Analysis

Gantz Niftily Averts White House Hazing but Trump Plan Still on Course to Rescue Netanyahu

Deal of the century offers Israelis annexation right now and Palestinians a Bantustan in the far future

Netanyahu sits next to Gantz at the memorial for Shimon Peres, who formed a national unity government with Yitzhak Shamir in 1984.
\ Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

A popular folk saying asserts that a clever person extricates himself from predicaments a smart person would have avoided from the outset. Benny Gantz, to the great relief of his increasingly anxious supporters, proved on Saturday night that, at the very least, he knows how to be clever.

By announcing his own separate meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, Gantz narrowly escaped Benjamin Netanyahu’s well-laid trap to upstage and diminish him in a joint meeting at the White House, an event Gantz had previously and unwittingly agreed to attend. He also avoided a potentially lethal confrontation with a U.S. president who could decimate him with single tweet.

In fact, Gantz also proved adept at playing political jiu-jitsu by using the strength of his opponent against him. Netanyahu had planned to upstage Gantz by casting him as an extra in a joint Trump-Netanyahu rollout of the President’s long-awaited “deal of the century.” Gantz turned things on their head by securing his own separate meeting with the U.S. president, a rare feat for an Israeli politician vying in an election. Rather than diminish Gantz, Netanyahu’s ruse ultimately elevated him.

Trump’s willingness to cater to Gantz’s needs dealt an unanticipated blow to Netanyahu’s hitherto successful efforts to deploy the U.S. president as a strategic asset in his reelection campaign. Trump, stung by widespread assertions in Israel and elsewhere that the timing of his roll-out renders it nothing more than an election gimmick designed to help Netanyahu, decided to broadcast more balance at the prime minister’s expense.

But the temporary damage sustained by Netanyahu’s prestige when his well-laid plan went slightly awry does not negate the fact that Trump is handing him a priceless treasure. By the same token, Trump’s ceremonial concession to Gantz in no way mitigates his outrageous intervention in the upcoming March 2 election.

Try as they may, Trump’s explainers and defenders will be hard pressed to come up with a rational excuse for procrastinating on the peace plan for three years and then launching it 38 days before Israelis go to the polls, at a time that best serves Netanyahu’s interests.

How does the presentation of the plan help Netanyahu? Let us count the ways: It upends the main agenda of the election campaign from Netanyahu’s criminal indictments to the diplomatic and national security arena, which he favors. It elevates Netanyahu from his questionable status as a caretaker prime minister facing trial to the man of the hour in his greatest triumph.

Trump’s plan, at least as it emerges from Israeli press leaks, marks a sharp pro-Israeli, if not pro-settler deviation from decades of U.S. foreign policy. Presentation of the plan at this juncture allows Netanyahu to rightfully claim credit for the dramatic shift. Though settler leaders and far-right politicians are bound to cry foul over the truncated, toothless, Bantustan-style Palestinian state reportedly envisioned in Trump’s plan, it gives Israel and its settlers more than they could ever dream of. 

The plan, in fact, seems less a formula for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and more a platform for Israel to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley and scores of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. According to Israeli sources, at least, once the Palestinians reject Trump’s blueprint, as they are widely expected to do within minutes of its formal presentation, Washington will give Jerusalem a green light to annex those areas that the plan cedes to Israel anyway.

As Gantz indicated with his tentative endorsement of the plan on Saturday night, the outlines of the plan are likely to enjoy wide support in Israeli public opinion, from center-left to center-right; Netanyahu can and will take credit for Trump’s generous bounty.

Trump’s interjection on behalf of Netanyahu is unprecedented in scope and audacity. Trump is doing what Russia did clandestinely in the 2016 U.S. election and what Trump tried to extort Ukraine to do in the affair at the center of his ongoing impeachment trial in the Senate. Trump is carrying it out publicly, big time, talking loudly and wielding a big diplomatic stick at the same time. Foreign intervention in elections is obviously one of Trump’s instruments of choice, whether he is on its receiving or dispensing end.

Tuesday’s meeting sets up a surrealistic conjunction of the launch of Knesset proceedings expected to deny Netanyahu’s request for immunity, Trump’s own impeachment trial, which centers on his efforts to solicit foreign intervention, his own blatant interference in the Israeli election and the dividends he hopes to reap, mainly with Evangelicals, in his own election campaign. Only in America, and only with Trump.

The ramifications of Trump’s drastic deviation from the principles that have guided U.S. policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1967 won’t be limited, however, to the Israeli election campaign. Trump’s pro-Israeli plan, especially if it results in unilateral Israeli annexation, will deal a final deathblow to the moribund two-state solution. It will antagonize the world, introduce new tensions to Washington’s already prickly relations with European partners, and place Trump’s Arab allies precariously between the rock and hard place of either risking his wrath or that of their radical domestic enemies.

Trump’s plan will enrage Palestinians already smoldering from three years of disregard and disdain from the White House. It will necessarily weaken the Palestinian Authority, degrade its security ties with the Israeli army, embolden extremists and radicals and, in a worst-case scenario, precipitate violence and bloodshed.

The greatest irony of it all, however, is that Trump’s "deal of the century" – which might be more accurately called "con-job the century" –could actually backfire on Netanyahu and do him more damage than good. Although Trump’s peace plan is a welcome gift for most Israelis and while many continue to view him as a “true friend” of Israel, as Gantz described him, his attempt to interfere in the election on behalf of Netanyahu is so clumsy, blatant and undeniable that it could boomerang and actually drive Israeli voters away from him, rather than the other way round.

No matter how much they love Trump, Judea and Samaria, Jewish settlements and even Jerusalem, the one thing Israelis detest is being taken for patsies, or “freiers” as the more popular Yiddish term would have it. Gantz showed on Saturday night he’s no “freier” in the hope that Israeli voters will follow in his path come March 2.