How Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ Became the Joke of the Century

After the Americans poured cold water on Netanyahu’s premature annexation party, the prime minister has a lot of explaining to do

Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Amos Biderman
Illustration: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

It could be said of Benjamin Netanyahu, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, that was his best of weeks, this was his worst of weeks.

The same day he realized his personal forever dream, the one that throughout most of his time as prime minister he didn’t dare to breathe out loud, he was formally indicted on corruption charges. All the obstacles he had piled up in a desperate, foolish bid to thwart his prosecution were removed, with the possible exception of a future plea deal, no signs of which have appeared as yet.

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Nor will the approaching election save him. U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace was supposed to be Netanyahu’s October surprise, one which would perhaps catapult the right-ultra-Orthodox bloc to 61 Knesset seats. But the so-called deal of the century turned, with dizzying speed, into the joke of the century.

The Americans halted the annexation offensive Netanyahu was planning to carry out in the coming days and weeks, before the March 2 election. If he doesn’t get to annex at least a symbolic smidgen of land before the election, and promise to finish the job after it, nothing good will come out of the ballot boxes for him.

Not even the opinion polls conducted at the height of the euphoria brought him closer to electoral victory. The tie between the blocs remained. Kahol Lavan is still the largest party, although Likud narrowed the gap a little, partly at the expense of Yamina.

Israel’s rightist media marketed with messianic, not to say panting and drooling, ecstasy the immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea and 150 West Bank settlements. They began even before Netanyahu and Trump paced ceremoniously into the East Room in the White House. The room was bursting with evangelical Christians, kippa-wearing Jews and another elderly, orange billionaire, much richer than Trump.

The fake show continued long afterward, led this time by Netanyahu himself, as he briefed journalists on his intention to bring the annexation issue to an immediate cabinet vote. His advisors savored the possibility of embarrassing Kahol Lavan by bringing the annexation decision to a vote in the Knesset plenum as well.

US President Donald Trump claps during a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey, January 28, 2020.
US President Donald Trump claps during a campaign rally at Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey, January 28, 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP

The Likud spokesman tweeted: “Sovereignty over all the settlements on Sunday” – and hurriedly deleted it. Then came the first mention of a delay, a small, technical one, from Sunday to Tuesday, “to allow the attorney general to get organized.” The cabinet secretariat in Jerusalem was instructed to organize a festive session. It took the Americans several hours to understand what was happening. At no stage in their talks with the prime minister’s people was a green light given – either explicitly or implicitly – for immediate annexations, before Israel’s March 2 election and before the establishment of a new government. On the contrary. Benny Gantz and his people were specifically told in the White House that everything would be postponed.

That was also what Gantz reported to his party partners and in briefings to members of the media. In view of the flood of briefings by the prime minister’s aides to reporters in Washington and in Israel, who claimed that it was only a matter of days, figures in Kahol Lavan began to worry that someone had misled Gantz. Did Trump tell him one thing while telling Netanyahu something completely different? When they failed to get a clear answer from the administration, Gantz had to think of a way to minimize the damage. In a conference at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies on Wednesday, he said he would submit the entire plan to a “declarative” vote in the Knesset. The move, which was unlikely to actually happen, was intended to cause difficulty to the rightist bloc, which would have to vote for the recognition of a Palestinian state as part of the overall plan. Fortunately for Gantz, the developments made this dubious move unnecessary.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the penny dropped. Officials there realized slightly belatedly that Netanyahu had played them for fools. He was publicly declaring immediate annexation, hoping his good friends in the white House don’t chump him out by contradicting his statement.

How does Trump put it? Huge, huge mistake. And a gross error in judgment. On Wednesday Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt were sent to the media with buckets of ice water to pour on Netanyahu’s head. No sovereignty, they said, before a joint “committee” is set up, not before the election, not before there’s a government. They viciously slammed the brakes on Bibi and added a slap on the face, gratis.

Washington outpost

By now even the Trump administration, like Obama’s and Clinton’s before it, knows the difference between reliability and fraud, between responsibility and charlatanry. Gantz, “the general,” kept his word, kept the secret, didn’t try to exploit for personal gain the information he was given. Netanyahu acted like Netanyahu at his worst. He panicked, and lied. Apparently he simply isn’t capable of acting differently.

Netanyahu will have to provide explanations to his American benefactors, but even before that to his constituents at home – the settlers, the rightists in his party and Yamina in the bloc. The false hope he had given them was replaced with painful disillusionment. The mania turned into depression. The goal became an own goal. Yamina Chairman and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett warned: “What is put off until to after the election won’t happen, we all understand that.” It looks as if he knew what he was talking about.

When Netanyahu landed in Washington on Sunday, the settler leaders were waiting for him. The tail that wags the dog chased him all the way to America. They, like his mouthpieces in the media, were enthusiastically briefed by him already last Thursday about the historic deal of the century, so that everyone falls in line and recites: This is a historic step and an unprecedented achievement, whose fruits can be picked here and now.

But the settler bosses are suspicious by nature. They demanded an urgent meeting. They also didn’t leave behind, in the West Bank, their internal disputes and fights. We won’t have Yossi Dagan take part in the meeting, they sent angry messages to the prime minister’s aides.

Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, is a maverick. An aggressive, ambitious man who doesn’t always play ball with the rest of the settler leaders. Netanyahu agreed. He met them and later invited Dagan to a separate meeting. They heard of the exclusive meeting and fumed. Some of them criticized, in radio and television interviews, the proposed plan and the scenario in which Israel would have to recognize a Palestinian state as part of the deal. Netanayhu spent hours calming them down.

You can take the settler leaders out of the shtetl, but you can’t take the shtetl out of the settler leaders. Even in America. Even in suits and ties.

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