For decades the United States has tried and failed to make peace in the Middle East. This week Donald Trump, succeeding where so many presidents have come unstuck, unfurled a brave vision capable of persuading enemies to turn their swords into plowshares and transforming the region. Finally, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are in agreement.
As for the ‘deal of the century’ announced at the White House today, Trump and Netanyahu are expert practitioners of the kombina. This Israeli term describes the deal that’s really within the deal, and also the side deals within the deal that’s really within the deal. The kombina allows all parties to feel that they’ve profited. The parallels to complex real estate ventures are obvious. If the Trump peace plan was, as it claims to be, a ‘two-state’ venture between Israel and the Palestinians, it would never have been launched.
When American observers bemoan the absence of leadership among the Palestinians, they mean the kind of leadership they want. The Palestinians have a surfeit of leaders. They must be the first non-state in history to have two official rulers, a klepto-president in Ramallah and a caliph in Gaza. The caliph, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, doesn’t accept Jewish rights in the region. The president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, has repeatedly rejected the very idea of Trump-sponsored negotiations. On Monday, still not having seen the deal, Abbas rejected the Trump plan again. In words likely to warm the hearts of many House Democrats and John Bolton, called Trump a ‘dog and the son of a dog’.
What the late Fred Trump did to earn this contempt is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the Trump administration has pushed on regardless of Palestinian objections. The real deal here is between Trump and Netanyahu and the United States and Israel, with side deals between the United States, Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
All must have real prizes. Trump lays the ground for a further American withdrawal from the region — the election promise of 2016, the election pitch of 2020 — but on terms that guarantee America’s regional interests and bolster support among Evangelical and Jewish voters. Netanyahu moves closer to finally winning Israel’s war of independence, a territorial victory which means defeating the Palestinians in political terms, and to winning Israel’s elections in March. And Saudi Arabia and America’s Sunni allies in the Gulf get the diplomatic cover for their increasingly public alliance with Israel against Iran.
The core of these interlocking transactions might be the personal one between an American president undergoing impeachment and an Israeli prime minister heading for indictment. On Monday, as Alan Dershowitz laid out a constitutional defense of Trump in Congress, and Trump received Netanyahu and Gantz at the White House, Netanyahu abandoned his attempt to manipulate Knesset procedure and secure immunity from prosecution in three graft cases. Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu within hours, little more than a month before the Israeli elections on March 3.
‘What kind of system is that?’ Trump said at his press conference with Gantz. ‘Very strange system you have there.’ A normal system parades its leader through the courts earlier in an election year.
Those Israeli elections are the third in the space of a year, an unprecedented jamming of the legislative gears. Netanyahu and Gantz have tied twice and Gantz has refused to enter a coalition on terms that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution. On Monday, Gantz met Trump at the White House, but only as Netanyahu’s guest. Gantz publicly endorsed the Trump deal, just as he has previously countered Netanyahu’s pre-election promises of annexing the settlements and the Jordan Valley with annexation promises of his own.
The Trump deal allows Netanyahu to offset the damage of campaigning for re-election while under indictment. Gantz will campaign against Netanyahu; he hurried back to Jerusalem from the White House in order to participate in the Knesset maneuvers on Netanyahu’s immunity. But the deal presses Gantz into a post-election alignment he cannot refuse, because the Americans want it.
Gantz must now campaign in favor of the Trump deal. That means endorsing its plan for annexing settlements and a chunk of the West Bank. It means matching Netanyahu’s promise of further annexations in the near-certain case of the Palestinians rejecting Trump’s plan. These positions are also near-certain to oblige Ayman Odeh, the leader of the majority-Arab Joint List, to refuse to support Gantz from outside the cabinet. And that will deprive Gantz of his only chance of forming a government without Netanyahu.
The Trump plan also confirms Netanyahu’s remarkable diplomatic achievements. Israel has never enjoyed such strong support in the White House, but Netanyahu has also strengthened ties with the Kremlin — from Washington, he is expected to fly to Moscow, to brief Putin on the plan — and built discreet alliances in the Gulf and even with Saudi Arabia. For Netanyahu’s Israeli Jewish base, his diplomatic success and his avoidance of war — last year, the IDF lost fewer soldiers than in any year since Israel’s creation — are powerful counterweights to corruption allegations.
Amid all the noise, the dog that doesn’t bark, or barks only quietly, might be the most significant. Everyone in the region knows this plan is going nowhere. Everyone knows it’s a prelude to annexation, and a post-American Middle East. America’s Sunni allies will endorse the plan in theory but reject immediate and non-negotiated annexation. The practice is, however, another matter. Netanyahu is practiced at waiting. He need only wait until after an election he is now more likely to win.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.