By Lauren Mellinger
4 March 2019
As Israelis prepare to vote on April 9, the Trump administration has announced that at long last, the U.S. peace plan, which President Trump has referred to as ‘the deal of the century’, will be unveiled in April. The fate of the plan however, and of the prospect of an American role in getting the parties to return to the negotiating table, remains an open question.
From an “election about nothing” to a referendum on Netanyahu
In September 1992, the popular TV-sitcom Seinfeld aired an episode titled ‘The Pitch’, in which Jerry Seinfeld and his friend, George Constanza, pitch a pilot to NBC, predicated on a half hour of, well, nothing. Fast forward 27 years, and one could similarly describe the current Israeli elections as a race about nothing. Israel faces formidable challenges at home and abroad — including the threats from Iran’s increasing presence in Syria and their assistance in Hizballah’s growing arsenal; the withdrawal of the US from Syria and the challenge of Russia’s expanding presence in the region; and ongoing tensions in Gaza. In addition, a host of unresolved religion and state issues, in particular matters pertaining to burden-sharing, continue to vex slimmer, right-wing-led coalitions, while challenges to Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewish communities and the ongoing stalemate in negotiations with the Palestinians merit more debate time. In lieu of a substantive debate regarding the geopolitical and domestic challenges facing Israel however, the election thus far has largely focused on whether Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, should win another term.
The prospect of Israel’s incoming government led by someone other than Netanyahu increased this past week, following Attorney General Avishai Mandelblit’s announcement of the intent to indict Netanyahu on charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Following the announcement, Israel’s newest party, the Blue White list, eclipsed Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the polls for the first time, suggesting that Netanyahu might not be able to form a coalition.
Though damaging to Netanyahu, per Israeli law, Mandleblit’s announcement does not preclude him from running, or serving in office —pending a verdict. Thus far Netanyahu responded by doubling down on populist rhetoric, a move that will most likely preclude the formation of anything other than a right-wing coalition, in the event Netanyahu can win another term. This would then put the incoming Israeli government squarely at odds with the Trump administration’s plan, should the Americans proceed with the plan’s release.
The ‘deal of the century’ is finally set to be unveiled in April . . . maybe
The lack of substantive issue-oriented discussions in the election thus far is by no means evidence of the lack of a campaign strategy — by either side of the political spectrum. By not formally taking a position on the issue of future peace with the Palestinians outright, the centre-left bloc may be hoping to pry votes away from the right. If their efforts ultimately pay off, it would likely be due to two key reasons: a party list which has prioritized leaders with bona fide security credentials, namely three former military chiefs of staff (including one who also served as defence minister); and the fact that Netanyahu, who until recently faced the prospect of an indictment on corruption charges, has moved so far to the right to maintain his grip on the premiership that he coordinated a deal that could bring the extremist group Otzma Yehudit — a group anathema to even right-leaning Israeli voters — into the Knesset.
And here is where the Trump administration lost a critical opportunity. Most veteran Mideast observers would undoubtedly caution an American administration against announcing a potentially game-changing peace effort amid an Israeli election — both to avoid an outward appearance of intervening in Israel’s domestic politics and to insulate the administration from having the initiative fail. Yet, in the current political environment, waiting until April to release the plan is a missed opportunity. As Beilin argued, for the moment, neither Netanyahu nor former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, head of the Blue White Party, appeared bothered by the administration’s decision to delay the unveiling of the plan until after the elections. Gantz’s new alliance has yet to reveal their platform, but the presence of one of his bloc partners, former defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, currently #3 on the Blue White List, having ruled out support for a two-state solution, together with the party’s reported opposition to dividing Jerusalem and evacuating settlement blocs in the West Bank, suggest that a two-state solution is a non-starter. Recent statements from Naftali Bennett’s new party, and those of parties to the right of Bennett that are now aligned with Netanyahu, as well as recent statements by Netanyahu himself, seem to suggest that this may be one area of agreement for the right and centre. Laying out the terms of the Trump peace plan now, rather than after April 9, would have required the parties to address the issue in a more substantive way.
Should Netanyahu manage to emerge the victor in April’s elections, he will come to a crossroad in his relationship with Trump, which until now has arguably been the closest relationship Netanyahu has ever had with a U.S. president. The farther right the prime minister has to move in order to secure his reelection and manage to assemble a coalition, the more difficult it will be to make any concessions regarding a peace agreement. Nor does the prime minister appear willing to do so. As Netanyahu himself recently stated, if he wins, he will form a religious, right-wing governing coalition, and will not offer a partnership to his centrist challengers. The possibility that Otzma Yehudit crosses the 3.25% threshold and forms a part of a future government poses yet another challenge for the Trump peace plan, and for U.S.-Israel relations more broadly, in light of U.S. anti-terrorism laws. (Under U.S. law, Otzma Yehudit is led by followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Kahane Chai/Kach is still designated as a foreign terrorist organisation).
An added complication likely to hamper the success of Trump’s peace plan is the current U.S. relationship with the Palestinians, which has deteriorated significantly while President Trump has been in office, due to a host of missteps by the administration, including aid cuts, the President’s decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, and his more recent decision to downgrade the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem by merging the two, a move largely considered a further affront to the Palestinians, and suggests that the pending announcement of the Trump peace plan will not endorse a two-state solution.
Now with five weeks to go before the election, with the race essentially boiling down to a referendum on the incumbent prime minister, it remains to be seen whether a substantive, issue-oriented debate about the future of a two-state solution can occur before Israelis head to the polls. With what appears to be a close race between Netanyahu and Gantz for the premiership, both parties would be well advised to develop their positions on the pending Trump plan. The U.S. president is well-known for maintaining a transactional relationship with politicians and world leaders. As President Trump has demonstrated a penchant for responding to praise while doubling down on petty, yet damaging, attacks on opponents when he feels criticized, precisely how much attention the U.S. will give to efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the next two (or six) years will likely depend on how both sides — Israelis and Palestinians — respond to his administration’s proposed peace plan.
Lauren Mellinger is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a 2018-19 Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. She is also a former senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security decision-making, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04.
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