JERUSALEM — As presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner visited Israel for meetings Thursday to bolster support for his Middle East peace initiative, he was met by political chaos, as the sudden prospect of a second round of Israeli elections muddied the plan’s long-delayed rollout.
In a move that stunned Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government by a Wednesday night deadline, and instead of giving a rival the chance to do so, his party advanced a bill to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The move means Israel will hold new elections on Sept. 17, less than six months after its April 9 vote.
Netanyahu addressed the political turmoil as he met with Kushner in Jerusalem.
“And, you know, we had a little event last night,” the prime minister said. “That’s not going to stop us. We are going to continue working together.”
The White House is running short of time to release its plan for how to solve the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians before the 2020 U.S. election campaign kicks into full swing. Analysts say Netanyahu is unlikely to want to address thorny political issues or the prospect of any concessions with the Palestinians during an Israeli campaign.
“I think the Trump peace plan is on ice indefinitely now,” said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Barack Obama administration. “They already understood that they couldn’t roll out a peace plan during an Israeli election or government formation, so now the same logic is going to apply. Anything in the plan that has the slightest hint of a concession or a hard ask to Israel will be political dynamite during a campaign.”
That could push back the release of the political component of the plan until at least November, Shapiro said, when the makeup of the Israeli government should become clear. But Trump will then be deep into his own reelection effort.
The White House is beginning the rollout of the plan by holding an economic workshop in Bahrain in late June, with the political component expected to follow.
“We are not anticipating any changes,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said of the economic summit. “We anticipate it’s still going on.”
Kushner noted that his trip was the first to Israel since the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, and he said the relationship between the countries has “never been stronger.”
He is traveling with U.S. Middle East envoys Jason Greenblatt and Brian Hook, who were also at the meeting alongside Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.
The U.S. team is visiting the region to bolster support before the Bahrain workshop. The Americans have held meetings in Jordan and Morocco.
“It’s basically a ghost economic summit,” said Shapiro. “There will be some ghost economic pledges in support of a phantom peace plan. It was already suffering from a significant lack of relevance and impact. Now it’s going to be even more so in light of the election year.”
Palestinian officials, who are highly skeptical of a peace plan from a White House that they say is the most biased in favor of Israel in U.S. history, are likely to welcome a delay. Ayman Odeh, an Arab Israeli member of the Knesset who voted Wednesday night in favor of its dissolution, said he was doing so, in part, to block the “deal of the century.”
He said allowing Netanyahu to continue to pursue the deal was not the right thing to do.
“The correct position is to shorten the political life of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Odeh said.
But some Israeli political analysts say Netanyahu also does not want to see the plan released. Even if it is immediately rejected by the Palestinians, it could raise difficult questions — such as whether to annex parts of the occupied territories — about which there is an array of opinions among Israelis.
“It’s death for the peace plan,” said Gil Hoffman, a political columnist for the Jerusalem Post, referring to Netanyahu’s failure to form a government and new elections.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the liberal advocacy group J Street, said the rescheduled Israeli election jeopardizes the economic meeting next month in Bahrain and the rollout of a political blueprint.
“This is a problem that plagues every president — Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump. The windows of opportunity to move your initiative are very, very narrow. If something happens, you may lose your opportunity,” he said.
From the perspective of J Street, a pro-Israel group that supports a two-state solution, the delay is a good thing.
“In our opinion, the initiative not only has no chance producing ‘peace,’ it could set back the cause of diplomatic approaches in the future,” Ben-Ami said.
Netanyahu’s party had secured a one-seat advantage in the April parliamentary elections and was the only party with a realistic path to forming a governing majority. That path was not as clear as Netanyahu had hoped, however, as he failed to reconcile the differences between ultra-Orthodox religious parties and his staunchly secular former defense minister Avigdor Liberman.
Addressing the country early Thursday, Netanyahu delivered remarks that sharply contrasted with his beaming speech at his campaign headquarters on election night. His failure to form a coalition with his traditional partners dents his reputation as a veteran political operator.
But there is also much more at stake. His party had been in the process of advancing legislation that would shield members of parliament, including Netanyahu, from prosecution. In October, Netanyahu’s lawyers are scheduled to present his defense in a pre-indictment hearing on criminal charges including bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Netanyahu squarely blamed Liberman for Israel’s move to a costly second round of elections, describing him as “part of the left.”
Liberman refused to join Netanyahu’s government without a promise on the passage of a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis into the military. But Netanyahu also had to balance the demands of ultra-Orthodox parties in his potential coalition.
Liberman shot back at Netanyahu, accusing him of being more left-wing. He said the “cult of personality” around Netanyahu has replaced “substantive debate.”
“Likud is not a national party but a cult of personality party,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s party. “I recommend that Likud get itself a psychiatrist because of all of its hallucinations.”
Meanwhile, Israeli political parties began the task of preparing for a new round of elections. Among those most welcoming of the news are likely to be Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, former education and justice ministers, respectively, whose party failed to make it over the vote threshold required to win seats in the Knesset.
Miriam Berger contributed to this report.