Trump peace plan set to advance after Israeli leaders strike governing deal

Trump peace plan set to advance after Israeli leaders strike governing deal
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A newly formed Israeli government is laying the groundwork to enact the first steps of President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s Middle East peace deal, announcing plans to discuss annexing parts of the West Bank by the summer.

The move to exercise sovereignty over territory identified in the U.S. plan could mark a major unilateral step to reshape the region.  

It could also give Trump a political win among his base of pro-Israel and evangelical supporters ahead of the elections in November.

In a deal struck in Israel on Monday for a “national emergency government,” head of the Blue and White political party Benny Gantz signed an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE that, in part, allows talks for annexation to move forward.

The agreement on annexation is the only policy outside of the coronavirus that can be discussed within the first six months of the unity government, according to a summary of the terms.

The Trump peace plan and annexation were key sticking points in negotiations between the two leaders after a year of three successive but inconclusive elections.

“In allowing Netanyahu freedom of action on this, Gantz has made a major policy concession to Netanyahu on an issue of long-term consequence,” said Natan Sachs, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Beginning July 1, Netanyahu, as the presiding prime minister, will be allowed to bring the issue of extending sovereignty to territories identified in the Trump peace plan — named “Peace to Prosperity” — for a discussion among the security Cabinet and a vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. 

The specifics of any discussion are unclear, including whether it will call for beginning steps for unilateral annexation, only voting on an agreement on annexation in principle or the opportunity to reject unilateral moves outside of negotiations with the Palestinians.

“From July, the presiding prime minister will be allowed to bring President Trump’s statement with regard to the realization of Israeli sovereignty to government and Parliament, following due process,” Gantz said in a statement.

Converting Trump’s peace plan into facts on the ground would further strengthen the president’s argument that his administration is among the most pro-Israel.

Among his actions, Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and exited the nuclear deal with Iran — which drew the praise of Netanyahu and conservative groups within the pro-Israel community in the U.S.

A significant part of the Republican Party constituency and parts of the evangelical community tend to be more to the right politically on Israel, and “Netanyahu has repeatedly been an important validator of Trump to that constituency,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she focuses on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

“It gives Netanyahu a reason to praise Trump to this constituency that pays attention to Netanyahu, and that helps Trump with that constituency,” she added.

The agreement on annexation discussions represents a major political win for Netanyahu, who is facing a corruption trial that was postponed until May 24 amid the country’s coronavirus lockdown.

“The fact that annexation is included as the only non-coronavirus major policy issue to be discussed during the government’s first six months is a statement of how important it is to the Israeli right and how they view the window of its possibility to be closing should President Trump not be reelected,” said Michael Koplow, policy director for the nonprofit Israel Policy Forum.  

“Annexation is the right’s top policy priority, and for many of them, their support of Netanyahu during his legal problems is contingent on his delivering West Bank sovereignty. That it was singularly included in the agreement should be taken as a sign of how close it is to coming to fruition,” he added.

Israeli and U.S. officials have worked since February to map parts of the West Bank for annexation, refining borders that were first identified in maps released as part of the Trump administration’s peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians and introduced at the end of January.

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“Our close, strong partnership with Israel continues uninterrupted during government formation,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hill. 

“Regarding annexations, we will continue to consult closely with the Government and Israel on this, as well as on a wide range of other issues,” they added.

Those maps envisioned disjointed Palestinian territories comprising a “state” encircled by an Israeli security barrier.

In releasing the plan, the Trump administration said it gave Israel the green light to exercise sovereignty over those parts it identified as part of the Jewish state and requested that Israel freeze construction activity in areas designated for a future Palestinian state.

The Trump plan gave the Palestinian Authority a four-year timeline to achieve benchmarks — for example, demilitarizing the Gaza Strip from Hamas — to even be considered for the possibility of statehood recognition.

The initial U.S. map envisioned Israel taking control of 30 percent of the West Bank, including all Israeli-Jewish settlements and areas where Palestinians currently live, according to an analysis commissioned by the Israel Policy Forum.

The maps proposed by the Trump administration were widely rejected by Palestinian leadership for abandoning negotiations on territory in general and giving Israel a free hand to unilaterally exercise sovereignty.

“What right do you have to annex our land?” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech at the United Nations in February. “You will destroy the chances of peace.”

Movement on annexation could potentially create a crisis amid U.S. and Arab relations, who formally rejected Trump’s peace plan after initially offering tacit acceptance, the Brookings Institution's Wittes said.

This includes the Trump administration’s cooperation with Gulf Arab states, including on managing oil prices during the economic turmoil sparked by the pandemic.

“This could be a complicating factor,” Wittes said.