Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (Dedi Hayun - pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Netanyahu, Gantz – but not Abbas – Head to White House for Release of US Peace Plan

Few believe initiative will lead to resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, instead saying it could, paradoxically, have violent consequences

Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and de facto opposition leader Benny Gantz on Sunday headed to Washington, where US President Donald Trump is expected to unveil his long-delayed Middle East peace plan.

Gantz had been wavering on whether to accept the White House invitation – which the Americans claim came at the behest of Netanyahu – over reported fears that he would be used as an election prop ahead of Israel’s March 2 elections. In the end, he agreed to meet with President Trump separately on Monday.

A more experienced statesman, Netanyahu, who maintains a close personal relationship with the US president, is likely to take center stage at the White House, where he was welcomed just weeks prior to Israel’s inconclusive national vote last April.

A subsequent election in September also ended in a political stalemate.

Prior to his departure for Washington, Netanyahu stressed that President Trump was “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, and therefore we have the best opportunity we ever had…. I am full of hope that we are before a historic moment.”

Indeed, many are attributing President Trump’s decision to release the proposal at such a sensitive juncture to a desire to boost the electoral prospects of Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister is fighting not only for his political survival, but also for his legal freedom. He is facing pending indictments for fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases – as well as the more serious charge of bribery in one of them. A bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution is expected to fail.

Notably, a key vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to set up a committee to debate Netanyahu’s immunity request is scheduled to take place when he is in the US capital.

Concerns over the optics of the anticipated proceedings extend beyond Gantz’s Blue and White list – which is currently polling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party – given that no Palestinian official will be taking part in the Washington meetings.

This is a far cry from when, amid much fanfare, former US president Barack Obama launched his first peace initiative with a September 2010 White House ceremony attended by both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinian leader has already rejected the US peace proposal out-of-hand, arguing that it will be biased in favor of Israel. And if numerous reports are correct in describing the plan as the most generous ever suggested to an Israeli government, most analysts agree that it will, in fact, be dead on arrival, at least in the eyes of Ramallah.

For his part, Abbas has given no indication that he is willing to lift a boycott imposed on the Trump Administration in the wake of its recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. President Trump also suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid earmarked for projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and shuttered the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington.

On Sunday, Obama’s former ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Israeli media that no Democratic administration would ever accept or be bound by President’s Trump peace plan.

The plan reportedly green-lights Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley and most, if not all, Jewish communities located in the West Bank. Overall, Israel would retain 30-40% of the disputed region. The proposal also reportedly calls for Jerusalem to remain united under full Israeli sovereignty.

These terms are non-starters for the Palestinians, who claim as a future state all territories located across the pre-1967 borders, with the eastern part of Jerusalem as its capital.

Moreover, in what is being construed as a trial balloon, Israeli media on Sunday reported that the US plan would have a shelf life of four years, leaving open the possibility for a new Palestinian leader to accept the framework down the line. This is liable to further infuriate Abbas, 85, who has had health problems and recently entered the 16th year of what was meant to be a four-year term in office.

“We now have a general picture of the proposal, whose contours are unacceptable to this Palestinian leadership, and, if I may say, likely [to remain this way for] any other [leadership] in the foreseeable future,” Michael Herzog, who since 1993 has played a role in Israel’s peace negotiations with the Palestinians and is currently a fellow at the Washington Institute, told The Media Line.

“The question, then, is where things go from here. [The parameters] might simply be used as a reference for future talks, but the presentation should also be viewed within the context of the Israeli domestic political crisis. There are voices calling for the annexation of areas in the West Bank, and [President Trump’s decision will] give them fuel,” Herzog continued.

“But this is not the time to debate such things, and my hope is that when [the dust settles] on the [Israeli] election, it will be possible to have an actual conversation about matters of such importance,” he said.

Together, the circumstances have raised questions about President Trump’s motivations for unveiling the proposal, with many noting that he could be seeking a way to divert attention away from ongoing impeachment proceedings in the Senate. At the same time, some contend that the move could be geared toward energizing his political base – foremost pro-Israel Evangelical Christians – in his 2020 re-election campaign.

“It looks to me like a pure political move whose purpose is to help Trump and Netanyahu,” Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general and head of the Program on Israeli-Palestinian Relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “But this is not a serious plan that has any chance of jump-starting negotiations or making progress in [improving] Israeli-Palestinian ties.”

Brom warned that the timing could, paradoxically, have negative consequences.

“If [the peace plan’s release] is followed by a message that the US does not oppose Israel’s annexation of land [in the West Bank], this could push back reconciliation with the Palestinians and perhaps result in violence,” he said.

“The Trump Administration’s timing is very problematic, and the plan should be postponed,” he added. “At the same time, discussions should continue with both sides, [and] with Arab stakeholders, in order to revise the deal.”

According to Israel’s Army Radio, the military has deployed additional troops to the West Bank in anticipation of unrest after Palestinian officials called for mass protests in a bid to thwart the peace initiative.

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