In those long-ago days before the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, when the Saudi heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, was considered the white knight of the West and when his father charged him with solving the problems of the Middle East, the prince made his diplomatic positions clear to US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was then considered his spiritual brother.
Kushner, who shared his diplomatic vision with Prince Mohammed, told him that those who tried to reach Israeli-Palestinian peace by the old methods had been burned, and that he expects him to support a new approach. Mohammed, for whom the Palestinian issue was never high on his agenda, asked about the new approach. Kushner said that he intends to show the situation in the Holy Land the day after peace is achieved. That is, to describe the huge advantages for all sides of a sustainable peace between the Palestinians and Israel, and to leave the details — what Palestinian entity would be created in the territory, where the border will fall, what will happen in Jerusalem, how to solve the refugee crisis and all the other topics that have divided the sides for many years — to be decided by the two disputing nations.
The crown prince was impressed, as was reported, by the new approach that has never been tried, that is, to start from the end, and said that he would be willing to help this bold process on four conditions: that the agreement would be based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — that is the Saudi initiative; that it would be clear there would be two states and not one and not only a Palestinian autonomy; that Israel would stop significant construction in the settlements, even if it doesn’t declare it; and that it would immediately allow construction of housing units for Palestinians in West Bank Area C, where Israel has civil and security responsibility.
We know what happened in the meantime. Khashoggi’s murder disrupted many plans: Mohammed lost much of his luster; his father took away his responsibility for the Middle East; Trump’s “deal of the century,” which was supposed to be released many months ago is dawdling, whether because of the April election or the upcoming election in Israel, or other reasons. The economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25 — without Israel’s participation, without the Palestinians’ participation and with only low-level participation from the Arab world — was a pathetic event that tried to put the cart before the horse and focus only on economic issues, without dealing with a diplomatic solution or American commitment to participate in funding them. It seemed to many that the American plan was buried at Manama, until suddenly the Israeli security Cabinet decided July 30 to approve the construction of 715 housing units for Palestinians in Area C.
The Cabinet approval itself invited many interpretations, since on the eve of an election Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish campaigning usually rises to levels that do not necessarily characterize other seasons of the year. He tends to aid extreme initiatives, support capital punishment for terrorists and reveal great generosity in authorizing construction in settlements. Now, suddenly, a month and a half before the election, he decides to build for Palestinians in an area outside the territory of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Not only that: Instead of using his authority as defense minister in order to authorize such a decision, he asks for authorization from the Cabinet and even bothers to announce ahead of time that if the decision isn’t made unilaterally, these units will not be built. Amazingly, the decision is accepted unilaterally, including the votes of the most hawkish members of the government. Those in the know say that Netanyahu managed to convince the right that such a decision could draw in “soft right” voters, who do want a diplomatic solution, from the Blue and White party, and to send the Likud’s hawkish voters to the right, to Ayelet Shaked’s United Right list.
In any case, behind the surprising decision is a diplomatic exchange that Netanyahu believes could help in his hard road to getting 61 coalition members even without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. The July 31 report in Yedioth Ahronoth, according to which US President Donald Trump intends to gather regional leaders to a summit at Camp David without Israel and without the Palestinian leadership, and to present a diplomatic plan that is comfortable for the Israeli right, seems like a good reason for the Cabinet’s decision. It’s a decision that represents the fourth side of the square Mohammed presented to Kushner. It is not impossible that Netanyahu already committed to the American envoy at his visit to Israel on July 29 regarding the rest of the demands, or at least led him to understand that he would consider them seriously right after the election.
Would presenting Trump’s plan for the Middle East that could win the favor of the Arabs and not include “swear words” — such as the two-state solution, a divided Jerusalem and an agreed-upon solution to the refugees — save Netanyahu from another election failure? It’s hard to believe. Previous international support summits, such as the 1996 Sharm al-Sheikh conference, have not succeeded in saving Israeli prime ministers from losing elections held a short time afterward, but one can never predict future developments only based on the past. If Netanyahu thinks construction for Palestinians in Area C could help him, and if he gets the support of the entire Cabinet, then that’s already a positive outcome. The Palestinians need to expand their jurisdiction beyond the 40% of the West Bank that they currently control, both for housing needs and for industrial use. As long as there is no permanent solution agreement, the territories under the control of the PA must be expanded. As long as Netanyahu is governing (he will not even hint at transferring any lands to the control of the PA), such an expansion is not going to happen soon. As such, approving the construction of 715 housing units is better than no approval at all.
If Netanyahu heads the next government as well, it’s hard to believe that he would want to or would be able to lead a peace process. But if he now feels that raising the diplomatic issue could bring him advantage, and the American president is prepared to return to his diplomatic plan, and if for the sake of Arab backing Netanyahu is willing to authorize Palestinian construction and give commitments on other topics such as support in principle for the Arab initiative, this could prepare the ground for his successor. Such a successor would be prepared to enter a diplomatic process and pay the necessary price — a price Netanyahu has refused to pay for the duration of his long term in the most important role in Israel.