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White House expects Netanyahu to engage on peace plan pending election win

Trump says alliance between US and Israeli has ‘never been stronger’

President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
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President Donald Trump reinforces the close relationship between Israel and the United States during a ceremony at the White House on March 25, 2019 to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

President Donald Trump gave Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not one, but two political gifts this week: recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights, and a delay in the rollout of his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

U.S. and Israeli officials told McClatchy they did not expect Trump to raise the administration’s proposals for peace with the Palestinians— largely complete, but not yet revealed to the public nor privately shared with Netanyahu — in Monday’s meeting at the White House, nor any other time before Israel’s general elections on April 9.

That in and of itself is a favor to the prime minister. Politicians running to Netanyahu’s right are calling on the Trump administration to release their peace plan before the Israeli elections, hoping its contents become the subject of a referendum on the future of the peace process.

Trump’s top aides, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations, have been working on a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace since the president first took office two years ago. The plan is said to go further than past roadmaps and frameworks and include detailed proposals addressing the greatest sticking points in the conflict.

Releasing the plan in advance of April 9 would require Netanyahu to go on record with policy positions sure to divide his delicate political coalition. But in exchange for holding out on its publication until after the vote, administration officials expect Netanyahu to play ball if he wins.

“We have an expectation that they will fully engage and take a look at it,” a U.S. official told McClatchy, acknowledging the plan requires politically challenging concessions from both parties. “It’ll be obvious to both sides where the compromises need to be made— it’ll be spelled out in the plan.”

But the widely held assumption that Netanyahu would breeze to re-election collapsed last month when Israel’s attorney general announced plans to indict him on charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust. The result has been a shift in Netanyahu’s campaign strategy toward building a political coalition far to the right of his existing government — and including figures passionately opposed to Palestinian sovereignty.

“It had been assumed that Netanyahu was the only figure who could put together a broad-based government,” said Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East envoy who served former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “That may end up being a dubious assumption, because if he’s able to put together a government at this point, it will be a narrow one based on right wing parties that limit his ability to negotiate— after the indictments, the center won’t enter government with him.”

The peace plan is dead on arrival without Israeli cooperation, and critics of the administration say it is doomed regardless: the Palestinian Authority has not communicated directly with the White House in over a year, since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there, and has repeatedly dismissed the president as an honest broker.

But Trump’s peace team hopes neither side will dismiss their proposals out of hand and will at a minimum give the document a fair read. To that end, waiting for Israel’s elections to pass is integral to their strategy. And the team will then rely on allies in the Arab world, currently indebted to Trump over his Iran policy, to help bring the Palestinians to the table.

Ross suggested Arab partners might need time and space from Trump’s recognition of sovereignty over the Golan Heights before taking on any more dramatic policy announcements.

“The plan should probably be on hold for a while, in part because the Arab response needs time after the Golan decision and in part because they’ve never spoken to Benny Gantz,” Netanyahu’s primary political opponent leading Israel’s new Blue and White centrist party, Ross said. “If you were trying to prepare the groundwork for Arab leaders ahead of the plan, this was not the move.”

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington this week, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, drew a familiar red line on Netanyahu’s engagement of the plan privately recognized by Trump’s aides.

The plan must maintain Israeli security control “west of the Jordan River,” Dermer asserted, referencing the natural border line between the West Bank — core to any future Palestinian state — and Jordan.

While Trump’s vision for the West Bank is not yet known, he did state in September that he “likes” a two-state solution to the conflict, a position that would displease a substantial voting bloc to Netanyahu’s right.

Dermer and Netanyahu would prefer a peace plan that focuses on Israel’s burgeoning alignment with the Arab world — an unlikely prospect, according to U.S. administration officials.

“Today, many Arab nations see Israel as an ally,” Dermer told the AIPAC conference. “Arab nations want to see the end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I don’t think that was the case 15 years ago.”

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as a White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.


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