The dissolution of the Israeli Knesset on May 29 and the decision to hold new elections in September certainly complicate the Trump administration’s Middle East peace efforts. For now, the administration seems committed to holding its previously announced “economic workshop” in Bahrain in late June, but beyond that it is hard to see how it can move forward. Unveiling a peace plan during an Israeli election campaign makes no sense, and once a new Israeli government is in place, the U.S. election campaign will have gotten underway in earnest. The administration will find it difficult to proceed under those circumstances.
Given intense Palestinian opposition to President Donald Trump’s approach to the “deal of the century,” the latest developments in Israel may have saved the administration from a major embarrassment. One gets the sense that it already understood it was headed down a difficult path and needed a way out. The plan’s key architect, Jared Kushner, seemed to acknowledge this in May, telling a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “[I]f we are going to fail, we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past.” Kushner and his team may have now found an excuse to put their plan on hold indefinitely.
However the administration decides to proceed, it will likely face another important decision ahead on the question of Israeli annexations in the West Bank. Will a new Israeli government use Palestinian opposition to the Trump administration’s peace efforts as a pretext for annexation? Will the United States support such a step? If so, these decisions could trigger a cycle of actions and reactions that would further destabilize an already fragile status quo.
Israeli politics are unpredictable, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a government. However, pressure from right-wing parties for annexation of all or part of the West Bank is not likely to diminish. Netanyahu is already on the record during the past election as supporting the extension of Israeli law to the settlements. But any such step would be seen by Palestinians as a material breach of the Oslo Declaration of Principles, and they are certain to react with fury. Another downward spiral of events would probably ensue, further unraveling the situation on the ground.
A number of events could follow from such a spiral. These include a cessation of security cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli security services in the West Bank, a flare-up of “lone-wolf” attacks against Israelis in the West Bank or Jerusalem, another round of fighting in Gaza between Hamas and the Israeli military, and ultimately even the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
Former Israeli military chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot reportedly warned Trump’s special representative Jason Greenblatt of the dangers: “The West Bank could erupt before, during, or after you present your peace plan, and you should add this to your calculations. Once this genie is out of the bottle, it will take five years to put it back in.”
Adding to the volatile situation is the tension in the wider Middle East. U.S. sanctions are increasing pressure on the regime in Iran, which is looking for ways to respond. Tehran could use its proxy in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to launch attacks against Israel, dragging Hamas into another war. While the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah wants no part in such a fight, it is quite possible that fighting in Gaza could spill over into the West Bank, propelled by calls to defend Palestinian rights in response to annexation moves. All of the ingredients for a perfect storm would seem to be in place.
If the Trump administration wants to avoid inflaming the situation, its first course of action should be to shelve a plan that no one in the region really wants to see. Perhaps this will come about after the Bahrain workshop fails to generate any real progress on the economic aspects of the plan and Israel holds another election. But pressure for annexation within Israel will continue, and the U.S. attitude toward such a move will be significant. To prevent a further deterioration in the situation, Washington needs to adopt a firm attitude on this issue with the incoming Israeli government, opposing any steps to change the legal status of any part of the West Bank.
The United States may be tempted to find a middle course with the Israelis, consenting to a limited annexation or “extension of Israeli law” to one or two settlements that most Israelis believe would become part of Israel in any future deal with the Palestinians. It might consider lending its support for a limited annexation in return for a promise of no further Israeli actions during an agreed time period. But this would be very dangerous. Even a limited annexation would put Israel on a slippery slope that would be hard to escape. Palestinian reaction to annexation will be harsh no matter what form it takes. A similar American acquiescence in settlement expansion over the decades helped create the nearly impossible situation that exists today on the West Bank. Following the same path on settlement annexation is almost certain to doom any future chances for peace.
A Trump administration that has been so supportive of right-wing Israeli positions may be unlikely to take this advice. But it should think twice if, as it says, it is truly committed to long-term peace and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians. As others have also noted, the administration’s underlying objective in dealing with their conflict is more likely aimed at resetting the terms of reference for future peace efforts than achieving an agreement in the near term. In his May 2 remarks, Kushner described the plan as a way to “change the paradigm and put something forward that gets both sides to very seriously look at the facts and try to navigate a way where they can allow their people to be better off for the long term.”
If the Trump administration allows Israeli annexation to go forward in the West Bank, the ensuing downward spiral will eliminate the possibility that any aspect of its work on Middle East peace can remain relevant in the future. That should be reason enough for it to proceed cautiously.