WASHINGTON - Two senior officials in the Trump administration have hinted in recent days that that White House could present its Middle East peace plan ahead of Israel's March 2 election, in a move that could aid the campaign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel's contentious third election in less than a year's time.
On Sunday, the news website Axios published an interview with Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, who said that the administration is not ruling out releasing the plan at the height of the election campaign. "I don't think it necessarily depends on the elections,” O’Brien said, referring to the timing of the peace plan’s release. The administration originally wanted to publish the plan in early 2019, but delayed the publication several times because of the two previous elections in Israel, which took place in April and September.
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 56
Despite the fact that the White House attributed the earlier delays in the plan's publication to Israel's political situation, O'Brien said over the weekend that the Trump administration is "not timing anything we do based on the domestic politics, either the Palestinians' or the Israelis'." He added that the administration is "not focused on the Israeli election calendar or when the Palestinians end up having an election."
On Monday, Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, also mentioned the peace plan during an appearance at Stanford University. “We are working diligently to build out a set of understandings” in the Middle East, Pompeo told a crowd of students. “You will continue to see our efforts that relate to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians – that hasn’t drawn much attention lately. We are still working very diligently on this.” He called the conflict “a historic challenge."
These statements join growing signs that the administration is indeed considering releasing the plan soon, and perhaps is already preparing for such a step.
Earlier in January, the White House sent Avi Berkowitz, special assistant to President Trump and the official leading work on the peace plan, to visit Israel and meet with political leaders in the country. His trip was described by the administration as a "fact finding mission," rather than an actual preparation for the plans release. However, by the end of the visit, Israeli media outlets reported that Israeli officials were expecting the plan to be released soon.
Netanyahu’s main challenger in the election, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, has warned that such a step would constitute “blatant interference” in the Israeli election by the Trump administration. This warning was Gantz's first negative reaction to a potential policy step by Trump since his entrance into politics a year ago.
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Gantz kept silent in previous instances when Trump clearly intervened in Israeli politics to aid Netanyahu. Two weeks before the April 2019 election, Trump invited Netanyahu to the White House and signed a declaration recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The U.S. president also praised Netanyahu publicly on several occasions during that campaign and shared Netanyahu’s campaign posters on his social media accounts.
Three days before the September election, Trump and Netanyahu spoke over the phone and discussed a mutual U.S.-Israel defense pact – an idea that disappeared from view after the election was over.
Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, told Haaretz last week that he saw no diplomatic reason to release the plan during an election, especially in light of the fact that it will be rejected by the Palestinian side, which considers the Trump administration to be in lockstep with the Israeli right-wing.
“Why do it now?” Shapiro asked. “No one thinks this will actually help advance the cause of peace. 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?"