WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is closely monitoring the unity government negotiations in Israel, but is officially staying mum on the subject for the time being in the hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz will succeed in finding a formula for a power-sharing agreement and avoid a fourth round of elections later this year.
For U.S. President Donald Trump, the formation of a unity government in Israel would create an opening for a foreign policy achievement, after weeks of nothing but negative headlines as a result of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. Trump is up for reelection in November and is planning to highlight his record on Israel and the Middle East in order to attract strong support from evangelical voters.
Before the coronavirus outbreak became a full-blown crisis, the White House was expecting to make major progress on the implementation of its Middle East plan, aka “the deal of the century.” Despite the fact that the pandemic has completely overtaken all other priorities in Washington, there is still hope within the administration to return to promoting the Middle East plan before the 2020 election – and the formation of a new Israeli government, after a year of three election cycles, would be a first step in that direction.
Officially, the administration is not commenting on anything related to the political situation in Israel, and specifically regarding the negotiations between Netanyahu and House Speaker Gantz. But the White House is aware that if the two leaders fail to reach a deal within the next 20 days, the most likely scenario will be a fourth Israeli election this fall – an event that would hamper and delay Trump’s diplomatic plan once again.
Netanyahu and Gantz are scheduled to meet again on Thursday evening, after previous rounds of talks led to some progress but no agreement. If and when a government is announced, the White House is expected to immediately offer its support for it and to encourage it to work toward implementing Trump’s Middle East plan.
Trump spoke over the phone with Netanyahu last month, at a time when it appeared more and more likely that Netanyahu strike a deal with Gantz, in which both men would serve as premier with the Likud leader going first.
The official Israeli readout of the conversation referred to Trump “congratulating” Netanyahu on the deal, but the official U.S. version did not include any such mention and focused instead on the fact that both leaders discussed the coronavirus crisis.
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Once an Israeli government is formed, the administration will have to decide how hard and how soon it wants to push its Middle East plan, in light of the new global situation caused by the pandemic.
Looking for progress
Up until mid-February, the peace plan was a top priority for the White House, and it also dominated the political discourse in Israel. But the coronavirus has changed the political dynamic in both countries, just as it has globally.
In Washington, the administration officials who led the work on the peace plan – most notably Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and his close aide Avi Berkowitz, who has been in charge of Middle East diplomacy in recent months – are currently working exclusively on the administration’s response to COVID-19.
Ever since mid-March, the outbreak has become the only issue on Kushner’s desk. Trump has tasked his son-in-law with operationalizing new ideas on how to handle the crisis, which could put an end to years of economic growth and plunge the United States into a new recession. According to reports published over the weekend, Kushner is also now tasked with leading a White House group devoted to “reopening” the country’s economy once it comes out of lockdown.
Last month, Berkowitz – who grew up in an Orthodox community – led a White House conference call with Orthodox rabbis and community leaders, mostly in the New York area, to stress the importance of adhering to social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines in order to fight the coronavirus.
Officials in the administration, however, told Haaretz last month that they were also waiting for an Israeli government to be formed, and that once that happens, they would like to make some progress on their Middle East plan – if not immediately, then certainly within a time range of several weeks or months.
The Trump plan has also become one of the points of disagreement during negotiations between Netanyahu and Gantz. Under pressure from settler organizations and the Israeli religious right, Netanyahu wants to promote immediate annexation of all West Bank settlements. Gantz opposes this idea and prefers instead the gradual annexation of certain parts of the West Bank, in coordination with Israel’s allies around the world.
Netanyahu had promised to annex all of the settlements at the height of the election campaign earlier this year, receiving the blessing of Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, for such a move. But Friedman, who has a long history of supporting settlements and opposing any compromise with the Palestinians, turned out to be speaking only for himself and not the administration. His position was subsequently overruled by Kushner, who maintained that no annexation should take place before the March 2 election.
Gantz, for his part, has expressed support for the Trump plan (he was granted a rare personal meeting with Trump in the Oval Office in January prior to the peace plan’s release). However, he has made it clear that he will only support annexation if it is done in coordination with countries like Jordan, Egypt and Israel’s European allies. In practice, this means Gantz will only back limited annexation steps in the West Bank, and not the wider annexation proposal pushed by Netanyahu and Friedman.
Navigating such nuances and disagreements will require a lot of attention from the administration’s Middle East team, led by Kushner. No one in the White House expects such a shift to happen as soon as a new government is formed in Israel. It is possible, though, that Kushner and Berkowitz will start increasing their work on the Middle East issue within weeks, assuming that some of the emergency pandemic measures are gradually lifted in both the United States and Israel.
Trump could also see developments in Israel as an opportunity to search for good news coverage, after weeks of brutal headlines over his administration’s handling of the pandemic. Like any incumbent president in an election year, Trump is looking for diplomatic achievements to present to the public. Support for Israel is especially important to his base of evangelical voters and to many of the top donors in his election campaign.
Right now, Kushner is still working exclusively on issues related to the coronavirus. But as the Israeli year of election cycles potentially comes to an end and the U.S. election draws closer, his priorities could shift once again – just in time to help Trump with the voters he needs on Election Day.