JERUSALEM – Three waves swept Israel in the last fortnight and may help decide who is Israel’s next prime minister while also shaping the future map of Israel and its closest neighbors.
After sudden rainstorms brought dramatic and fatal floods to Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Nahariya, a huge wave of 50 foreign heads arrived in Jerusalem to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.
Only days after dramatic scenes of buses floating down streets and drivers being rescued from surging rivers, Israelis, particularly Jerusalemites, found themselves besieged in their houses or pushed off the roads to make way for the motorcades of Britain’s Prince Charles, Russian boss Vladimir Putin, and Vice President Mike Pence, who, by the way, dropped off a game-changing peace plan as he was leaving town.
Leaders converging on Jerusalem and the announcement of a new Mideast “peace plan” suddenly brought color to the cheeks of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who faces corruption charges, offering him the greatest gift for any beleaguered politician – a change of subject. The announcement came just a month before Israeli national elections. Overnight “suspect Netanyahu” became once again “Netanyahu, the mover-and-shaker” who commands respect from world leaders.
Constant media coverage of Netanyahu’s legal woes has hurt him in the polls, while media concentration on his strategic agenda also helps his political agenda, stressing his strong suit – diplomacy and security, not his weak spot, pending criminal charges. It also emphasizes the splits inside the Blue-White Party, an alliance of three parties who dislike Netanyahu but who have starkly different views about Israel’s territorial options.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians made it clear they wanted no part of the Trump Plan.
“The object is to save Trump from dismissal and to save Netanyahu from jail,” opined Voice of Palestine radio in Arabic, but it is not at all clear whether Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority would really dare to cancel the PA’s formal agreements with Israel known as “The Oslo Accords.” It is also not clear whether the Hamas terror organization in Gaza will risk full-scale war in order to show its displeasure with the Trump Plan.
Both the PA and Hamas are isolated politically, and each holds a poor economic and strategic hand. Still, this is the Middle East, where leaders sometimes do incredibly stupid things.
“The Deal of the Century,” as the Trump Administration calls its peace plan, envisions Israel holding to at least 30 percent of the areas of the Jordan River Valley and the highlands of Judea and Samaria which the Arab call al-difa al-gharbiyya, or the West Bank – an area the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan captured in 1948 and annexed thereafter.
Only Britain and Pakistan recognized the Hashemite annexation of “the West Bank,” but the term itself has gained diplomatic parlance outside Israel. Although Jordan gave up legal claims to “The West Bank” in 1988, it still has strong interest in the Jordan Valley and in the holy sites of Jerusalem’s Old City, which apparently will be under Israeli control. Jordan also still maintains strong ties to the Islamic Waqf on the Temple Mount.
Most Israelis, from Likud and the Right to Center-Left of Blue-White, applaud the idea of controlling Jerusalem and tying the Jordan Valley to Israel. Annexing this strategically important buffer was advocated by Yigal Allon, Israeli Palmach commander, and deputy prime minister under the Labor Party. His strategic platform, known as the Allon Plan, spoke of annexing as much land as possible with as few Arab residents.
But the Trump Plan, as it has been discussed here, does more than a narrow reading of the Allon Plan, and it seems to encompass a broader strategic view for Israel to hold more high ground – a view advanced by Menachem Begin’s Autonomy Formula, by Ariel Sharon’s various maps and even by the Pentagon Plan offered in July 1967 by General Earle Weaver, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Lyndon Johnson.
Blue-White, led by Benny Gantz, seems divided on whether it wants to see most of the Israeli communities – or “settlements” – housing approximately 400,000 Israeli citizens annexed to Israel. Moshe Ya’alon of the Hosen-le-Yisrael faction seems in favor, but many in Yair Lapid’s Yesh-Atid faction do not want to annex.
Gantz and some of his top advisors were initially opposed to his visiting Washington along with Prime Minister Netanyahu for fear that Trump and Netanyahu would manufacture photo-ops that enhanced Netanyahu while belittling Gantz. It was for that reason that Gantz insisted on meeting Trump separately from Netanyahu.
Clearly, the Israeli right applauds President Donald Trump for being a great friend to Israel, but some on the right are wary that Israel may be surprised by requests for major concessions later on. Already, there are some strong rightist cries in opposing the Trump Plan’s call for a demilitarized Palestinian state on about 70 percent of the “West Bank” areas most Israelis call Judea and Samaria.
The Israeli right seems a bit divided, wanting to say yes to what it sees as the great parts of the Trump Plan while fearing the idea of acknowledging the idea of non-Israeli sovereignty – albeit demilitarized – on any part of Eretz Yisrael.
There are about five weeks left until Israel’s elections on March 2, which leaves plenty of time for more surprises.
Dr. Michael Widlanski writes from Jerusalem.