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Jared Kushner arrived in Israel Wednesday looking to make a deal — but his negotiating partner was, to put it mildly, distracted.
While President Trump’s son-in-law was readying his framework for Israeli-Palestinian talks, Israeli legislators were busy doing something they’ve never done before: dissolving the Parliament after failing to form a government.
Wednesday night’s unexpected chaos in Jerusalem wasn’t just a historic disaster for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed to cobble together a deal with opposition parties allowing him to serve another term as leader. It also spells trouble for Trump and Kushner’s so-called “deal of the century” to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“There’s a good chance this is the end of the Trump plan, at least for his first term,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a State Department official under President Obama.
President Trump made securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal a central plank of his foreign policy. He wanted to use a grand deal in Israel-Palestine to normalize Israel’s relations with Gulf Arab monarchies and be remembered as the president who closed out the deal that other presidents couldn’t.
To fulfill his promise, he tasked Kushner and his former lawyer Jason Greenblatt — who joined Kushner in Israel Wednesday — with creating an ambitious plan to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for talks.
But two years in, the Trump administration’s unorthodox, aggressively pro-Israel approach to the conflict has not paid dividends.
They bet big on Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud Party, to participate in their plan. To bolster the Israeli leader, the Trump administration moved America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, slashed funding for Palestinian refugees, and recognized the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory, giving Netanyahu huge political presents as he campaigned for a historic fifth term as Israeli prime minister.
But their strategy ran into the buzzsaw of Israeli politics, and Netanyahu, their main partner, might not even be in office in a few months. That's because Netanyahu’s got even bigger problems than just another election campaign. He’s also fighting for his personal freedom as he faces multiple corruption probes that could land him in jail.
That likely leaves little room for Trump’s plan.
“There’s no one to present it to. Netanyahu is the head of a caretaker government, and it’s highly unlikely anyone in his party or the Knesset would allow him to do anything with the plan,” said Brent Sasley, a University of Texas professor who studies Israeli politics.
And there's no guarantee that Netanyahu even has the political capital or strength to lobby for Trump's plan as he courts more right-wing votes. Though the Trump plan is likely to tilt heavily toward Israeli desires, it might also include a few stipulations the Israeli right would find tough to swallow, including the possible call for Palestinian control of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
“Anything that might even hint at a Palestinian state is something his far-right flank is firmly opposed to. Having a concrete plan that Netanyahu would have to respond to could make things messy for him,” Sasley added.
“I don’t know anybody who’s interested in this plan”
Israel's turmoil also introduces a timing challenge for Trump. After multiple delays, Trump’s plan now faces the unsavory prospect of being introduced just as he ramps up his campaign for the 2020 election.
Unveiling an inherently controversial plan during an already fraught election season may prove too dangerous for Trump, said Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“It’s not going to work, it’s not going to make a big difference, and it’s a political headache. So why do it?” said Goldenberg.
Not all of Trump’s supporters will be upset if Kushner’s much-touted deal never sees the light of day.
“I don’t know anybody who’s interested in this plan,” said Kenneth Abramowitz, chairman of American Friends of Likud and a GOP donor. “There’s not a chance in the world the peace plan will work, because the conflict is too massive for it to be resolved.”
“We’re seeing the Trump plan right now”
As for the Palestinians, they don’t care much one way or the other if the Trump plan is released. They’ve already seen enough, and they hate it.
Trump has enabled Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank on land supposed to be part of a Palestinian state. He's also moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; said the Golan Heights, conquered from Syria, was Israeli; eliminated U.S. support for Palestinian humanitarian needs; and cut funding to the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis’ would-be negotiating partner.
“We’re seeing the Trump plan right now,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst and former adviser to Palestinian negotiators.
She added that even if Trump loses in 2020, a new president would not be able to undo the dramatic moves Trump has already made.
“The Trump administration’s whole approach has been to talk about there being a plan but put into place measures that no president can undo,” said Buttu. “Who’s going to be the president that moves the embassy back to Tel Aviv? Who’s going to be the president that says Israeli sovereignty over the Golan is not there?”
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.
Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) receives US President's Special Advisor Jared Kushner in Tel Aviv, Israel on August 24, 2017. Photo by GPO via Balkis Press/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)