WASHINGTON – The Trump administration’s plan for peace in the Middle East is once again making headlines after a long absence from the news cycle. President Donald Trump’s senior advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are currently in Warsaw to promote the plan, during the international summit on the future of the Middle East. And later this month they will travel to several Arab countries to discuss the plan with respective leaders there.
At the same time, though, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement this week that all but ensures the plan’s failure.
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Speaking to a group of right-wing and religious-Zionist pundits in Jerusalem, Netanyahu promised that if he wins the upcoming Israeli election (which for now remains the most likely scenario), he will form a religious, right-wing governing coalition and won’t offer a partnership to his centrist challenger, Benny Gantz.
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This statement could be more significant for the future of Kushner’s peace plan than anything other leaders in the Middle East have said about it so far. If following the April 9 election Netanyahu does indeed form a coalition similar to the one he had over the past four years, there is absolutely zero chance of him making even the slightest concession for peace, since he won’t have support for such concessions within his own government.
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The U.S. administration’s peace plan has been “almost finished” for more than half a year. The White House was making preparations for its rollout over the summer and fall of 2018, before freezing those preparations once Netanyahu decided to dismantle his government last December and to call a snap election.
The common wisdom in Washington was that following the election, Israel would have a new coalition that would be more flexible on peace than the “pure” right-wing coalition Netanyahu had relied upon since 2015.
A new, centrist-oriented coalition would give the Trump administration an opportunity to put forward a plan that would not be rejected by Israel – thus increasing the chances that some Arab states would also react positively to it.
During election campaigns, politicians make many different statements and promises that don’t necessarily remain relevant the day after the vote. After all, Trump promised his voters in 2016 that he would build a wall on the United States’ southern border and Mexico would pay for it. But there are some factors increasing the likelihood that this specific statement by Netanyahu will eventually become true.
He is currently actively pushing a group of far-right parties – including supporters of the late extremist Meir Kahane – to join forces with Habayit Hayehudi and to run in one unified far-right bloc. He is also running a scorched-earth campaign against Gantz and his Hosen L’Yisrael party, describing them as “weak leftists.” His public message is that he prefers a coalition with racist thugs over one with two former Israeli army chiefs of staff (Gantz and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon).
The reason Netanyahu is pushing in this direction is those corruption investigations hanging over him, which he could try to rid himself of after winning the election by seeking legislation that would make it illegal to indict a sitting prime minister.
His Likud Party already tried to promote such legislation in the outgoing Knesset, but failed to find a majority for it. The only way for Netanyahu to promote such a law would be by forming a similar, religious right-wing coalition to the one he enjoyed in the previous Knesset.
Gantz and Ya’alon would never support such a law, but the far-right parties – together with Netanyahu’s other partners such as Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash and the ultra-Orthodox parties – are a different story. The question for them won’t be whether they can morally support such a law, but rather what Netanyahu would be willing to offer them in return for such support.
This increases the incentive for Netanyahu to truly go for a “pure” right-wing government. The Trump peace plan will then be pronounced dead on arrival, since Netanyahu will be hostage to the far-right parties demanding that he protect their interests in return for them safeguarding his.
The “ultimate deal” won’t be between Israel and the Arab world, but between Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners. He will protect each and every settlement in the West Bank, and they will protect him.
With such a coalition making any progress toward peace impossible, it is also much less likely that any Arab leader would be willing to take a political risk and endorse a peace plan despite Palestinian opposition to it.
It is possible to make the argument that some Arab leaders could, perhaps, bypass the Palestinians and support the plan if they sense it has a real chance of success – after all, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has frustrated the entire Arab leadership with his stubbornness and suspicion toward any peace plan offered since his rise to power in 2005. If there was a truly peace-seeking coalition in Israel, perhaps one or two fearless Arab leaders could leave Abbas behind and declare that they are “taking a brave position to advance peace.”
But why would any Arab leader do that for a peace plan that has no chance of winning the support of a hard-right Israeli coalition, in which the main power brokers are the leaders of the settlement movement?
For a few months in 2016, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi tried to help Netanyahu lure the centrist Zionist Union, then led by Isaac Herzog, into a unity government. Sissi hoped that such a move would help promote a new peace process involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states. The talks between Netanyahu and Herzog reached a very advanced stage, but eventually Netanyahu ditched Herzog and chose instead to double down on the right. Sissi was disappointed and the peace process went into a coma.
All of that took place before the Netanyahu corruption probes became public, and long before there was discussion of looming indictments. In 2019, with the bribery cases hovering above him, Netanyahu’s first priority is political and legal survival. His best chances of achieving that is a religious, right-wing coalition – and this is exactly what he said in Jerusalem this week while speaking to a local crowd.
Perhaps in Warsaw, or next month when he visits Washington for the AIPAC Policy Conference, he will say something broad and unspecific about peace – in English, of course. Some pundits will immediately suggest this means he is open for business on the peace plan.
But the Hebrew statement he made this week is the more significant one, and it means one thing: Unless Trump’s advisers can somehow convince him to build a different coalition (something they probably won’t even try to do), Netanyahu is planning to easily get rid of Kushner’s peace initiative.