How will Israel's Blue and White party react to Trump’s plan?

If the Blue and White party aspires to present a real alternative to the Netanyahu government, it must offer a courageous stance vis-a-vis the US Middle East peace plan.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, speaks at a rally, part of final election campaign events, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 7, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

Apr 25, 2019

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit published Feb. 27 his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "upon a hearing." However, since then, no date has been set for the hearing procedure. In fact, in legal parlance, and when it comes to Netanyahu, the term “hearing” seems synonymous with foot-dragging. As a first step, the Ministry of Justice had notified Netanyahu’s attorneys that the police and prosecution documents relating to his three pending indictments is ready to be picked up. But while this article is being penned, the ministry still chases after the attorneys, begging them to get the files. One can assume that when and if they pick up the documents, they will need several months “to study it.” Then, the attorney general and his team will analyze the lawyers’ comments and meet with them. That also takes time, and before you know it, a year has gone by.

In diplomatic jargon, this type of stalling is called “voicing reservations.” A very familiar term when talking about the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process." The archives of “the peace process” contain Israeli reservations to President Bill Clinton’s proposed peace plan from 2000 and to President George W. Bush’s 2003 road map for Middle East peace. Peace did not emerge from any of these reservations. Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories, on the other hand, have thrived.

White House adviser Jared Kushner hinted April 23 that a similar fate awaits President Donald Trump’s long touted “deal of the century.” Trump’s son-in-law underscored that the administration would not impose any plan on the sides, adding that the administration would merely suggest recommended guidelines for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which they could take or leave.

“We ask both Israelis and Palestinians go over the plan before they voice their concerns about it and not to reject it right off the bat," Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt urged the sides on April 19. His comments indicate that this time, too, as with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem and closure of the PLO office in Washington last year, the Palestinians will get the short end of the stick. Greenblatt challenged the two-state principle, the foundation stone of Palestinian policy since the PLO’s 1988 declaration of independence. “There is no reason to use the term 'two-state solution,'" because "every side sees it differently," he said. Indeed, the Israeli side interprets the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians as an absurd idea promoted by leftists and a plot that must be foiled at all costs. Netanyahu himself pledged in 2015 that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. He did not propose any alternative, other than for Israelis to continue living by the sword.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, have not budged from the two-state idea and their support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which sets out guidelines for regional peace. Last month, the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society issued a document laying out Palestinian positions regarding a permanent agreement with Israel. These include an end to the conflict, a return to the 1967 borders, land swaps, a possibility for Israeli settlers to remain in Palestinian areas, East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine accessible to all three religions and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN Resolution 194. The guidelines also stipulate that Palestine will not enter into any military pact that would destabilize the region, security arrangements would respond to the needs of both sides and the joint committee on prevention of incitement by either side would resume its operations.

Indeed, as Greenblatt said, previous US administrations that propounded the two-state formula were unsuccessful in promoting peace. “We’ve studied the past efforts and how they failed and why they failed,” Kushner noted, adding that he and his team had consulted with significant office holders from previous rounds of negotiations. Kushner and Greenblatt seem to have skipped over the lessons learned by Dr. Aaron David Miller, a veteran of previous US peace teams. “For far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations,” Miller wrote in a 2005 op-ed.

Miller recommended that if his successors want to serve as honest and effective brokers between Israelis and Arabs, they must pursue only one goal — a solution that meets the needs of both sides.

Netanyahu’s central need is to remain forever in the prime minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Trump and his people surely understand that Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich and his colleagues on the radical right are Netanyahu’s last line of defense before prison. Netanyahu is counting on Smotrich and his colleagues to adopt some sort of legislation that would offer him immunity against the pending indictments. This same Smotrich has already declared that he would not consider even giving the Palestinians some form of autonomy, not to mention independence. It is hard to believe that the American president would lend a hand to any move that would force his good friend — who pledged this week to name a neighborhood or settlement in the Golan Heights after him — to choose between the White House and the jailhouse.

At best, the Palestinian side will ask for time to study Trump’s plan, before rejecting it. In a worst-case scenario, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will make good on his threat to reject out of hand any plan not based on the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Either way, the political right will unearth the gift that keeps on giving — the excuse provided almost 20 years ago by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak who claimed “there is no partner” on the Palestinian side with whom Israel can make peace.

What will the leading opposition party Blue and White with its 35 Knesset seats do when that happens? Will it display “patriotism” and celebrate with the government the “victory” over the Arabs? The Knesset faction’s left-wing standard-bearer Michael Biton told Al-Monitor this week that he hoped publication of the Trump plan would breathe life into the deadened peace process and enable movement toward peace. Biton was unwilling to commit to his party’s position prior to the unveiling of the plan, but the Blue and White platform lays out the principles that will guide its stance. These include the need to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel but also to enable normal life everywhere Israelis live, without exception, while maintaining an open horizon to a future arrangement with the Palestinians but also ensuring that “a united Jerusalem will be Israel’s eternal capital.” That's how the party can include both former Labor Party stalwart Biton and Likud graduate Lt. Gen. (Res.) Moshe Ya’alon. 

A cocktail of contradictions is good for an election campaign run by a group of people thrust together at the last minute to replace a corrupting prime minister. Now that they have been elected to the Knesset, they are not meant to help Netanyahu stall on a futile American plan and exchange accusations with the neighbors. When serving as Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz was responsible for the security of Israeli citizens. Now he must direct his talents to the diplomatic arena. And in order to justify the faith that more than a million voters accorded him, Gantz must present a feasible diplomatic plan — a plan with a Palestinian partner; a plan that would receive the support of the Arab world.

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