WASHINGTON — Five months ago, the Trump administration concluded an international conference centered around its plan for Middle East peace. The workshop, which was hosted in Bahrain, brought together representatives from several Arab countries as well as private business executives from Israel. It was seen as the first step in a process to advance the White House’s peace plan.
In the months that followed, though, no progress has been made — mainly because of the domestic political situation in Israel. As the country stumbles toward a possible third election in the space of 12 months, the fate of the U.S. peace plan is unclear. It's impossible to predict what, if anything, will emerge from it in the next few months.
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50
The Bahrain conference took place on June 25-26 and focused exclusively on economic aspects, putting aside diplomatic, political and security-related questions. Days before the conference kicked off, the White House team working on the plan released a lengthy document presenting potential economic projects and investments in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The decision to publish only the economic chapter and leave aside the diplomatic one was itself a product of the political troubles in Israel. Two and a half months before the Bahrain gathering, it seemed as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had won the April 9 election. A day after Netanyahu celebrated his apparent victory, President Donald Trump told reporters in Washington that the administration’s peace plan would be presented in the near future — presumably once Netanyahu had finished assembling his coalition government.
From there, though, things got complicated. Netanyahu failed to form a coalition because of disagreements between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Avigdor Lieberman's secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. Inside the Trump administration, deliberations took place while the political drama was unfolding in Israel. Some close to the peace team advised its members to put forward the plan in the midst of the coalition talks, in order to give Netanyahu and Benny Gantz (leader of the centrist Kahol Lavan party) a helpful "push" toward the formation of a national unity government.
Others told the team, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, that releasing the plan during coalition negotiations would be a mistake. They warned Kushner and Jason Greenblatt — at the time Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East — that publishing the plan then would seem like a direct intervention in Israel’s coalition negotiations by the U.S. administration.
The Trump team had already faced frequent accusations of direct interference in the election by the Israeli and U.S. media, as well as political opponents in Washington. In the weeks before Israelis went to the polls, Trump had recognized Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights at a joint ceremony with Netanyahu in the White House; praised Netanyahu in public appearances; shared Netanyahu’s election propaganda on his social media accounts; and sent his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, for a first-of-its-kind visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The administration denied any of this was related to the election.
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Following constant criticism over the timing of these actions, the last thing the Kushner team wanted was to give the impression that they were now getting involved in post-election coalition talks. Their assumption, like the assumption of the vast majority of political analysts in Israel, was that a government would be formed by Netanyahu, and then they would finally be able to release the full plan — which Kushner, Greenblatt and other members of the administration had spent more than two years creating.
Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition at the end of May was a shock to the White House. Trump tried to directly help Netanyahu days before the coalition-forming deadline by urging Israel’s party leaders to solve the political crisis. It didn’t help. Once a second election was announced for September 17, the intention to release the full peace plan had to be delayed.
The Trump administration compromised by releasing only the economic chapter, hoping it would create positive momentum and raise expectations regarding the next installment. The economic document received a lot of coverage in Israel and the Arab world, as did the Bahrain conference. The Kushner team had convinced Bahrain to provide access to several Israeli journalists in order to cover the conference, setting a historical precedent and generating many headlines in Israel.
Five months on, however, it's clear that the political crisis in Israel has killed any momentum that might have been created by the events of late June.
Building that wall
The hope in Washington was that the second Israeli election of 2019 would end the political stalemate and that a new government, led by Netanyahu or Gantz, would finally make it possible to release the Mideast plan. More than 70 days have passed since the election, and that prospect looks very unlikely at the moment.
In the meantime, several personnel changes have taken place in Washington. Greenblatt left the administration after almost three years working as special envoy. Most of his responsibilities are now being handled by Avi Berkowitz, a close aide to Kushner who was also involved in putting together the Bahrain conference.
Kushner himself has other priorities now. The Washington Post reported this week that Trump has named him as de facto project manager in charge of constructing the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Kushner was already working on trade relations between the United States and Mexico, and is also a senior adviser to Trump on political issues ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The most important aspect of the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship — a new trade agreement that also involves Canada — has been stuck in Congress for months.
Trump has reportedly expressed frustration that his two big campaign promises involving Mexico — the trade deal and the wall, which he vowed Mexico would pay for — are still not completed less than a year before the election. He trusts Kushner to get them moving.
A source in the administration told Haaretz that Kushner is working on several priorities set forward by Trump, with the peace plan being only one of them. Kushner also worked on a criminal justice reform that passed both houses of Congress in 2018, one of the administration’s only initiatives to receive broad bi-partisan support in Congress. As for the peace plan, the source said, Berkowitz and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are in charge of the day-to-day operation and Kushner’s involvement could increase if an opportunity to present the plan will be created.
Last month, Kushner visited Israel for the first time since the September election and also met with Gantz for the first time. He also held a separate meeting with Netanyahu. However, he did not meet with any Palestinian officials, as the Palestinian Authority has been boycotting the Trump administration for the past two years — ever since Trump announced he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and had therefore, they said, taken Jerusalem "off the table."
Kushner's visit signaled that he was still examining ways to move forward with the peace plan, but the results were not encouraging for the Trump administration. In fact, those working on the peace plan have known ever since the morning of September 18 that Israel's political crisis would not be solved anytime soon.
Berkowitz has made no public statements on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for over two weeks (after, on November 12, he condemned rocket attacks on Israel by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad). The main statement the administration has made in the meantime was a speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, in which he reversed U.S. policy regarding the settlements in the West Bank, saying the U.S. administration no longer considered them illegal under international law.
The White House and State Department insisted that Pompeo’s announcement had nothing to do with Israeli politics and was in no way intended to help Netanyahu in ongoing coalition bargaining. The official version provided by both U.S. and Israeli sources is that the announcement was in the works for months, handled directly by Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — who is known for his right-wing views and strong support for the settler movement.
However, denials of any political motivation for the announcement were weakened by Netanyahu's immediate reaction, which was to use it as the basis for a political attack on Gantz. This irritated officials in Washington who were involved in working on the statement. Pompeo, for his part, said the announcement wasn’t just detached from politics — it was also helpful for peace.
Pompeo’s speech last week was denounced by Arab countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who are seen as crucial to the success of any future U.S. peace plan. These countries, however, didn’t go beyond verbal denunciations and their responses didn’t signal much anger. The Jordanians have been frustrated with the Trump administration for a long time, over both its Israeli-Palestinian policies and Syria policy. The Saudis don’t consider the Israeli-Palestinian issue a top priority and routinely speak out against Trump’s policy on the matter without allowing that criticism to affect other issues.
Still, it’s clear that no Arab country in the Middle East is ready to accept the kind of policies advocated by ambassador Friedman. The Trump administration’s assessment is that no matter what the eventual contents of the peace plan, it will be immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership. But there was a lot of hope in the White House over the past year that the wider Arab response to the U.S. plan would be positive. It’s not clear how Pompeo's statement helps with that goal, but the entire discussion is theoretical as long as the plan cannot be released because there is no elected government in Israel.
Another Israeli election in March would make things even more difficult for Kushner and his team. The administration has twice ruled out releasing its full plan during an election; it’s hard to see a reason why it would act differently this time. Waiting until next spring, however, would move the calendar very close to the November U.S. election. It’s hard to see the administration taking such a step so close to a presidential election, especially if the plan were to include any Israeli territorial concessions — something that could spell trouble for Trump with a core group of supporters: pro-Israel evangelical Christians.
Given such a scenario, the release of the peace plan might be delayed further into 2021. Kushner, in other words, would first need to succeed with his other core projects — building parts of the wall on the southern border and helping Trump win a second term — before he could finally return to his original Middle East mission.