A peace process plan to score political points

The problem for Trump is that his likely criticism of the candidates’ positions on his peace deal is unlikely to move the political needle in his direction.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Map image released by The White House on January 28, 2020, depicting the proposed future borders of Israel and Palestine. (AFP)
Map image released by The White House on January 28, 2020, depicting the proposed future borders of Israel and Palestine. (AFP)

Reversing his position of not wanting to unveil his peace process plan until after the Israeli elections in March, US President Donald Trump did so January 28 for what can only be described as purely political reasons.

First and foremost, Trump wanted to distract attention from his impeachment trial in the US Senate. Although Trump is likely to be acquitted by the Republican majority in that body, Democrats have mounted an aggressive and effective case against him, so much so that the Republicans reverted to the argument that his actions vis-a-vis Ukraine did not rise to an impeachable offence, rather than saying what he did was normal presidential behaviour.

By hastily inviting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his political rival, Benny Gantz, to Washington and staging an elaborate ceremony with Netanyahu gushing over him as the “greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House,” Trump wanted to show he is an unequivocal protector of Israel and a “great” statesman who seeks peace, all while claiming he was not interfering in Israeli election politics. Never mind that the Palestinians were not consulted.

In this way, he diverted news from his impeachment trial, gained praise from his important Christian evangelical political base (which supports the Israeli right-wing view of the Palestinian situation) and solidified support among conservative elements of the American Jewish community who back Netanyahu and generally support his annexation plans for large parts of the West Bank, a concept that Trump personally endorsed. Hence, Trump’s claim that he is not picking sides in the Israeli elections is a fig leaf.

That Trump has his eye on keeping his political base as solidly behind him as possible was evident a few days earlier when he became the first sitting US president to speak at the March for Life, an annual rally that aims to overturn legalised abortion, January 24 in Washington. His unveiling of the peace plan at a White House ceremony with Netanyahu a few days later was part of this overall strategy.

With the presidential election campaign heating up, Trump wanted to contrast his positions on Israel with those of his Democratic presidential rivals.

As expected, many Democrats, as well as most Middle East experts, criticised the plan as being one-sided and unlikely to lead to peace. Twelve Democratic US senators, including three — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — seeking the party’s nomination for president, sent Trump a joint letter shortly after the White House ceremony in which they accused him of violating Palestinians’ right to self-determination, scuttling chances for a two-state solution and jeopardising Israel’s long-term security.

Former US Vice-President Joe Biden, another leading nomination contender, called Trump’s peace plan a “political stunt that could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more.” Reminding his audience that he has been a strong supporter of Israel, Biden stated: “This is not the way.”

Sanders went further with his criticism. He stated that a genuine peace deal “must end the Israeli occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination…Trump’s so-called ‘peace deal’ doesn’t come close and will only perpetuate the conflict. It is unacceptable.”

Warren, tweeted that Trump’s plan was a “rubber stamp for annexation and offers no chance for a real Palestinian state.” She said that “releasing a plan without negotiating with the Palestinians isn’t diplomacy. It’s a sham.”

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also seeking the Democrats’ presidential nomination, said peace “requires both parties at the table. Not a political green light to the leader of one for unilateral annexation.”

In 2019, Trump accused Democrats of being the “anti-Israel” party and he undoubtedly hopes that, by contrasting his positions — which are essentially in sync with Netanyahu — with those of his Democratic presidential opponents, he can make similar charges this election year.

The problem for Trump is that his likely criticism of the candidates’ positions on his peace deal, which he hopes to exploit on the campaign trail, is unlikely to move the political needle in his direction. There is a deep divide in the United States between Republicans and Democrats over the Israeli government. A 2019 poll indicated that 61% of Republicans asked said they had favourable views of the Israeli government, compared with 26% of Democratic respondents.

All the Democratic presidential candidates are aware of this divide and so criticising Trump’s peace plan is a safe stance to take, especially in the Democratic primaries. In the general election, they might be more circumspect in an attempt to woo independent voters but they are positioning themselves to deflect flak that will be coming their way from Trump.

For example, Biden touted his long pro-Israel record when he was both a senator and vice-president as he criticised the Netanyahu-Trump positions and Sanders is emphasising his Jewish background and recent statements that he is pro-Israel to deflect charges that he is against Israel’s security.

In the meantime, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal remains elusive as ever.