Could Kushner’s Israel Visit This Week Signal Release of Trump's Mideast Peace Plan?

Israeli officials are convinced the Trump peace plan will be published before the March 2 election. Gantz was initially opposed to the idea but is now on board. Meanwhile, U.S. experts are wary, questioning who would benefit

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington
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A Palestinian man walking past a vandalized mural painting of U.S. President Donald Trump on the West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem, January 3, 2020.
A Palestinian man walking past a vandalized mural painting of U.S. President Donald Trump on the West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem, January 3, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
Washington

WASHINGTON – News reports emerging from Israel in recent days about the possibility of the Trump administration releasing its Middle East peace plan next week, in the midst of Israel’s election campaign, have been met with much skepticism in D.C.

Foreign diplomats, think tank experts and former government officials who closely follow U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue say they have seen this movie before: Time after time, the White House begins to drop hints about the release of its peace plan – and time after time, the plan eventually stays in a drawer in Jared Kushner’s office, awaiting a better moment to be published.

The latest news reports, which state that the small White House team working on the “deal of the century” is once again considering releasing it – this time before Israelis go to the polls on March 2 – haven’t drawn much media attention in the United States. No elected officials on Capitol Hill have addressed the subject either.

With Washington about to get sucked into President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, there seems to be very little interest in a peace plan that will be rejected by the Palestinian side minutes after its publication anyway.

Right now, Israeli officials are the only ones who are convinced the plan is actually going to be published in the next few weeks. Yet even on the Israeli side there are contradicting versions of when exactly it will come out. Some believe it is due as early as next week, while others think it is more likely the plan will be released after March 2, during the post-election government coalition negotiations between the different parties.

The Trump administration has not provided any clarity on the subject – mainly because there is an ongoing discussion within the White House on how exactly to proceed.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listening during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, at the Newseum in Washington, December 9, 2019.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner listening during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, at the Newseum in Washington, December 9, 2019. Credit: ALEXANDER DRAGO/REUTERS

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will visit Israel later this week in what most Israeli pundits assume is a “preparation visit” ahead of the peace plan’s release. Kushner’s close aide Avi Berkowitz, who is leading efforts on the plan inside the White House, was in Israel just two weeks ago. It was after this visit that rumors about the peace plan’s imminent release began to surface in the Israeli media.

Even before Kushner’s arrival in Israel this week, Trump will meet with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and ask for their views on the subject.

Trump has yet to make a decision on the subject: He could decide to release the plan within days, or to not publish it at all before the U.S. presidential election in November.

The answer Trump will likely most frequently hear from other world leaders is that publishing the peace plan while Israeli is deep into an election campaign makes very little sense. It will be perceived as an intervention in Israel’s democratic process and an attempt to sway the election in favor of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who twice failed to form a government last year and is fighting for his political life after being indicted in three corruption cases last November.

‘What’s the upside?’

Dan Shapiro, the previous U.S. ambassador to Israel and a senior adviser on Middle East policy to then-President Barack Obama, told Haaretz last week that he saw no reason for the administration to publish the plan right before the election – unless the entire purpose of the action was to help Netanyahu.

“No one thinks this will actually help advance the cause of peace,” he said. “So, is this about the president’s legacy? Is it about trying to help Netanyahu? The region doesn’t seem ripe at the moment – and who exactly in the international community is going to sign up to support this initiative?”

Earlier this month, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief rival in the election, signaled that he was not going to welcome the plan’s release before March 2. After he met Berkowitz earlier this month, Gantz said that such a step would be “blatant election interference.” It was a rare public rebuke of the U.S. administration from Gantz: When Trump intervened to help Netanyahu several times during the previous two election cycles, Gantz refrained from publicly criticizing the White House.

However, on Tuesday, Gantz changed course and said he is now calling on Trump to release the plan as soon as possible. He explained that his position has shifted because of "events in the region," but it is more likely a result of a political calculation that if the plan is coming out anyway, his party won't benefit from a confrontation with Trump.

Some supporters of the U.S. administration’s broader Middle East policy are more hesitant regarding the option of publishing it before the election. Joel Rosenberg, a Jerusalem-based author and analyst who has made headlines in recent years for organizing high-profile meetings between U.S. evangelical leaders and Arab heads of state, tells Haaretz he thinks it would be wiser to publish the plan after the election.

“Is there an upside to releasing the peace plan before the Israeli election in March? Perhaps, but I don’t see it,” Rosenberg says. He adds that, in his opinion, it would be better “to put the plan out immediately after the March 2 vote, but before anyone puts together a coalition. That way, the White House can’t be accused of interfering in the election, but it can still lay on the table core principles and key proposals that a new Israeli prime minister will absolutely need to take into account.”

The most common view among pundits in Israel is that Netanyahu would benefit from the plan’s imminent publication because it would help him distract the public from his corruption charges and his ongoing attempt to secure immunity from prosecution. The premier would prefer an election focused on foreign policy issues over one focused on corruption and internal divisions.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy offers a different analysis. He says the administration is more likely to wait until after the election – because publishing the peace plan during the campaign could also damage Netanyahu. Makovsky explains that “issuing the plan before the election will split the Israeli right – a nightmare scenario for Netanyahu. Netanyahu doesn’t believe he can compete for votes in the center, but fights for every vote on the right.”

Makovsky adds that Netanyahu’s right-wing competitors – most notably Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – could use any Israeli concessions in the peace plan as a way of overtaking Netanyahu from the right and drawing hard-line voters from his Likud party.

Such a scenario, Makovsky says, “will force the prime minister to accentuate his opposition to elements [of the plan] that will not be acceptable to voters on the right. This will anger Trump – something Netanyahu has avoided.”

Makovsky says it would make more sense for the administration – which has gone to great lengths to help Netanyahu politically – to publish the plan after the election. “Netanyahu’s calculus after the election shifts sharply,” he says. “He could embrace the plan, which one can safely assume he has intimate knowledge of, and challenge Benny Gantz for this plan to be the glue of a national unity coalition government.”

Makovsky notes that the plan will probably not lead to a diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinian Authority anytime soon. But the White House could have other reasons for releasing it before Trump enters his own reelection cycle

“I think the Trump administration is keen on putting down a plan as a shifting historic reference point compared to other administrations, believing this will impact the future – especially if there is a second term. It also believes Israel’s freedom of action in the West Bank is greater after the plan is presented and rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas than before it is issued.”

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