According to a report in Walla! News last week (full disclosure: it was made via its intrepid reporter and my daughter Tal Shalev), U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has said in private conversations that Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan will be submitted in April, after the Israeli election - but before a new coalition is formed.
The timing is curious. Logic would seemingly dictate that, having held off the presentation of the plan because of elections, the administration would wait a few more weeks until a new Israel cabinet is formed and its policies are formulated. That, however, would be missing the point: Both decisions – to withhold now and to publish immediately after the election – are meant at assist Benjamin Netanyahu win the election, and, more importantly, help him escape the long arm of the law.
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The administration’s saving-Netanyahu strategy is a function of two near certainties regarding the Trump peace plan: Israel’s hard right will reject it, no matter how much it is perceived as favorable to Israel, and Netanyahu won’t, no matter how much it strays from his core beliefs and current positions. The last thing Netanyahu wants or needs, before or after the election, is a Trump outraged by his Israeli BFF’s refusal to play ball.
In the lead up to election, Trump’s peace plan works against Netanyahu. Besides his brazen appeal to voters to help him avoid indictment and prosecution on charges of corruption, Netanyahu’s campaign is based on bleeding his right-wing rivals of their potential Knesset seats by outflanking them from the right. Although the size of his Likud party is less critical to staying in power than the overall number of Knesset members who will recommend that the president pick him to form the next government, the famously paranoid Netanyahu is worried that his nemesis Reuven Rivlin will use any possible pretext to choose anyone else but him.
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The better Likud does in the election, the less wiggle room Rivlin has for his supposed subterfuge – and the more Netanyahu can claim that the public has rejected his potential indictment.
The presentation of a plan before the April 9 ballot would have stuck Netanyahu between a rock and hard place: Rejecting it would have upset his beautiful friendship with Trump and might have driven whatever is left of Israel’s center-right into the arms of Netanyahu’s centrist rivals, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz. Accepting the plan, however, even if Netanyahu pads his acquiescence with untenable reservations and even if his prayers are answered and the Palestinians reject it first, would have been worse.
Avid right-wingers, especially Jewish settlers, have never trusted Netanyahu fully: They appreciate his current rejectionism but remember his 1996 endorsement of the Oslo Accords, 1997 embrace of Yasser Arafat, 1998 signature on the Wye River agreement and, most injuriously, his 2009 endorsement of a two-state solution.
Any hint that Netanyahu might embrace Trump’s designs might have sent them flocking to right-wing parties who could curb the prime minister's enthusiasm, in far greater numbers than moderates who might be swayed to support him. Likud would be diminished, along with Netanyahu’s claim to a personal mandate from voters.
This was the essence of the urgent appeals by Netanyahu and his emissaries to the White House in the immediate aftermath of his surprise December call for early elections. Submission of the plan before the ballot would undermine Netanyahu, Trump’s advisers were told. Either he would be elected with a small and unstable majority or, perish the thought, go down to defeat. As his evangelical recruits discreetly told the White House, a Trump move that would harm their golden boy Netanyahu would be nothing less than unforgiveable.
Election, on the face of it, wouldn’t change the dynamics on the right: Parties such as Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash party would have a hard time joining a coalition led by a Netanyahu who endorses a peace plan that, come what may, advocates Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank and gives the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem. Under these circumstances, the presentation of a plan before the forming of a new coalition could block Netanyahu’s chances of forming a right-wing government and thus block his way to power.
But that’s true only if Netanyahu intends to replicate the religious-nationalist coalition he now heads. If he’s looking to ditch the ideological right and to team up with what is bound to be a sizeable centrist bloc, on the other hand, Trump’s plan could pave the way. A tepid Netanyahu endorsement of Trump’s plan might alienate the right, but it would also serve as a fig leaf for centrists such as Gantz and Lapid to join his coalition, on the pretext of preserving chances for peace, even if, in reality, they don’t exist.
A more moderate Israeli coalition is essential for Trump and his advisers, on the assumption that: A. They really do have a plan and B. They don’t want it to be proclaimed dead on arrival.
Trump’s Middle East peace team – especially Friedman – may be more ideologically aligned with the nationalistic, ethnocentric and anti-democratic bent of Israel’s current coalition, but, in this as in all other matters, Trump’s personal prestige reigns supreme. If Gantz and Lapid are what’s needed to preserve it, the timing of the presentation of the peace plan can be adjusted accordingly.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could have set up such a center-right coalition after the previous election as well. Lapid’s 11 seats-strong Yesh Atid Knesset faction would have more than compensated for the eight seats held by Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Isaac Herzog would have jumped at the chance of adding the Zionist Union’s 24 seats, giving Netanyahu a super majority in the Knesset.
The polarizing circumstances that led Netanyahu to hold elections in 2015 after only two years in power – his perception of a plot by his centrist partners to undermine Sheldon Adelson’s adoring Yisrael Hayom newspaper – as well as his divisive and apparently decisive “Arabs going to the polling station in droves” gambit on Election Day, combined to alienate the Likud leader from parties to his left and to set up an ideologically cohesive right-wing coalition that he could trust.
Trump’s election, in general, and his peace plan in particular changed the equation dramatically. The same rigid coalition that was seen as a bulwark against the sinister designs of former U.S. President Barack Obama and initially as a boon in fostering good ties with the ostensibly far more favorable Trump, would turn into an irritant, if not an obstacle, to preserving Netanyahu’s special relationship with a U.S. president who has put his name on a peace plan.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump, which he touts as one of his major achievements, isn’t the premier's main concern now. His ability to form a popular broad-based coalition, which could ameliorate Israel’s escalating internal divisions as well, isn’t at the top of his agenda either. Netanyahu is focused on one thing and one thing only: Guaranteeing his political and personal survival, with the former, in his mind, critical to ensuring the latter.
A coalition of fervent right-wing fanatics bent on dismantling the teetering pillars of Israel’s liberal democracy would continue to embrace Netanyahu’s all-out assault on the rule of law, viewing his personal campaign to avoid criminal charges as a conduit to achieving their greater goals. Netanyahu knows, however, that besides the risk of failure, the steps needed for him to beat Israel’s legal apparatus into submission would spark vehement protests, convulse Israeli politics, split society in two and tarnish its name abroad. It’s a price he’s willing to pay in exchange for a Get Out of Jail Free card, but not if he perceives a better alternative.
A centrist coalition wouldn’t countenance measures such as the sacking of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who seems on course to indict Netanyahu within a few short weeks.
It certainly wouldn’t support the so-called French Law contemplated by Netanyahu and his confidantes, which would prohibit legal proceedings against a serving prime minister and would apply retroactively to Netanyahu himself. If Netanyahu nonetheless views a moderate government as essential to his war of survival, it is a direct outgrowth of his persecution complex and delusional belief in a vast left-wing conspiracy that aims to topple him from power at any price.
Netanyahu’s portrayals of a plot against the prime minister have always been a mix of cynical political populism and genuine, deep-seated paranoia. Coupled with his narcissistic inability to find fault with himself – a trait he shares with Trump – Netanyahu’s view of himself as the target of a Deep State, which includes the legal system as well as the leftist media pushing it to indict him, has only entrenched his deep-seated delusions. He is convinced that the same leftist cabal that is pursuing him has exempted politicians who do its bidding – pursuing peace, for example - for crimes equal to or far greater than his; Ariel Sharon is the precedent uppermost in his mind.
According to the right’s version of Israeli history, the same Deep State that is bent on persecuting Netanyahu because he refuses to comply with its defeatist wish to abandon the biblical Land of Israel conspired 15 years ago to bury far more serious charges of corruption against Sharon for the exact opposite reason. According to this view, Sharon’s 2005 decision to withdraw from Gaza compelled the leftist powers that be to pressure legal authorities to quash his indictment and to bury unequivocal evidence of his corruption in the so-called Greek Island affair and several other cases in which Sharon was suspected of taking bribes.
In Netanyahu’s view, the disengagement from Gaza was such a powerful incentive that it suppressed not only Sharon’s crimes but also decades of leftist hostility towards the brash and hawkish Sharon, despite his image as the “father of Jewish settlements” in the occupied territories.
His corroborating evidence is largely based on a random statement made in the months before the Gaza withdrawal by senior Israeli commentator Amnon Abramovich, who is identified with the left, in which he asserted that “Sharon should be protected like an Etrog." Abramovitch was referring to the Hebrew word for the precious citron fruit, which observant Jews protect from harm during the festival of Sukkot as if they were the crown jewels.
A centrist coalition that is perceived as pursuing peace, or even one that is simply going through the motions, is Netanyahu’s magic formula for turning into an etrog himself. Based on the Sharon precedent and his own paranoia, Netanyahu may have reached the conclusion that if his escalating public attacks on the legal system fail to do the trick, his only remaining ticket to freedom lies in emulating Sharon by dangling peace in front of the leftist lions out to devour him.
Netanyahu’s road to salvation, therefore, runs through Trump’s plan and the timing of its presentation. Which is how he convinced the Trump administration to subordinate its timetable to his needs, in what can only be described, in this day and age, as an act of collusion.