How Trump’s Mideast Plan Is Angering Both Annexationists and Peaceniks

Left-wingers in both Israel and America don’t believe the plan will lead to peace, while the right’s hopes for an instant green light for annexation have dimmed. Centrists, meanwhile, are left with many questions

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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From left to right, clockwise: Ayelet Shaked, leader of the right-wing Yamina party; Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; and Israeli settler leader Ze’ev (Zambish) Hever
From left to right, clockwise: Ayelet Shaked, leader of the right-wing Yamina party; 2020 Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; and Israeli settler leader Ze’ev (Zambish) HeverCredit: Emil Salman; Matt Rourke, AP; J. Scott Applewhite, AP; Olivier Fitoussi
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Ever since the Trump administration unveiled its Middle East peace plan last week, there have been conflicting reports and analysis regarding its reception in Israel. Is it a dream come true for the Israeli right or are settler leaders denouncing it? Is it an updated version of the Oslo Accords or an annexation plan abhorred by the Israeli left? And why, if the plan is seen as an election gift to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has it been adopted by his main rival and challenger, Benny Gantz?

On the one hand, the Trump Mideast plan has completely upended the Israeli election campaign, turning the focus away from Netanyahu’s corruption charges and toward diplomatic questions.

At the same time, though, it is not clear how much of an impact it has had on the public’s voting intentions. Six election polls published within 48 hours of the plan’s release on January 28 showed no significant change in the predicted distribution of Knesset seats, with Netanyahu still lacking a majority for Likud and the religious parties that support him.

Those same polls showed that a majority of Israelis support Trump’s plan, but most Israelis also believe it won’t lead to peace with the Palestinians. The plan would allow Israel to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank, while potentially offering the Palestinians a “state” that would be dissected by dozens of Israeli settlements and be under permanent Israeli military control.

Under the plan’s terms, Israel would continue to control the entire city of Jerusalem, including the eastern areas that are home to hundreds of thousands of Arabs. The Palestinians would be offered the chance to set up their capital in three poor and neglected suburbs on the far outskirts of eastern Jerusalem. There is no chance of any Palestinian leader accepting these terms – although the plan’s architect, Jared Kushner, insists he would like the plan to be seen as the basis for talks between the two sides.

Two recent protests, one of Israeli settlers in the Mehola settlement calling for the implementation of the Trump Mideast peace plan, left, and Arab Israelis in Baka al-Garbiyeh protesting it.Credit: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

So far, the plan has been met with three different kinds of responses in Israel: The left strongly opposes it and sees it as a way of entrenching Israel’s military occupation over millions of Palestinians; the right is split, with some supporting the plan and others rejecting it because they oppose even the few benefits it offers to the Palestinians; and, last but not least, the centrists support much of its content – but are afraid its real intention is to help Netanyahu and the right win the upcoming March 2 election, not to actually promote peace.

These reactions have much in common with how the plan has been received in the American Jewish community: It was rejected by left-wing organizations, commentators and activists, and received mixed reviews among centrists and right-wingers.

Left: Fearing apartheid

If a vote on the Trump plan came before the Knesset tomorrow, it is not clear whether a majority would support it. It is certain, though, that at least 20 left-wing lawmakers – from Labor, Meretz and the Joint List – would vote against it. These parties have criticized the plan for not constructing a potential peace deal that both sides could accept, or at least consider. Instead, they warn, the plan could lead to more violence and conflict in the future, because it would push the Palestinians to a point of seemingly having nothing left to lose.

Outside the Israeli parliament, the most senior public figure to express such concerns has been former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who warned that, if implemented, the Trump plan could turn Israel into an apartheid state. Olmert, who was Israel’s premier from 2006 to 2008, said it was wrong to call the U.S. “vision” a peace plan. He warned that annexing all of the West Bank’s settlements was the opposite of what Israel should be doing – which, he said, is “to separate ourselves from controlling the Palestinians.”

Still, there is one political bright spot for the left – at least in the short term, with an election only weeks away. Trump’s plan includes a politically explosive paragraph suggesting that if a future Palestinian state is established, up to 300,000 Arab citizens could lose their Israeli citizenship and be forced to become citizens of the new Palestinian entity. The plan says this a legitimate idea because some of these citizens identify as Palestinian.

The idea of population swaps involving Arab-Israeli towns in the Triangle area of central Israel (adjoining the West Bank) is not new – it has been promoted by various right-wing Israeli politicians for years. But the Trump plan represents the first time the concept has been given a stamp of approval by a U.S. administration.

A Palestinian demonstrator stepping on a poster depicting U.S. President Donald Trump during a protest against Trump's Middle East peace plan, near the settlement of Beit El, January 30, 2020.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

This has caused outrage among Arab Israelis and political analysts believe it could lead to greater turnout among the community on March 2. The predominantly Arab Joint List, which won 13 Knesset seats last September and is hoping to reach 15 this time, is already campaigning on the back of what it is calling “the transfer plan” – urging Arab citizens to “give our answer at the ballot box.”

On Monday, perhaps fearing rising Arab voter participation that would benefit the left, Netanyahu’s office told Israel’s Channel 12 News that the clause is “unrealistic” and won’t actually be implemented. Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, also tried to allay fears over the matter last week, claiming in a conversation with reporters that “no one is being stripped of citizenship.”

The reactions to the plan from the Israeli left mirror those of left-wing Jewish groups in the United States such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now. These organizations are insisting that the plan is in fact a “peace sham.” Similar criticism was voiced by leading Democratic presidential contenders such as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Democratic members of Congress.

Sanders said Trump’s plan was “unacceptable,” describing it as a “so-called ‘peace deal.’” Warren, meanwhile, said it was “a rubber stamp for annexation and offers no chance for a real Palestinian state. Releasing a plan without negotiating with Palestinians isn’t diplomacy, it’s a sham.”

Center: More questions than answers

The only party that has so far expressed support for the Trump plan is Kahol Lavan – the centrist party led by retired general Benny Gantz that currently holds the largest number of seats (33) in the Knesset. Gantz announced last week that he wants to bring the full plan to a vote before the Knesset, and that it broadly matches his party’s “diplomatic vision.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that his party accepts every clause and sentence of it. Several Kahol Lavan lawmakers have already announced their opposition to the idea of stripping Arab-Israeli citizens of their citizenship. In addition, the party’s position, as previously expressed by Gantz, is that any actual implementation of the Trump plan must take place only in coordination with Israel’s neighbors and allies – most notably Jordan, Egypt and Israel’s European allies.

This is where things get complicated. Last week, immediately after the plan was revealed, Netanyahu announced that he would commence work immediately to annex all of the settlements. He was seemingly given a “green light” to do this last week by David Friedman, who said Israel can annex the settlements whenever it pleases.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 2, 2020.Credit: AFP

If this does turn out to be the U.S. administration’s policy (there is uncertainty on the issue at the moment), Kahol Lavan will be in a very difficult position. The party’s support for the Trump plan is based on the fact that its parameters for a future agreement are extremely favorable to Israel (especially if the Israelis and Palestinians ever sit down for negotiations based on the document). But as a centrist party, Kahol Lavan wants to create separation between Israel and the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Annexing all of the settlements is the exact opposite of what the party wants to achieve.

When Gantz visited the White House last week and met with President Donald Trump, he heard directly from senior White House officials that they will not support or approve any immediate annexation by the Netanyahu government, at least until after the March 2 election.

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For Kahol Lavan, it is crucial that the administration stays true to that promise – the party’s support for the plan will become meaningless if annexation takes place, as the plan itself would become irrelevant for negotiations. Kahol Lavan will also have a hard time signing up for any action that could endanger the peace agreement with Jordan.

The party’s support for the Trump plan is based on the hope that, without unilateral annexation, the plan could somehow lead to new negotiations, or to steps that Israel will take in coordination with neighboring Arab countries in order to minimize its direct military rule over the Palestinians.

But there is also a political consideration at hand: Annexation would help Netanyahu rally right-wing voters and could help him stay in office, despite the fact that he has been indicted in three corruption cases.

A poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute on Monday showed that half of Israelis polled, including 69 percent of those who consider themselves centrists, believe the Trump plan constituted interference in the Israeli election and an attempt to help Netanyahu win. Whether that was the intent or not, the plan’s release has helped Netanyahu divert the national conversation away from his indictment and into more comfortable territory for him: security and diplomacy.

Kahol Lavan’s position is similar to that of several mainstream American Jewish organizations, who welcomed the Trump plan and found elements of it worthy of praise – but do not support unilateral Israeli annexation of the settlements. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations all released statements that were positive in varying degrees toward the Trump plan – but didn’t express support for immediate annexation.

No leading politicians within the Democratic Party expressed support for the Trump plan, but several prominent figures highlighted the dangers of annexation as being more urgent than the plan’s actual contents. Warnings about “unilateral action” were issued by former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both of whom are seeking the party’s presidential nomination, as well as by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

All are considered strong supporters of Israel, and their warnings are a clear indication that annexation could cause serious damage to Israel’s standing within the party.

Right: Dreaming of annexation

The sense of jubilation among religious right-wingers in both Israel and the United States when Netanyahu promised last week to begin annexation was almost messianic. As viewed by the Israeli right, the Trump plan basically contains two stages: In the first and immediate stage, Israel annexes all of the settlements in the West Bank; in the second stage, the Palestinians are offered a make-believe “state” that they will surely reject. Israel gets to keep the entire West Bank – and that’s the end of the story.

The timing of the plan’s release was also a blessing for Likud and the religious parties backing Netanyahu’s attempts to remain in power. Their biggest fear in this election campaign is that a small but significant number of moderate right-wingers will drift toward Kahol Lavan because of Netanyahu’s corruption trial, thus bringing an end to his rule and possibly even enabling a center-left Israeli government for the first time in two decades. The release of the Trump plan on the very same day as the indictment against Netanyahu was finally filed no doubt helped the prime minister in his efforts to retain those voters.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House in Washington, January 27, 2020.Credit: AFP

But in the days following the release of the plan, the Israeli right splintered when the U.S. administration signaled that annexation could take weeks or even months to complete.

According to Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, the Israelis and Americans are supposed to set up a joint committee that will study maps of the West Bank and together decide the exact annexation boundaries. This could take time – and that is a source of concern for many on the right.

That’s because if full annexation doesn’t take place before the election, it could be much more complicated afterward. Gantz is running neck and neck with Netanyahu to become Israel’s next leader.

But even if he fails to defeat Netanyahu and is forced into a unity government alongside him, he could still demand that no annexation take place without international coordination. That kind of result may well lead to a milder form of annexation – one that would not signal the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and could also leave the door open for future negotiations with the Palestinians.

This is what worries the Israeli right. The settler movement, the Yamina party led by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and many members of Netanyahu’s Likud want full annexation of each and every West Bank settlement – and they want to achieve this goal without giving the Palestinians even the minimal so-called concessions that are included in the Trump plan.

Yamina leader and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked was asked about the plan and said that the U.S. administration told her "that Israel would be able to annex and apply Israeli law to Judea and Samaria." According to Shaked, "the brave step would be to do [annexation] now. Our job is to push Netanyahu to do it now even if it doesn’t match all the voices within the [U.S.] administration... We will never support a plan that includes a Palestinian state."

Shaked: We will never support a plan that includes a Palestinian state

Bennett and Shaked were reportedly briefed on the talks behind the plan by settler leader Ze'ev (Zambish) Hever, who, according to sources, was updated by Netanyahu about the deal and specifically the ramifications the plan would have on the settlements.

The notion that annexation could be limited “only” to large settlements that are part of a broader consensus in Israel, and that the annexation will be coordinated with other countries (coordination that would surely require making some gestures toward the Palestinians), is causing great distress in a political camp that just a week ago was imagining full annexation within days.

In the United States, however, there has been no equivalent so far to the growing frustration among the Israeli right. Trump has won only praise from Republican members of Congress for his Middle East plan, and evangelical and Jewish Orthodox organizations have lined up to support his administration. On Monday, Mike Evans – an influential evangelical supporter of Trump – was interviewed on Israel’s Kan public radio. He advised those awaiting annexation to stay patient and let the U.S. administration work through the process.

But Netanyahu promised his supporters immediate annexation and he has no time for any kind of process. The election is less than a month away and recent polls show that he is far from his goal: A right-wing majority that would allow him to delay, freeze or annul the court proceedings against him. In the final few weeks of the campaign, he will increase his pressure on the White House to allow him to proceed with annexation in the West Bank, no matter how bad the reaction might be from Jordan, the Palestinians, and the wider Arab and Islamic world.

The U.S. administration’s response to this pressure will determine how its plan is framed in the Israel discourse. Giving in to Netanyahu’s annexation demand will strengthen suspicions that the entire plan is simply an attempt to help a prime minister fighting for his political life. It will also end any possibility that the plan could be seen as a point of reference for negotiations. This could change how the plan is viewed in Israel, the United States and across the Middle East.

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