Analysis

The Art of the Netanyahu Deal: Why Trump Should Pay Attention to Israel's Broken Western Wall Promise

Netanyahu has proven once again that his coalition partners are more important to him than promises he makes to Israel's friends in America

U.S. President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

The Israeli government's decision on Sunday to freeze, and effectively annul, the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which it accepted and celebrated just last year, on the surface seems to be a big deal mainly for American Reform and Conservative Jews. But while these Jews are obviously angry and disappointed by the decision, the one Jew who should be paying the closest attention to it is actually an Orthodox man from New Jersey.

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His name is Jason Greenblatt, and he currently serves as President Donald Trump's special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the Western Wall plan could offer some extremely valuable lessons to Mr. Greenblatt, who began his diplomatic mission earlier this year.

The Western Wall plan, which was supposed to lead to the creation of a mixed-gender praying space at one of Judaism's holiest sites, was born out of pressure to change the existing controversial situation: Israel's ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate dictates to the entire Jewish people how to pray at the site.

>>Read more: Government drops compromise on egalitarian prayer space at Western Wall| Analysis Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop dead | Opinion A handful of religious ignoramuses is taking Israel back to the Middle Ages >>

Benjamin Netanyahu in the Western Wall Tunnels, February 28, 2015.
Marc Israel Sellem

The pressure was both external – led by the millions-strong Reform and Conservative movements in North America – and internal, with the small but vocal Women of the Wall movement taking the lead, and important consensus figures like Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, joining the call for change. In the background was the damage that the Obama-Netanyahu feuds had imposed on Israel's relationship with the American Jewish community, which is overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party.

All these factors led Netanyahu to appoint a small team inside the Prime Minister's Office to examine the sensitive issue of the Western Wall. The team was led by Avichai Mandelblit, at the time a close adviser to Netanyahu who was later appointed Israel's attorney general. The plan that the Israeli government eventually voted on in early 2016 was not imposed on Israel by some external force, nor was it written by the Reform and Conservative leardersip. It's a plan that was handed to the government by Mandelblit, who happens to be an observant Orthodox Jew. 

The government approved the plan in late January 2016, and all over in the United States, Jewish leaders immediately began celebrating. Their victory over Israel's ultra-Orthodox parties was a big part of the celebration, but just as important was the victory they had achieved over those elements within the Jewish community who criticized Netanyahu's government on a regular basis.

On Twitter, the unofficial "hasbara army" engaging in pro-Israel public relations enjoyed the rare opportunity to prove that the current government isn't really as extreme as its critics like to portray it: After all, it had just approved a "historical plan" to end the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over the Western Wall, something that no Israeli government before had even been close to doing. 

But shortly after those celebrations, reality began to set in. Yes, Netanyahu personally committed himself to the plan, and his cabinet even held a vote on it, but all of that proved to be meaningless. Month by month, time dragged on and the government's commitments were nowhere to be seen. Even an intervention by Israel's Supreme Court, which accepted the ludicrous argument that the government should fulfill its own decision, didn't help. 

The endless delays were a result of political pressure from Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, as well as a number of Likud ministers and other lawmakers. Jewish American leaders began to understand where the wind was blowing and publicly warned Netanyahu about the damage that these delays were causing to Israel's standing within their communities. But the ultra-Orthodox eventually got their way, and Netanyahu led the government in a vote to backtrack its own decision. 

Some Jewish American observers of this process were perhaps shocked or surprised by Netanyahu's conduct. What kind of leader cancels a plan which was prepared by his own advisers, approved by his own cabinet and celebrated on his own social media pages? But it's easy to think of at least three prominent Jews who have worked with Netanyahu in the past and could probably see this coming from miles ahead. 

They are Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller and Martin Indyk. The three of them have served under Republican and Democratic presidents over the last two decades, doing the important work that Jason Greenblatt is now in charge of: negotiating with Netanyahu in attempt to reach a peace deal. Anyone who has read their detailed memoirs of the failed peace process will find a number of stories similar to the one that we've all just witnessed. Netanyahu agrees to concessions under pressure, but then walks them back under counter-pressure from his coalition partners. 

Ross' memoir, "The Missing Peace," devotes dozens of pages to the endless and tireless negotiations that the Clinton administration held with Netanyahu on the Hebron redeployment, which at some point focused for weeks upon weeks on Netanyahu's claim that his verbal agreement to increase the percentage of West Bank land controlled by the Palestinians into the "low teens" should be interpreted as 11% and not 13% because in Hebrew the teens start at 11. Then there is the story of the Wye River Memorandum, in which Netanyahu promised to make three small "redeployments" in the West Bank, but went forward with only one before announcing that he would not fulfill the other two in a (futile) attempt to stop the right-wing parties from quitting his coalition.

Martin Indyk was also involved in the last round of negotiations, during 2013 and 2014, in which Netanyahu told the U.S. administration that he could accept a "framework document" stating that the new border between Israel and the future Palestinian state would be based on the 1967 lines, only to later walk back his own words and claim that he never agreed to anything close to that. 

A side note on the 2014 negotaitons: When Haaretz recently published documents proving that Netanyahu did, in fact, accept the 1967-with-swaps formula, his office sent the newspaper an aggressive and misleading response to the story, but then asked that it not be published once they were informed that it would appear in the English edition as well as the Hebrew one. This is also a recurring theme that is as relevant to the Western Wall debacle as it is to peace negotaitons: Netanyahu wants to appear moderate to English-speaking crowds, but only as long as that doesn't hurt his standing as a hard-liner with his religious, right-wing base in Israel. If he could celebrate the Western Wall plan with Jewish Americans but somehow make it invisible to Israelis, he'd do so without hesitation. 

At the end of the day, Netanyahu treated the Western Wall issue the same way he treats peace talks – "one step forward, and then one backwards or sideways to compensate," in the words of former senior U.S. official Aaron David Miller, who worked with him. The step backward, however, is usually bigger and more significant than the one forward.

If Greenblatt wants to be more successful than his predecessors in getting what his boss has called "the ultimate peace deal," he would be wise not just to read the memoirs of the previous peace negotiators, but also to learn from the most recent case of Netanyahu's balancing act. This time it was the Reform and Conservative Jews who were played as fools in this musical – but tomorrow, it could be the American president.