reported on Channel 13 of the White House’s objection to unilateral steps by Israel in the Jordan Valley. Yesterday, Amit Segal’s report on Channel 12 showed why. The American administration wants to dictate the rules of the game. That means Netanyahu won’t bring up, as some Likud MKs believe, the annexation bill for a first vote in the Knesset next week. But the moment the president publishes his plan, things could change.
Officials in the administration have hinted in the past that Israel could take steps that correspond with the plan once it accepts the proposal.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, Trump’s “deal of the century” is stillborn. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas already rejected its principles some two years ago and severed almost all diplomatic ties with the administration. But if Netanyahu says “yes” to the plan – a move that could cost him the support of some of his voters on the right – he could, on the face of it, get an blank check from Trump to go ahead with the annexation.
It could be applied to the Jordan Valley or, in a more extreme scenario, to all the settlements, perhaps except the enclaves surrounded by Palestinians. The question is whether Netanyahu will choose such a move before the Knesset election on March 2. The temptation for the Israeli right is enormous, but the full price Netanyahu will have to pay has not yet been presented.
Before starting the celebrations, the officials would do well to consider the possible risks. For some three years, Military Intelligence has been warning the government about the risk of violence erupting in the West Bank. Since the last, short-lived, mini-intifada faded out in the summer of 2016, the West Bank has been mostly quiet. The calm is explained as fatigue verging on indifference on the part of most of the Palestinian public. The Palestinians are preoccupied with trying to improve their economic situation and perhaps are disillusioned over their ability to make any move to further the cause of a Palestinian state.
But a peace deal that would be interpreted as an Israeli-American conspiracy could push the Palestinian Authority to desperate moves, like igniting a wave of protests or even, as happened after the failure of the Camp David peace conference in 2000, encourage large-scale terror acts. This would change everything.
There also remains the question of the impact on Jordan. When Netanyahu raised the issue of annexing the Jordan Valley before the last election, in September, he was warned by the defense establishment heads of the likely harsh implications of such a move. King Abdullah has already threatened that annexing the valley would lead to the canceling of the peace agreement with his country. The king’s anxiety is justified: There’s already an accumulation of forces in Jordan striving to topple him.
With the American peace team almost fully in line with Likud’s platform, the political deck in Israel is being reshuffled. Trump yesterday threw a lifeline to Netanyahu. The preoccupation with the prime minister’s immunity request will look different next week.
Gantz, pushed into a corner, will have to decide whether to continue to fight Netanyahu with all his strength, or reconsider his stance according to the dramatic strategic developments.
With festive television headlines showing the Trump plan’s principles, it will be easy to get carried away with enthusiasm – certainly on the right, which never received such support from the American administration before. But we should not get confused: No rapid peace agreement will grow out of this development. Rather, it could turn out to be the beginning of a new, dangerous era.
The new hero
The news from Washington pushed out of the headlines even the major public event of the week. Still, the gap between spin and reality was very evident at that event, the International Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem and its sideshow, the Naama Issachar festival. (In media reports it sounded like the order of importance was the other way around.) Netanyahu, his ministers and his mouthpieces are leveraging the assemblage with its many participants as evidence of his status as a major figure in the international community.
There is no doubt that during his time in office, and especially since the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the prime minster has nurtured close relationships with many world leaders. It is also true that the prophecies of doom by his former partner, Ehud Barak, about a diplomatic tsunami that would strike Israel have not been fulfilled. The Palestinian question is not arousing much international concern at the moment, and the price Israel is paying for the continuation of the occupation is very low, even if recently there have been danger signals from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
However, Netanyahu’s taking possession of the summit ignores the fact that the person who led the initiative for months is President Reuven Rivlin. And past experience makes it possible to wager that this time, too, stories will crop up about the way the Prime Minister’s Office annexed the event to itself, while stepping on the original patron’s toes.
In the background, meanwhile, the Issachar affair bloated to huge dimensions. The young Israeli woman has found herself in a terrible situation thanks to an almost trifling offense: carrying a few grams of a soft drug that was confiscated from her during a layover at the Moscow airport.
The Israeli media turned this into an up-to-date, strange reincarnation of the affair of Gilad Shalit, the soldier whom Hamas captured in 2006 and held hostage in the Gaza Strip for more than five years. If a decade ago, considerable concessions were necessary in the name of social solidarity and to rescue a soldier who apparently did not exactly act as he was expected to in combat, this time the warm and fuzzy national blanket was stretched to its limits to cover a young, somewhat frivolous tourist as well. This week Issachar, too, was promoted to the rank of national heroine.
The Russians understand this very well and are squeezing the lemon to the maximum. It is best to speak frankly: The seven and a half years in prison to which Issachar was sentenced are the embodiment of cynical and thuggish Russian conduct. Moscow initially tried (to no avail) to stop the extradition to the United States of a Russian hacker who was under arrest in Israel. Now, it is trying to extract from Israel many alternative concessions in exchange for the young woman’s return.
Netanyahu didn’t have much choice. Apparently he did the right thing when he decided to intervene personally in the efforts to release Issachar. The full price to which he has agreed will become clear down the road.
All this has been done without any transparency vis-à-vis the public and almost without involving anyone else in the negotiations and decision-making. Senior Israeli officials who were asked about this during the past week were unable to identify a quid pro quo that Israel would give, apart from concessions of Russian properties in Jerusalem and easements concerning the entry of Russian tourists, onto whose arrival the Interior Minister has piled difficulties for fear they might settle here illegally.
Real estate changes in Jerusalem are one thing, but the prime minister’s more difficult decision concerns the historical dispute between Russia, Poland and Germany concerning the role of each of those nations in the outbreak of World War II and the annihilation of the Jews in Eastern Europe. The boycott of the entire conference by Polish President Andrzej Duda, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s abandonment at the last minute of the Yad Vashem ceremony on Thursday, show that Russia’s two neighbors have suspicions about a dark deal between Jerusalem and Moscow.
Apparently in Warsaw and Kiev they are worried that Israel will also include in the arrangements for Issachar’s release tacit agreement with the distorted Russian version of the days of World War II.
Netanyahu has already floundered in the quicksands of this swamp; about two years ago he held back on advancing a competing narrative on the part of the Polish government, which aimed to exculpate the Poles of blame for their contribution to the events of the Holocaust. Nearly 75 years after the end of the war, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are still rampant in many countries, both on the right and on the left. In his speech on Wednesday evening, President Rivlin called upon the participants in the conference to leave history to the historians. This seemed like good counsel, but at the moment even Israel is having trouble adopting it.
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