President Trump’s reignited Mideast diplomacy will likely fall short of instant Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it may help end a political logjam that for a year has paralyzed Israel.
After a Jerusalem meeting this week with Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence said he invited the Israeli prime minister to Washington. In a twist, Pence also invited Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s opposition and Bibi’s main political rival, who initially accepted the invitation to join Netanyahu at the White House Tuesday.
“This is an unusual and an unprecedented step,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and now a professor at Yeshiva University in New York. “The peace plan is less important for now,” he said, adding the trip is bound to “help Bibi politically, if Gantz is there with him.”
On Saturday, however, Gantz announced that following consultations with the White House he’d meet Trump on Monday, separately from Netanyahu, and then rush back to Israel. He praised President Trump as a “true friend” of Israel and said his proposed peace plan, known as “the deal of the century,” is an important step for future relations with the country’s neighbors.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, (sitting next to Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel) is hoping for a national unity government with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, left.AP
Gantz’s allies in the Blue-White party warned the trip is a political trap, laid out by Netanyahu, according to Israeli media reports. Some of his partners reportedly believe it was cooked up by the Prime Minister in consultation with Washington allies — and that it’s timed for a Knesset hearing Tuesday, weighing Bibi’s immunity from criminal prosecution.
All sides are aware that Israel is preoccupied with internal politics, anticipating a March 2 election, the third in less than a year. As in the previous two rounds, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu are likely to get enough Knesset support to string together a ruling coalition. Bibi’s best bet is a national unity government with Gantz, including a shared leadership. Negotiations on such a deal fell apart after last September’s election, when Blue-White rejected Bibi’s demand to serve first as prime minister, while Gantz takes over after two years.
While some Blue-White party leaders now lean toward agreeing to a unity government, others are in the “anything but Bibi” camp. By deciding to travel to Washington apart from Netanyahu, Gantz tried to satisfy both camps.
The roll out of Trump’s peace plan adds a geopolitical dimension to these internal Israeli disputes. Avalon said it may force compromise, as the country faces new challenges and voters demand national unity. Washington has an interest in pushing such a compromise.
The plan, developed by a team headed by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, was finalized a year ago, but publication was delayed as Israeli politics went awry. “We’ll probably release it a little bit prior to [Netanyahu and Gantz] coming,” Trump told pool reporters Thursday.
“What really got in our way is the election has taken forever,” he said. “It was essentially tied, and then tied again, and then tied,” delaying the plan’s publication. “We’ve been sitting, waiting for a candidate, but [now] both candidates want to do it, so they’re both coming,” Trump said.
Leaked snippets include a demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a US acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty in parts of the West Bank. The Palestinians have rejected Trump’s diplomacy from day one, and now say the plan is a non-starter. Yet it could shake some established assumptions and lead to major regional consequences.
But the first test is whether Israel can straighten out its politics.