WASHINGTON – A week before the Israeli election on March 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman spent an afternoon together in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The Israeli media was invited to photograph them, in what was clearly part of Netanyahu’s election campaign.
The message the premier wanted to send, with the ambassador’s help, was that once the election was over, Israel would be able to begin its annexation of the settlements with the approval of the Trump administration.
If it was up to Friedman and Netanyahu alone, that annexation would have already started after Trump’s Mideast peace plan was unveiled at the end of January. But other senior administration officials, most notably Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, took that option off the table.
Kushner, the driving force behind Trump’s “deal of the century,” wanted to allow more time for potential negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and perhaps also between Israel and neighboring Arab countries. He blocked Netanyahu and Friedman’s plans, at least temporarily.
By appearing in public with Friedman just before the election, Netanyahu was trying to reassure right-wing voters that even though his promise for immediate annexation hadn’t materialized in January, it would happen “very soon,” in Netanyahu’s own words, once the election was over.
Now, two weeks after Election Day, things look very different. The national conversation in Israel has been dominated by just one issue for the past 10 days: the coronavirus pandemic, which is threatening to destroy the Israeli economy.
Netanyahu is holding press conferences every evening, speaking exclusively about how Israel is dealing with the virus and not uttering a word about annexation.
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The only other issue that is breaking into the Israeli news cycle is the continuation of Israel’s year-long political deadlock, which did not end on March 2. The exit polls on Election Night showed a clear victory for Netanyahu and the religious right-wing parties in his bloc, but the final results were disappointing for the incumbent premier.
Overall, 51 percent of Israelis voted for parties that promised not to support a government led by Netanyahu. On Monday, his main political rival, former army chief Benny Gantz, was given the first opportunity to form a new governing coalition by President Reuven Rivlin.
The chances that either the Kahol Lavan leader or Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government in the next few weeks appear to be very slim. Netanyahu has invited Gantz to enter an “emergency government” led by Netanyahu himself, and promised that under such a government all nonessential legislation will be frozen for half a year. This would make any movement on annexation unlikely in the next few months.
In addition, with the Israeli stock market crashing – just like the markets in the United States and other parts of the world – and an economic crisis fast approaching, it’s doubtful whether a Netanyahu-Gantz emergency government would want to ignite the West Bank by taking the unprecedented step of annexing all of the settlements.
The pandemic is already hurting the economies of two neighboring Arab countries that rely heavily on tourism: Jordan and Egypt. When Trump’s “deal of the century” was published, both countries offered relatively mild criticism of the plan. At the same time, though, they warned the White House that widespread settlement annexation would be a major problem for them. That problem could only get worse, especially for Jordan, if economic conditions deteriorate further because of the international health crisis.
In Washington, the handling of the virus 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 America into a new recession.
For Kushner, this isn’t just his top priority at the moment – it’s the only priority. His close aide Avi Berkowitz, who had led the work on the Middle East plan in recent months, is also now working exclusively on the coronavirus crisis.
With regards to the “deal of the century,” the White House’s approach right now is “wait and see.” First, a government needs to be formed in Israel. Then, the impact of the coronavirus on Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring countries needs to be assessed, before any steps can even consider being taken.
This doesn’t mean the administration is officially giving up on its Mideast vision. But it does mean that between the economic downfall that is expected in both the United States and the Middle East, the ongoing political instability in Israel and the shift in Kushner’s priorities within the White House, it will be quite some time before anyone returns to talking about the Trump peace plan.