WASHINGTON – Despite Israel being in the midst of another election campaign, the Trump administration is once again considering whether to publish its Middle East peace plan. While no decision has been made, there is real debate within the White House about releasing the plan in the next few weeks.
Some in the administration believe this is the very last opportunity to publish it. However, there are concerns over how it will be received during a contentious election – the third within the space of less than a year in Israel.
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Last weekend, the administration sent Avi Berkowitz to Israel for a short visit. Berkowitz – a special assistant to President Donald Trump and the person currently leading the administration’s work on the matter – met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main political opponent, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz. The trip was described by White House officials as more of a “fact-finding mission” than an actual step toward releasing the plan.
It’s not clear what Berkowitz heard from Netanyahu during their meeting, but Gantz expressed concerns that releasing the plan in the midst of an election campaign would be blatant intervention by Trump in Israel’s democratic process.
Gantz repeated that message publicly on Monday during a media appearance at the Knesset. This was the first time since entering political life just over a year ago that Gantz had spoken in a combative tone about the Trump administration. In previous instances when Trump clearly intervened in Israeli politics to help Netanyahu, Gantz kept mum. This week, though, he signaled to the administration that such action would not find a political consensus inside Israel, unlike most of Trump’s policy steps so far.
Two weeks before the April 2019 election, Trump invited Netanyahu to the White House to attend his 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. And 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 once the election was over.
Throughout all of this, the White House has insisted that Trump wasn’t actually taking sides in Israeli politics and was simply implementing policies that he believed were right for the United States. However, when Netanyahu explicitly argued, days before the September election, that he has received Trump’s “support,” no one in the White House bothered to correct the public record.
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Based on recent history, some Israeli pundits have raised the possibility that the latest discussions over the potential release of the peace plan are simply another attempt by the Trump administration to help Netanyahu politically – this time, ahead of the election scheduled to take place on March 2. This is strongly denied by the administration.
Netanyahu was indicted on three corruption charges, including bribery, in late November. On January 1, he asked the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution, in order to delay the start of his trial. His aim in the upcoming election is to secure at least 61 seats for his right-wing and religious bloc, which would likely protect him from prosecution for as long as he stays in office. Public opinion polls in Israel show that a majority of Israelis oppose his immunity request.
For Netanyahu, any campaign day in which the national headlines focus on security and diplomatic affairs rather than his alleged corruption is a good day. That is why he has a clear interest, at this point in time, in seeing the American plan published and to have it dominate the discourse in Israel.
The contents of the plan are still unknown, but they are expected to be closer to the views of the Israeli right and settler movement than previous U.S. peace plans – and Netanyahu will likely present this as a personal achievement. The White House is aware of these interpretations and is planning to push back strongly against them if the plan is indeed released.
The administration will insist that the timing of the release has nothing to do with Israeli politics, and that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner – and others in the administration who have worked on the plan for the past three years – will not “burn” it simply to help Netanyahu escape trial.
The administration will present a different reason for releasing the plan, if such a decision is indeed made at this point in time.
Its “case” will focus on the fact that Trump’s first term is approaching its end and the United States is about to enter a full-time presidential election cycle. This means Kushner’s team has a very short period of time left to release its plan, unless it is willing to take a risk and hold it until after the November election. If Trump does not win a second term, this would mean the plan never sees the light of day.
The administration is also concerned that, based on all the latest public opinion polls in Israel, the chances that another election will lead to a different result seem quite low. This means that waiting until after the March 2 election could turn out to be a waste of time, because the political deadlock could continue.
The Kushner team is not seeking a confrontation with Gantz. Kushner and Berkowitz would likely try to mitigate any impression that the plan’s release is part of the political battle in Israel, but they don’t have full control over the actions and words of Trump and others in the administration. One tweet would be enough to give the other impression.
The Trump administration’s original intention was to release the plan in early 2019, but the publication date was delayed after Netanyahu called an early election in December 2018. The administration then hoped to release it after that April 2019 election, but instead of releasing it straight afterward, at a point when it could have increased the likelihood of a national unity government being formed including Netanyahu and Gantz’s parties, the Trump team waited until a government would be formed – only to witness a shocking political development in late May when Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and the Knesset voted to dissolve itself.
In light of the political turmoil in Israel, Kushner’s team decided last June to release only the plan’s economic chapter, and then wait with the political and security chapters until after the September 17 “do-over” election. But another deadlocked result, and Netanyahu’s second failed attempt to form a government, turned 2019 into a wasted year for peace in the Middle East. By the end of the year, Jason Greenblatt – who was Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East – had left the White House; Kushner took on other priorities, including the construction of Trump’s border wall; and Berkowitz led the work on Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism.
Now, Kushner and Berkowitz – together with U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman – are debating whether to turn the peace plan into a major priority in the first weeks of 2020.
The administration expects the Palestinian leadership to immediately reject the plan, which means an Israeli-Palestinian accord is not going to be the result of the plan’s publication. The Kushner team’s hope is that the plan will nevertheless be accepted by certain Arab countries in the Middle East who are aligned with the U.S. and Israeli position on Iran.
Some in the administration argue that the latest events in the region, which once again highlight the tensions between Iran and the Sunni Muslim world, are another reason to publish the plan at this moment in time.
Former White House officials who served in the two previous U.S. administrations tell Haaretz that they see no diplomatic logic in publishing the plan while Israel is still in the midst of a political crisis and the entire Middle East is experiencing turmoil.
“Releasing the plan before Israel’s election makes no apparent sense,” says Robert Danin, who was a senior director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and is currently a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.
“There is no interest on the Israeli or Palestinian side in peacemaking at the moment, with both parties consumed with internal issues,” Danin adds. “Other key regional players are also focused on ongoing violence and conflict elsewhere. The only people who seem to think the plan is relevant right now are the several senior Trump administration officials working on it.”
Danin says “the obvious question people will ask if the plan will be released soon is: why now? How does releasing the plan prior to Israel’s third election in a year help advance the cause of peace? This then raises another question – what is the real objective, and what are they actually trying to do? Is this about helping Netanyahu win the Israeli election? Is it about helping Trump curry favor with his supporters prior to his reelection campaign? Or is it about continuing to fundamentally change long-standing American policies toward the conflict in case Trump is not reelected? No one has clear or particularly convincing answers.”
“Why do it now?” he asks. “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?”
The Obama administration had its own peace plan, which was devised mostly by Secretary of State John Kerry on the basis of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that took place in 2014. Kerry, however, never released his plan because, in the spring of 2014, the administration reached the conclusion that a peace deal was nowhere in sight. Documents from the Kerry plan were eventually published by Haaretz in June 2017.
Shapiro said this week that the peace plan should be released only if it increases the likelihood of peace and not for political reasons – whether in Israel or the United States. The former ambassador adds: “I understand what Jared Kushner could get from releasing it, but what’s in it for Donald Trump?”