January 28, 2020 could very well go down as the most mind-boggling day in the history of Israel and its relations with the United States. Against the backdrop of a White House audience of enthusiastic cheerleaders, in a ceremony that seemed to fuse a Donald Trump rally with a religious Zionist gala, the president pronounced a dramatic, pro-Israel shift in U.S. foreign policy and laid down a lopsided peace plan that exceeds any rational Israeli’s wildest dreams.
The extraordinary event was rendered even more surreal by the fact that mere hours before Benjamin Netanyahu flashed self-satisfied grins as he stood at Trump’s side in Washington, his indictments were formally submitted to Jerusalem District Court, which he will soon face as a criminal defendant. Anyone unfamiliar with the prime minister’s rapidly escalating legal woes would never have guessed it: Netanyahu was beaming like a groom at his wedding.
Trump’s White House extravaganza provided Netanyahu with the kind of nuclear-grade diversionary tactic needed to obscure his new status as the first prime minister in Israeli history to be charged with crimes while in office. Netanyahu may have exhausted his supply of superlatives in praising Trump’s supposedly unprecedented friendship, but he will be indebted to the president till the end of days for mounting one of the most blatant cases of foreign intervention in another country’s elections ever seen, out in the open, no apologies, regrets or congressional investigations.
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Besides effusive adulation, however, Netanyahu also made an actual down payment on his debt. In what might be described as a virtual putsch, Netanyahu accepted Trump’s peace plan lock, stock and barrel, without consulting his party or any of his cabinet colleagues and, more importantly, despite being constitutionally constrained as prime minister of an interim government – never mind his status as suspected criminal.
Netanyahu’s unilateral acceptance of Trump’s plan is a measure of his vanity, audacity, increasing disdain for accepted procedures and norms, and, of course, growing desperation to extract himself – one way or the other – from his legal morass.
Nonetheless, one must give credit where credit is due: Netanyahu has pulled off one of the most dramatic diplomatic coups in U.S.-Israeli history. Navigated by his trusted Washington adviser Ron Dermer, buttressed by the support of evangelicals and their influence in the White House, Netanyahu has guided, cajoled and stewarded Trump and the United States to abandon its long-held support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on the 1967 borders with land swaps. Instead, the U.S. acceded to most, if not all, Israeli security demands, to give Israel its share of the pie in the here and now but to consign most concessions to Palestinians to an unforeseeable future.
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Tuesday night’s White House ceremony was revolutionary even in terms of the arts of diplomacy and peacemaking as they’ve been practiced for hundreds of years. Here was a U.S. president dispensing his learned verdict on a complex conflict and ostensibly making a pitch for moderation and consideration by both sides, but doing so in a language that completely justified one side and placed all of the onus on the other. Trump and his peace plan talk the talk and walk the walk of Israeli hasbara, but pretend to be mortified when Palestinians refuse to engage.
Make no mistake: Trump’s plan includes provisions that will be hard for the Israeli right in general, and for Netanyahu’s Likud in particular, to swallow. These include the prospective detachment of East Jerusalem neighborhoods that would form the capital of a Palestinian state; the right of return of Palestinian refugees to said state; and most of all, perhaps, the return to life of the two-state solution that right-wingers had persuaded themselves was long dead and buried.
For anyone not wedded to the concept that Israel must ultimately annex all of its biblical lands, Trump’s plan is undoubtedly the most pro-Israel peace proposal ever made – and, despite the president’s claims to the contrary, the worst offer ever made to the Palestinians. Even if it was more evenhanded, just a cursory look at the map attached to Trump’s plan makes clear just how unworkable it is: It keeps Israelis and Palestinians at each other’s throats to a degree that makes former Yugoslavia seems like an island of tranquility.
Nonetheless, Trump’s cavalier, condescending and seemingly self-defeating approach to Palestinians – which is expressed in the tone and content of his “vision” – represents Netanyahu’s greatest triumph. The plan marginalizes Palestinians, ignores their core demands and determines their borders as if by imperial edict, at a time when they are divided among themselves and abandoned by their one-time allies in the Gulf. If Tuesday marked a zenith for Netanyahu, it was a day of unprecedented degradation and humiliation for most Palestinians.
Netanyahu and Dermer have long argued that Palestinians must give up their unrealistic dreams in order to achieve peace; now Trump has shot down their aspirations without waiting for approval. Netanyahu has long argued that Palestinians must be motivated economically but beaten into submission as far as their political aspirations are concerned. His theory will now be put the test.
Netanyahu has the Palestinians right where he’s always wanted them. If he was wrong, as many believe, then Netanyahu’s mistake, born of hubris and desperation, will cost countless Israeli and Palestinian lives. It seems increasingly likely, however, that if and when the Trump scheme collapses and things go south, Netanyahu won’t be around to take responsibility, not that he’d ever consider it.