Like the Loch Ness Monster, which many have claimed to see but none can verify, the Trump peace plan remains shrouded in mystery as it nevertheless captivates the attention of observers eager to see it in the open. Despite the fact that it has not been released and has no confirmed time table for its unveiling – with an unnamed senior American official saying yesterday that the “goal is to release the plan at a time when it has the best chance of success” – the elusive White House peace initiative is nevertheless looming over Israeli elections. Giant billboards of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu grinning and shaking hands have gone up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with the message left unsaid that Netanyahu can deftly manage anything Trump-related. Naftali Bennett warned in a radio interview that “Trump’s plan for a Palestinian state” presents a clear and present danger. It is clear that whatever Trump has in the works is on Israeli politicians’ minds. But to analyze how any potential Trump peace initiative is going to impact Israeli elections is to focus on the molehill rather than the mountain. Any impact that a peace plan may have is not going to be felt before the election but afterwards, and if a peace plan is indeed released, the policy consequences will have nothing to do with its details but in whatever the prime minister – whoever it is – does next.
Whatever the administration is planning on doing, it won’t take any steps until after April 9. Not only does the White House not want to be seen as so blatantly interfering in the Israeli election, it is certainly not going to do anything to damage Netanyahu’s prospects for reelection, which is what releasing a peace plan would do. No matter how favorable a peace plan is toward Israel, it will invariably call for some Israeli concessions on some issues. Even small concessions will be used by Bennett and others to Netanyahu’s right to argue that voters have to elect right-wing parties willing to stand up to the U.S., and will result in cannibalizing right-wing votes from Likud to smaller parties. Netanyahu does not want to run on an American peace plan, and it is almost impossible to envision a scenario in which the Trump administration would put him in that position.
I have my doubts that we will ever see the White House release a peace initiative at all. But if it does indeed happen, what will follow is rather predictable. The Israeli government – again, irrespective of whether Netanyahu or Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid or any other plausible candidate is prime minister – will accept it with some number of reservations, acceding to the concept but not every detail it contains with a pledge to enter negotiations in order to try and satisfy Israel’s concerns. The Palestinians will reject it out of hand for a number of reasons that will be substantively justified but tactically foolish, beginning with objections to the overall framework and an obvious tilt toward the Israeli side and continuing onto objecting to the Trump team as discredited and biased interlocutors. The precise reasons won’t matter; what will matter is that the dynamic will be Israel declaring its willingness to engage and the Palestinians declaring their unwillingness to engage.
Where Israel’s elections matter in the framework of the Trump peace initiative is in what happens next. There are two plausible Israeli responses to a peace plan that Israel conditionally accepts and the Palestinians categorically reject. The first is to argue that the Palestinians will have rejected peace offers four times in the past two decades, that there is not and will never be a partner, that Israel cannot remain hung up on a discredited Oslo process that interminably waits for a land-for-peace formula that will be successful, and that the time has come to break this cycle by annexing the West Bank. The second is to argue that the Palestinians will have rejected peace offers four times in the past two decades, that there is not and will never be a partner, that Israel cannot remain hung up on a discredited Oslo process that interminably waits for a land-for-peace formula that will be successful, and that the time has come to break this cycle by taking steps to unilaterally shape Israel’s future as Jewish and democratic without gifting anything to the Palestinians for free.
If Netanyahu is prime minister in the aftermath of another failed peace initiative, he is most likely to go with the first path. Yoav Galant, the leading candidate for defense minister within Likud, has recently come out in favor of annexation. Bennett, the leading candidate for defense minister from a definite Likud coalition partner, is not only in favor of annexation but has made it his signature policy initiative and is demanding the Defense Ministry in the next government. Of the twenty nine Likud members currently serving as MKs who are running for reelection on April 9, twenty eight of them are on the record as supporting West Bank annexation with Netanyahu as the sole exception. The argument on the right that creating a Palestinian state is irresponsible and should be definitively rejected with finality is as mainstream as it gets. One more Palestinian rejection of a peace plan, no matter how good the reasons are for doing so, is going to provide strongest possible momentum for annexation.
If Gantz is prime minister in the aftermath of another failed peace initiative, he is most likely to go with the second path. Israeli politicians and the chattering classes are currently abuzz over an interview that Gantz gave in which he said that Israel needs to find a way not to control another people and refused to disavow but also did not endorse the Gaza disengagement, stating that Israel needs to take the lessons learned from that episode and apply them elsewhere. Predictably, Netanyahu released a video calling Gantz a leftist and warning that he is going to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank, with an assist from Mahmoud Abbas whose spokesman called Gantz’s words encouraging. Gantz did not call for withdrawal from the West Bank, and when he talks about finding a way to not be in the business of controlling another people, it sounds an awful lot like taking steps to effect separation in practice – completing the security barrier, freezing construction in isolated settlements, and preserving conditions for two states – without actually withdrawing absent an agreement. But whatever Gantz is thinking about, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t annexation, and that his response to yet another fruitless round of peace processing is going to be different from what Likud will advocate.
It is this divergence that makes the Trump peace initiative relevant, and why it matters to Israeli elections. If it ever sees the light of day, it is not going to be implemented, but may end up being the most consequential peace initiative yet because of how the reactions to it shape the ultimate path that Israel takes.