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In Israel, election politics again runs through the Oval Office

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in 2017. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Israel's third election campaign in a year has started with all the usual elements: the speeches, the rallies, the posters. On Thursday came another occurrence Israelis have come to expect: a move by President Trump that roils the campaign, seemingly for the advantage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump’s surprise White House invitation for Netanyahu and his opponent, Benny Gantz, to come review Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan this week is viewed here as the third Trump surprise in three elections.

Both the timing of the trip — scheduled for the very day Netanyahu faces a pivotal procedure in his controversial request for parliamentary immunity against corruption charges — and the reported pro-Israel tilt of the proposal are widely viewed as boons for Netanyahu and traps for Gantz.

The “Deal of the Century” has become the “Gift of the Century,” declared the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Netanyahu accepted enthusiastically as soon as Vice President Pence, in Israel for a Holocaust commemoration, delivered Trump’s invitation Thursday night. Further, Pence gave Netanyahu credit for magnanimously extending the invitation to include Gantz in the personal White House briefing.

The invitation seemed to send Gantz’s campaign into lockdown for two days in which he made no public comment about it. On Saturday, he asserted a modicum of control over the situation by saying he agreed to meet Trump on Monday, a day ahead of the planned meeting, and return to Israel on Tuesday, in time for the parliamentary talks on immunity.

Officials with the White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Gantz had recently warned Trump that debuting the proposal in the middle of the campaign would amount to a “gross intervention” in the election. But had he declined, he risked being seen as snubbing a plan expected to heavily favor Israel’s side in the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, who have refused to even meet with the White House team crafting the proposal. He would also be ceding a coveted White House handshake with Trump, who is widely popular among voters here, to his rival.

According to diplomats who have heard the plan described by White House officials, the proposal will allow Israel to incorporate large Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank into Israel proper and give Israel security oversight of the eastern flank of the disputed territory while giving Palestinians greater political autonomy and a potential path to sovereignty. The diplomats spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential exchanges.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was reportedly not invited to the White House meeting.

Trump’s two previous pre-election cameos, which included embracing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and touting a potential U.S.-Israeli defense pact, were widely seen as intended to boost Netanyahu, at least in their timing.

The prime minister has largely based his reelection campaigns on his ability to push Trump ever closer toward the platform of Netanyahu’s Likud party, from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to dropping the view that settlements inherently violate international law.

Netanyahu failed to win a governing coalition in either previous election, and rumors have been rampant that Trump’s peace plan would finally see the light of day before Israel goes back to the polls for a third go. The plan has reportedly been complete for months, as the administration waited in vain for a new government to form in Jerusalem.

Trump has scheduled a mini-summit on the plan for Tuesday, the very day that the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is set to take up Netanyahu’s request for immunity on counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister ever indicted while in office, had recently demanded formal protection from what he disparages as a “witch hunt” prosecution. But after it became clear that he would lose such a vote in parliament, his Likud allies have fought to no avail to stall the procedure, storming out of committee meetings and seeking court intervention.

Gantz’s Blue and White party, which has doggedly pushed for the immunity vote, was forced by Trump’s invitation to weigh postponing it while Netanyahu is on a diplomatic visit to Washington. Party leaders have said they intend to press on.

“There is no question that [Netanyahu supporters] with close ties to the White House tailored this event to fit Netanyahu’s dimensions,” a Gantz adviser told the Maariv newspaper.

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

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