Israeli Politics Dooming Kushner’s Peace Push?
March 19, 2019
Israeli attorney general’s 55-page preliminary indictment linking Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to three charges of corruption may create collateral
damage: President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
now, many had assumed that Netanyahu would win Israel’s election on April 9
and the long-awaited Trump plan—an effort to make what Trump has described as
“the deal of the century”—would be put forward shortly afterward. Given
the close relationship between Trump and Netanyahu, it seemed a certainty that
the plan’s overall contours would suit the Israeli premier even if he might
object to some of its components.
have never been high, whether in Washington or the Middle East, that Trump would
be able to reach a breakthrough where many American presidents have not. And yet
this novice president has persistently instructed aides to pursue this effort
even as regional leaders and pundits all over have panned his peace push as
unrealistic, one-sided, ill-timed or worse.
the biggest challenge for Trump may be the shifting political winds in Israel.
Only a strong prime minister can take the big risks required for peace, but
Netanyahu is struggling to overcome a difficult few weeks. First, there was a
merger of two centrist parties, including an unprecedented joining of three
former military chiefs of staff who could neutralize Netanyahu’s advantage in
the all-important national security sphere. This new Blue-White party is led by
former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, who suddenly surged
ahead of Netanyahu in the polls. Second, the attorney general’s preliminary
indictment against the premier has cast a legal cloud over Netanyahu. Gantz may
have a real shot to unseat Netanyahu, though the incumbent prime minister has
campaigned relentlessly in recent weeks and erased Gantz’s lead. Netanyahu is
confident, too, that he can more easily cobble together a majority coalition.
Yet even if he prevails in April, the legal case will dog Netanyahu’s
political future for months to come.
Gantz-Netanyahu showdown is already affecting U.S. calculations before the plan
is rolled out. At a recent U.S.-led Middle East conference in Warsaw, Trump’s
son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, announced the U.S. will not
release the plan until after the Israeli elections. Kushner, whom Trump has
tasked with leading the negotiations, is consulting Arab leaders about the
economic dimensions of the plan, hoping that wealthier Gulf countries will pay
for the proposal’s focus on regional development. Of course, the Gulf states
are unlikely to do so before knowing more sensitive aspects of the plan
regarding issues such as Jerusalem and borders.
Kushner’s mere mention in an interview with
Sky Arabia that the plan will deal with “borders” was enough to shake
Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s leading opponent to his right, Education
Minister Naftali Bennett, saw the reference as presaging a Palestinian state and
launched a broadside charging that the premier would cave to Trump after the
elections. One can guess Kushner will shelve future interviews between now and
are three possible election outcomes. None of them bodes well for the peace
One: Netanyahu wins and lurches to the right due to the configuration of
the multiparty race. If that happens, his room to make compromises could shrink
further. On one hand, he will view a victory as personal vindication in light of
his legal troubles. On the other, Netanyahu has rivalries among the right,
including with the party led by Bennett and one led by former Defense Minister
Avigdor Lieberman. With a finalized indictment still looming over him, how long
can he expect these rivals to stick with him? The balance of power within the
coalition is likely to shift away from Netanyahu so long as he remains under a
legal cloud—leaving his political fate in the hands of rivals who think
Trump’s ideas are too risky for Israel.
Two: Netanyahu wins but looks to the center. There is speculation that
Netanyahu would use the presentation of the Trump plan after the elections to
widen political space in the center—making Gantz defense minister and the
other leading Blue-White centrist, Yair Lapid, foreign minister. Additionally,
the media’s focus on peace could distract the public from Netanyahu’s legal
problems. Gantz, however, has said he would not sit in the same coalition as
Netanyahu. If he stands by that pledge, what was once deemed the most likely
scenario has evaporated—at least for now.
Three: Gantz wins outright and creates a moderate coalition of center-left
parties, perhaps with a smattering of ultra-orthodox parties. (Gantz has also
not ruled out inviting the Likud in as a junior partner so long as Netanyahu is
excluded.) In theory, this approach should give joy to Trump as it would be a
coalition based on accommodation with Washington and Palestinian partners.
However, precisely for this very reason, Gantz is unlikely to get behind a peace
plan he has not had a chance to shape, as Netanyahu had for the past two-plus
years. The U.S. will need to consult Gantz, who might not take office until late
one hand, Gantz—like Netanyahu—will likely be attracted to Trump’s
regional focus on Arab states, an idea designed to show Israelis what they have
to gain, and not just yield, for the promise of peace. At the same time, a
cautious Gantz will not want Trump to put forward something the Palestinians are
likely to reject, as seems to be the case due to the expectation of terms less
favorable to the Palestinians than those put forward by Bill Clinton in 2000 and
amid deteriorating ties between Washington and Ramallah since Trump moved the
U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017.
Gantz, trying to go for broke and solve the entire conflict as Trump favors is
not a plus if the result is failure. He thinks it’s better to make progress
with the Palestinians, though he has expressed pessimism that a grand deal is
possible right now. Alternatively, some on the Israeli right may prefer a failed
Trump plan if they think the Palestinians will be blamed for saying no and they
can reap the benefit of Trump’s ire at the Palestinians by annexing key chunks
of the West Bank with scant protest from Washington.
Any of these three election outcomes would add fresh doubts about the viability of the proposal. The Trump peace plan was always an uphill climb, but the path looks steeper now.