Suspicions cloud Trump's Middle East peace plan

The promised unveiling of a secret plan for peace in the Middle East is being overshadowed by charges of cheap politics and collusion.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and his chief political opponent Benny Gantz are expected to arrive in Washington this week to preview details of the Trump administration’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

The meeting will allow President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE to shift the conversation away from his Senate impeachment trial and — depending on the details of the plan — play into his pitch as the American leader who has delivered the most for Israel.

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For Netanyahu, the visit comes at a time of great political instability in Israel. The prime minister is under indictment for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He’s set to face Gantz in an unprecedented third election in March.

The trip will also place Netanyahu out of his country as government ministers debate whether he can claim immunity from criminal charges.

“The timing is very suspect,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked on the peace process as a State Department official in the Obama administration. “It’s the very day that Netanyahu is facing the start of a Knesset proceeding that will decide if he has immunity in the face of three corruption indictments. That cannot be coincidental.”

Netanyahu’s corruption scandal is weighing heavy on the minds of voters, who are just as likely to vote against the incumbent over sheer exhaustion of the chaos surrounding the prime minister’s office.

But a candidate’s foreign relations experience carries a heavy weight for a country that is constantly fighting against isolation, and Netanyahu has expertly promoted his friendships abroad.

Of the relationships he’s cultivated — throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East — none is seen as having delivered more diplomatic victories than his friendship with Trump, who is now dangling the highest prize and the biggest stakes ahead of the Israeli visit, saying he’ll release the administration’s plan for a solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict before Netanyahu and Gantz arrive in Washington.

Considered one of the world’s best-kept secrets, the administration had held back on releasing any details of the political aspect of the plan until Israel completes its national elections in March.

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“What really got in our way is the election has taken forever,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday evening. “So we've been sitting, waiting for a candidate. But both candidates want to do it. So they're both coming.”

The opportunity to have the two leading candidates review the plan gives the White House political cover from any accusations of taking sides in the election while also offering an opportunity for Trump to tout the proposal to his pro-Israel and evangelical base amid his impeachment trial.

The peace plan, an expected voluminous document, has been touted by Trump as the “deal of the century.” One of its main authors is Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerAbraham Accords: New hope for peace in Middle East Tenants in Kushner building file lawsuit alleging dangerous living conditions Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing MORE, the president’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser.

But the president’s announcement of revealing the plan is being viewed with suspicion both in the U.S. and abroad.

"It’s a political stunt. I just don't see what they're going to be able to talk about because the Palestinians have already dismissed it,” said one former State Department official who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. "It’s probably just going to be another effort to highlight and show how committed to Israeli security the administration is and how it’s going to shape its conception of a peace process that’s all about securing the state of Israel.”

Palestinian officials have dismissed the forthcoming peace plan out of hand, saying they have not communicated with the administration for more than two years, ever since Trump announced the U.S. Embassy move.

“They did not speak with any of us,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Hill.

“We do not speak to them. They continue reading Netanyahu’s scripts,” he added, relating the feeling among Palestinians that the administration is biased toward the Israeli prime minister.

“They think they can dictate to us,” Erekat said. “No way.”

Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser on peace negotiations to the Palestinian Authority and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the timing of Trump’s announcement is off-putting to Arab leaders who would be needed to garner wider support for the plan.

“Because of the timing, it’s very hard to escape the impression that this is a move done specifically to impact the Israeli elections,” he said. “It makes some Arab leaders reluctant to get into a process that is less about policy and more about Israeli politics and, frankly, it makes it look less credible as the U.S. presents the plan at this particular date.”

To the Israeli public, the peace plan announcement has reinforced the strong bond shared between Trump and Netanyahu while also heightening suspicions that the American president often delivers policy changes at politically advantageous moments for Israel’s prime minister.

“It may be an advantage if you support the prime minister, and obviously for the other side people are looking at it as an unwelcome intervention,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli diplomatic and political correspondent for Globes newspaper.

Trump’s highest-profile foreign policy accomplishments have often centered around Israel. In one of his first major acts as president, he moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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Other moves included recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — viewed as occupied Syrian territory by the United Nations — and updating U.S. policy that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are legal, against international opinion that they are illegal. Those two steps were sold as political victories for both Trump and Netanyahu, who has campaigned on the idea that he has delivered policy changes based on his close relationship with Trump.

The upcoming White House visit, slated for Monday, has been portrayed as Netanyahu exercising influence over his relationship with the Trump administration, with Vice President Pence saying Gantz’s invitation came only at the insistence of the Israeli prime minister.

Gantz, head of the Blue and White political party and a respected former military general, held off on immediately accepting the White House invitation, announcing on Saturday his intention to meet Trump on Monday.

“I have decided to accept the invitation extended to me by President Trump and meet with him in person, this Monday, as the leader of the largest party in Israel,” Gantz said.

Despite two rounds of political deadlock in successive Israeli elections — in April and September — Gantz has proven the greatest challenger to Netanyahu’s record-breaking hold on power.

The Blue and White party has received the majority of votes among Israeli voters, albeit only a small lead over Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Yet the key to forming a government is rallying disparate political parties into a ruling coalition, a task that both Gantz and Netanyahu have failed to achieve.

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Heading into the March election, polling has shown even more support for the centrist Blue and White party and over the increasingly right-wing Likud.

Part of the reason behind the close race is the candidates’ remarkable similarities. Both are considered military heroes, and Gantz’s ideas for Israel’s way forward are not dissimilar to the country’s direction under Netanyahu.

The question for voters, and political parties necessary to build a governing coalition, is whether to gamble on Gantz’s political inexperience over Netanyahu, the established elder statesman.

Brett Samuels contributed to this report.