As Netanyahu faces another election, White House peace plan may be the first casualty
It was as if the night before had never happened.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and his entourage, all smiles and handshakes, met here Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss a much-touted though still undisclosed U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan.
But that plan’s already faltering prospects were dealt another blow late Wednesday, when Netanyahu missed a deadline for cobbling together a new coalition government. Cornered, he pushed the parliament, or Knesset, to dissolve itself, setting the stage for mid-September general elections.
It was one of the biggest setbacks of his political career, and flew in the face of his storied ability to survive almost any setback. The prime minister, who had appeared flustered and furious the night before, sought Thursday to strike a tone of business as usual.
“You know, we had a little event last night,” he said before the meeting, according to the prime minister’s office. “That’s not going to stop us.”
Kushner, too, suggested all was going satisfactorily.
“We’re very excited about all the potential that lies ahead for Israel, for the relationship, and for the future,” he said.
Israel’s election schedule, though, has been key to the long-anticipated peace plan. The last general election was in April, and it had been expected that the formation of a Netanyahu-led government would allow things to move forward.
Now it is not even certain that the prime minister, who faced a strong challenge from the centrist Blue and White party in the April vote, will be able to hang onto his post.
Netanyahu is turning his attention to plotting an election strategy and wooing potential coalition partners if he wins the September vote. And crucially, he is trying to make certain that parties he allies with politically will help protect him from corruption charges that are expected to be formalized in October.
“The Trump plan is on ice,” said Dan Shapiro, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. “They can’t roll it out before the Israelis hold their election and form a government.”
Shapiro, who is now a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, added: “It’s entirely possible that we never see the plan.”
In Washington, Trump offered sympathy for Netanyahu’s predicament, calling him a “great guy.” But he did not say how the upheaval in Israel might affect the still-secret peace plan.
“It’s too bad what happened in Israel,” the president told reporters at the White House. “And now they’re back in the debate stage and they’re back in the election stage. That is too bad, because they don’t need this.”
Trump, who has cultivated a close relationship with the Israeli leader, made several moves during the last campaign that were interpreted as an effort to boost the prime minister’s chances at the ballot box.
Those included a declaration just two weeks before the April vote that Washington recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the long-disputed Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967.
On Thursday, Netanyahu offered a pointed reminder of that. In a video broadcast live on Facebook, he displayed an updated State Department map — which he said was delivered by Kushner as a gift from Trump — that depicted the strategic plateau as Israeli territory. He said Trump had hand-inscribed it: “Nice.”
“I say, ‘Very nice!’” Netanyahu said.
Some analysts said they expected the U.S. president would once again work to ensure that the prime minister stays in office.
“If you think Trump intervened in the run-up to the April 9 Israeli elections to help Netanyahu, buckle your seat belts,” Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department advisor, tweeted after Wednesday night’s dissolution of the Knesset. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Although the U.S. peace plan has yet to be unveiled, Palestinians have poured cold water on it amid scant expectations that their statehood aspirations will be part of the blueprint.
More than two years ago, when Trump handed Kushner the task of putting together an overarching Mideast peace proposal, the president enthused about the prospect of a “deal of the century.”
Now, with the formation of a new Israeli government months away, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat couldn’t resist a joke about prospects for yet another delay.
“Now it is the deal of the next century,” Erekat tweeted.
Israeli commentators said new elections would almost certainly cause a slippage in any timetable to roll out the U.S.-backed peace plan, especially since Trump will be starting to turn his own attention to the 2020 presidential campaign by the time Israel has a new government in place this fall.
“No one will be shocked if new elections in Israel lead to another delay, regardless of what the administration may say in the near future,” wrote Amir Tibon, a Washington correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz daily.
The White House has touted an economic conference scheduled next month in Bahrain as a chance to draw pan-Arab investment in the Palestinian territories and lay the groundwork for a potential political settlement. Palestinians have dismissed the idea that financial incentives will induce them to give up territorial and other demands.
The State Department has said plans were going ahead for the June 25-26 gathering regardless of the Israeli domestic political situation. But Palestinian officials, who are boycotting the conference, expressed renewed concern about what they consider the pro-Israel bias of Kushner and U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt.
“The Americans have in some ways become an instrument of Israeli politics — no, not Israeli politics, but Netanyahu politics,” said a senior Palestinian official, Hanan Ashrawi.
Kushner and Greenblatt’s trip to the region this week also took them to Jordan and Morocco, both U.S. allies that have not committed to taking part in the Bahrain conference.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II pointedly reiterated his support for a two-state solution — that is, Israel and a Palestinian state existing side by side.
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Washington.
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