Israel Pulse

While US dithers on peace plan, Israeli right shores up support

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Article Summary
While the US administration delays presenting its peace plan, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is busy promising the Israeli right more construction in the West Bank settlements.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is taking advantage of the nebulous American attitude toward the diplomatic process with the Palestinians to benefit his own election campaign. “I don’t know how to react to a plan I haven’t seen yet and that no one had put on the table yet. What I can say is that I believe in a Jewish State,” he said during an Oct. 2 visit to the hills of the Givat Menachem neighborhood of the settlement of Karnei Shomron. He was responding to journalists who asked what he thought about President Donald Trump’s statement, “I like two-state solution.”

Trump made that statement on Sept. 26 at his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly session in New York. It reignited a debate in Israel: Will Trump soon present his “deal of the century” and force a two-state solution on Netanyahu?

The fact is that there is still no diplomatic plan on the table. There are only dribbles and leaks from the White House and generic statements by Trump and his team that a plan will soon be presented to the public. The Israeli right, including Liberman, is left with very convenient political and media spheres to operate in. Its members can take advantage of this situation to benefit their respective campaigns in the next election cycle.

If there really were an official American peace plan based on a two-state solution, coalition partners on the right would have to answer to their voters as to why they continue sitting in a supposedly right-wing government that is collaborating in the partition of the country. That is why, when Trump makes general statements like telling Netanyahu, “Israel will have to do something that will be good for the other side,” or “I like two-state solution. Yeah. That’s — that's what I think — that’s what I think works best,” and then adds that he wants to reach a deal between Israel and the Palestinians during his first term in office, he is serving the interests of Netanyahu and the other leaders of the Israeli right, whether he knows it or not.

Netanyahu is an old fox when it comes to political maneuvering of this sort. In an interview with CNN on Sept. 29, he was asked whether he could say no to Trump. He responded that he was "certainly going to look at it and look at it with a — with a keen and open mind. … I always said that I'm willing to look at peace proposals put forward by the United States."

There was good reason that Liberman went on his West Bank tour as soon as the Sukkot holiday was over, on the day that officially marks Israel’s return to routine after a long holiday season. It was more than just a visit by the defense minister to areas that are particularly sensitive from a security perspective. Liberman was also there as the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing party with no future, at least according to the polls, and that is therefore fighting for every vote from the right. Like all other players in the political arena, Liberman believes that there is a good chance that the next election will be moved up to early 2019.

This is also why Liberman is now making every effort to point out how construction in the settlements has been gaining momentum. Pointing to the new homes under construction in the Neve Menachem neighborhood, he turned to the journalists accompanying him and said, “Can you see how construction has been gaining momentum? In this neighborhood alone, we approved the construction of 220 units last year. This neighborhood, which is now home to 260 families, will have at least 700 families next year. I think that even with all the talk, it is important to pay attention to what is actually being done.”

He claimed that there are about 1,000 housing units currently under construction in the West Bank and another 11,000 units in various planning stages, as well as roads getting built and other projects being completed after being on hold for years.

Liberman also fired off a carefully planned barb at HaBayit HaYehudi's chairman, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been accusing him over the last few days of having leftist tendencies and of being responsible for a failed strategy in Gaza. “I would suggest to all the big talkers, including those who live in [the Tel Avivian suburb of] Ra’anana, and one resident of Ra’anana in particular, to come here and see what ‘doing’ is all about and what the difference is between doing and talking,” said Liberman.

Bennett lives in the town of Ra’anana. Liberman also noted that unlike Bennett, he lives in the settlement of Nokdim in the Judean Desert.

Liberman is not the kind of person who speaks off the cuff. He is a man of methodical planning. For years, he was careful to work closely with the American Jewish election consultant Arthur Finkelstein, who died about a year ago. Finkelstein was thought to have the ability to translate in-depth polling of Israeli society, particularly of the Israeli right, into a precise electoral strategy. Once a year, Finkelstein would conduct a vast, in-depth study for Yisrael Beiteinu, assessing changes in voting patterns. He would then use his findings to prepare a political strategy that fit Liberman perfectly: Should he turn sharply to the right or shift slightly toward the center? Liberman’s statements, his party’s proposed legislation and even the political rivals he picked were always based on Finkelstein’s findings.

Now, even though Finkelstein is gone, Liberman is continuing to base his actions on the polls (or as he likes to call them, “the research”).

His West Bank visit is a clear indication of the direction that Liberman plans to take in the next election. Unlike the 2015 election, in which he tried at first to shift toward the diplomatic center by criticizing Netanyahu’s “status quo,” he is now putting everything he has into an appeal to the right. Ultimately, this means that his main battle will be against Bennett, and it will be impassioned and ugly. Liberman will try to prove that he is more pragmatic and experienced and that he is closer to the settlers. In practice, Liberman will take advantage of every situation and development and harness them to benefit his overall strategy.

The Americans’ lack of specifics about Trump’s peace plan and the reasonable possibility that by the time some plan — any plan — is finally put on the table, Israel will already be in the midst of an election campaign, are the kind of raw material that the defense minister can use to his advantage. He can point freely to the growing momentum of construction in the settlements and take credit for it without worrying that the White House will react aggressively, as it would during the Barack Obama administration. In fact, the current administration may even embrace it.

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Found in: naftali bennett, israeli settlements, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu, avigdor liberman, donald trump, peace plan, us influence, israeli right wing

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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