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Netanyahu's gamble on Trump plan backfires at home, abroad

Peter Philipp Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Peter Philipp
January 30, 2020

Reactions have been almost unanimous in proclaiming that US President Trump's plan only benefits Israel. But even there, voters are mixed and not enthused with the longtime PM's calculus, says Peter Philipp.

People in the Gaza Strip stepping on a poster of Trump and Netanyahu
Image: Imago Images/ZUMA Press

US President Donald Trump's newly unveiled Middle East "peace plan" sparked exceedingly divergent reactions around the world, but also within Israel itself — despite the fact that most see the state of Israel as the big winner in Trump's latest announcement.

And no one seemed more surprised by that split reaction than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. In his view, his appearance alongside Trump in Washington and the duo's collective praise for the US plan should have kicked off the final stretch of Israeli parliamentary elections — the third within one year's time — that would this time secure the politician's grip on power, something the prior two elections failed to do.

More than anything, Netanyahu had hoped to immediately "finish the job" before Israel's March vote, cementing the current status quo in the occupied territories in the West Bank with US approval. Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are a priority for Netanyahu, who immediately implemented steps to "expand Israel's sovereignty" on land occupied by Jewish settlers, initiating Israeli annexation of the disputed area.

Read more: Trump's 'peace plan' delivers neither

Netanyahu forced to back off

But Washington called on Netanyahu to pause, saying that such steps could not begin immediately, but were instead contingent upon negotiations and agreements between all parties involved in the matter. The statement had less to do with Jewish settlers than with Palestinians and Jordanians.

Thus, Netanyahu was forced to back off his plan, despite his calculus that the bold move would translate into political capital for his conservative Likud party. In his eyes, nothing could facilitate Likud's political advantage like the the "deal of the century" propagated for three years by Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Likud members have discreetly omitted the word peace when speaking of the new plan, for how could a politician like Netanyahu score electoral points with it? For the past several years, it was Netanyahu who repeatedly and systematically torpedoed every attempt to reach agreement between Israel and Palestinian leaders. Ultimately, his actions have left the historic Oslo Accords in tatters, a fact that those on the right of the Israeli political spectrum have quietly avoided talking about.

Peter Philipp
Longtime Middle East correspondent Peter PhilippImage: DW

Thus, it appeared that only one thing mattered: Securing US support on points seen internationally as impediments to peace with the Palestinians. The first point of order on that front was support for Jewish settlements built on Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967. Trump has done much to aid the Israeli cause since coming to office. Most notably, by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, thereby changing the city's status, as well as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed from Syria.

It was widely thought that the next phase of the historic project could now be undertaken, something that seemed self-evident to many Israelis. That clarity of purpose is, among other things, the direct result of the fact that Israelis have been taught — in kindergarten, in school and in the military — to view West Bank territories occupied in 1967 as part of Eretz Yisrael, or the biblical Land of Israel.

Read more: The West Bank and Jordan Valley explained

A stalemate between approval and rejection in Israel

Yet, not all Israelis see things that way. One of the most prominent opponents of the plan is Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor as prime minister. Olmert served in the post from 2006 to 2009, and he himself negotiated a peace plan with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.

Trump's "peace plan" met with skepticism

Olmert's reaction to the Washington announcement could not have been clearer. He voiced grave concern that Israel was drifting toward becoming an apartheid state, noting that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would be impossible so long as one group ruled the other.

Other voices also cautioned that Israel should be wary about how it deals with neighboring Jordan. Above all, Israeli military leaders have warned that such a bold, unilateral approach could alienate the Jordanians, perhaps even forcing the kingdom to withdraw from its peace agreement with Israel.

Opinion polls show an even split among Israelis who approve and reject the Trump plan. No one can say with certainty if and how that might change ahead of the election on March 2. Still, if the vote once again fails to provide a clear electoral winner, the peace plan will have to be abandoned. The same must be said if a March victor tries to implement the plan on his own at all costs — as Netanyahu attempted to do earlier this week.

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