Netanyahu and Trump’s three-month race for Israeli-Arab history
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wear face masks after a joint news conference in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020.
(photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)
On Monday evening, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stood in Jerusalem to tape his address to the Republican National Convention.
At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played a high-stakes political game with the Blue and White Party to ensure that his government survived past midnight.
All this, as Pompeo was in Jerusalem to discuss the details of a burgeoning peace deal between Israel and the UAE, before heading to Sudan and Bahrain to push for agreements between those countries and the Jewish state. The UAE deal, once finalized and signed, will mark the beginning of the end to the peacemaking formula put forward in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which insisted that Israel must first end its conflict with the Palestinians if it hoped to make peace with the Arab world.
The Israel-UAE deal upends that formula and creates the possibility of a new regional paradigm that would allow for peace first with Arab states and then with the Palestinians.
It’s a tantalizing possibility of a new future for Israel, but its fate is intertwined with the electoral politics of not one but two countries.
Trump is playing the long road gamble here, in reorganizing the entire philosophy of Middle East peacemaking. The question is, will he have the four more years needed to complete it. An Israeli-Arab and or an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is one of the golden geese of diplomatic achievement for a US president. Many have sought and failed to make their mark, putting forward plans that generated headlines but were ultimately shelved.
Those whose achievements are most lionized have either brokered a lasting peace deal and or changed the geographical map of the conflict. It hard to discuss Israeli Arab and Israeli-Palestinian peace without talking about former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Trump unveiled his peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only in January 2020. This left him only 10 months until the US presidential elections in November to transform his plan, into something more than a speculative possibility. In almost that same period, former US president Barack Obama tried and failed in 2013 and 2014 to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to set of principles to resolve the conflict. It’s a process that’s barely remembered and rarely referenced.
True, Trump’s plan redrew the boundaries lines of the two-state solution, but neither the Palestinians or the Israelis loved the map he published, not on the Left and not on the Right.
Earlier this month, Trump appeared to have better success as he put forward a US brokered peace deal between Israel and the UAE.
All he needs is one signed deal to go down in history, more would send him into a presidential hall of fame. Should he win the elections in November, he is likely well on his way. If not, it seems reasonable that in the three months left to November, he could finalize all the details so Israel could sign an agreement, at least with the UAE, given the deep desire between both Israel and the Emirates to make peace. In truth, he would even have until he left office in January 2021.
But he is not the only head of state in this equation who is both courting heads of state and the ballot box. Since collapsing the government in December 2018, Netanyahu has dazzled Israeli voters with one diplomatic achievement after the other, but none has benefited more than the Right. Annexation went from a diplomatic taboo to an electoral necessity.
Netanyahu secured US acceptance of the validity of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. More to the point, Trump agreed to Israeli sovereignty of West Bank settlements within the context of his peace plan, giving Israel 30% of the West Bank irrespective of the outcome of negotiations.
The timeline for the execution of that annexation was tied to two things, Netanyahu’s ability to form a government and the November elections.
Netanyahu needed a government to authorize annexation, or he couldn’t do it. And he needed that government prior to November to ensure Trump support. Then once he got that government, he changed tactics. Two weeks ago Netanyahu traded annexation for the UAE deal, Netanyahu agreed to suspend annexation in favor of the UAE deal, thereby closing that window for annexation.
There were many reasons, of course for the UAE to come to the table, among them Iran, economics and the possibility of a better military deal with the US. But UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash clarified last week, that the very real possibility of Israeli West Bank sovereignty helped sway his country to make a deal with Israel, so that it could prevent that kind of annexation.
In other words, annexation’s strength as a playing card is dependent on its viability.
The Israel-UAE deal might have been in the works for a while, but it came out of the shadows only once Israel had a government that could annex.
This means that for the next three months, Netanyahu will have to play a very subtle game, in which he abides by the agreement with the UAE to suspend annexation, but still keeps the idea alive, so that it can still be an incentive for other Arab states. It’s a move that helps him electorally as well, given that his strongest voter base has always been the right.
Netanyahu survived a major stumbling block on the path to Israeli-Arab peace Monday night, when he kept the government from falling. Without a government, Israel will no longer be able to annex and the idea of sovereignty can no longer be a strong trading card for peace. The threat of annexation can then only be revived as a diplomatic trading card if Netanyahu and Trump both win, particularly given that US democratic contender Joe Biden has already said he is opposed to annexation. After that, without a government, Israel can sign but cannot ratify any peace deal, even that of the UAE.
There are many reasons Israelis were glued to the Monday night’s do-or-die politics game; the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s credit rating and government stability were all at risk
Among the things that could have collapsed, or most certainly been weakened, was the new initiative for Israeli-Arab peace.
Even with a government, Netanyahu and Trump are in a race for peace. Without a government, they can set the table, but there remains a real possibility it would be others who sit down to finalize the deals.
If Netanyahu wants to race into the history books with Trump over the next three months, his best bet is to keep the government afloat.
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