The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump plan casts a shadow over Israel’s election

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On Monday, Israelis go to the polls — again. It’s the country’s third election within a year, prompted by the repeated inability of rival political camps to form a government. Polling shows a tight race once more; the unwelcome prospect of a fourth election after an inconclusive vote next week is still very much in the cards.

But unlike previous votes, right wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest bid for reelection will take place in the aftermath of President Trump’s late January announcement detailing his administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. proposal, if fully enacted, would essentially condone Israeli annexation of large tracts of the West Bank and offer Palestinians a future bereft of meaningful political sovereignty. For those reasons, and many others, it has been widely rejected by Palestinian leadership and looked on with skepticism by much of the international community.

Netanyahu and his allies in the Trump administration are pressing ahead. This week, a joint U.S.-Israeli committee, led by U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, held its first meeting to begin mapping out territories where Israel could “extend its sovereignty” — the oft-used Israeli euphemism for annexation — in accordance with the Trump plan. None of this process, of course, has Palestinian support. The Trump administration says its proposals could be a starting point for dialogue, but its parallel insistence that this is the “last chance” for the Palestinians has given the impression of an ultimatum.

Though talk of imminent annexation cooled before the election, it will flare in its aftermath, especially if Netanyahu’s Likud party emerges with a more decisive mandate. In a bid to court settler voters on the right, Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he would advance long-frozen plans for the construction of 3,500 homes in a pocket of territory known as E1, adjacent to a major Jewish West Bank settlement outside Jerusalem. It would effectively cut off East Jerusalem — which Palestinians still hope make the capital of a future state — from the rest of the West Bank. Both the U.S. administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush warned their Israeli counterparts against such a move.

For Netanyahu, there are immediate electoral imperatives at play. “If there is something that undermines the stability of the campaign in Netanyahu’s eyes, it is attacks from the right,” columnist Mati Tuchfeld wrote in the right-wing daily Israel Hayom, before invoking the biblical name of the West Bank. “It is not only the fate of Judea and Samaria that is on the line. His political fate is as well.”

Some settlers aren’t necessarily buying Netanyahu’s gambit. In the past, the prime minister used annexation “as election spin and he quickly understood that he doesn’t want to do it,” Eli Rosenbaum, a school principal in a Jewish settlement, told the Associated Press. “The moment he thought that he received our support, he backed down.”

In the Trump era, Netanyahu has more license than before, even if that means crossing long-established red lines. “If [the expansion in E1] were ever implemented, it would be completely incompatible with any kind of functional Palestinian state in the West Bank,” said Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, in a Tuesday briefing with reporters in Washington.

Given Trump’s litany of concessions to Israel over the past three years and the steady erosion of the peace process that took place before, the expert consensus is that the “two-state solution” — that is, sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side under terms considerably different from what Trump advocates — is dead. But that vexes analysts like Shapiro and colleagues at the Israel Policy Forum, which organized the briefing to coincide with the launch of a detailed report on the troubling alternatives to the two-state vision.

In Israel, though, there’s little political incentive to worry about hypothetical Palestinian sovereignty. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival and a former Israeli military chief, has also offered support to Trump’s plan. But that’s probably due to the imminent election.

“If he says anything short of that, an Israeli voter could legitimately ask him, ‘Why would you accept anything less than what the United States has put on the table?’” Evan Gottesman of the Israel Policy Forum said at the same briefing. “I think it changes the goal posts and the conversation in Israel around this issue significantly.”

If Gantz’s Blue and White alliance wins a big enough mandate Monday to form the next Israeli government, he could stall further moves toward West Bank annexation. That is, at least until November when the United States holds its own election.

A Trump victory would add pressure both on the Palestinians to come to a table where the chips are stacked against them, as well as on a potential Prime Minister Gantz to follow through with the new maps being plotted by Friedman and his associates. A Trump defeat, though, would reset the scenario in Washington; none of the leading Democratic candidates back the administration’s vision for “peace.”

“If there’s a new administration a year from now, I expect the Trump plan will have a very short shelf life,” Shapiro said.