February 27, 2020

The Cyrus Parameters: Trump and Netanyahu

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 28. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the morning of Jan. 28, Israel time, that he was no longer seeking immunity from indictment and trial. However, he had little choice. His main political rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, was making his way back from Washington, D.C., and the parliament was getting ready to appoint the panel that would reject Netanyahu’s request for immunity. So, the prime minister decided to eliminate the issue and focus on what he called a “historic process.”

Netanyahu is the son of a distinguished historian, and the twists and turns of history-making likely always are on his mind. When he departed Israel on Jan. 26, he said he was going to “make history” — a common expression for him in the week since the decision to finally publicize the “Deal of the Century,” President Donald Trump’s peace plan for the Middle East.

From Netanyahu: “Tomorrow we will make history”; “On Tuesday, we will make history”; “Together with Trump, we will make history”; “I’m looking forward to making history.” And, of course, at the event itself: “This is a historic day.”

Then, on Jan. 28, Netanyahu made history by becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted for corruption. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to file the indictment shortly after Netanyahu’s immunity surrender. But Netanyahu stood alongside Trump for another shot at making history. He compared Trump with President Harry Truman, who recognized Israel. Following mathematical rules of logic, since Truman compared himself to King Cyrus, the conclusion is that Trump — whom Netanyahu called “the greatest friend Israel ever had in the White House” — is another Cyrus. What does Trump get in return for his friendship?
Netanyahu said Jan. 28, 2020, would be a day for the Jews to remember. Our memory is uniquely robust. 

Was it a historic event? Are we at the beginning of a “new dawn in the Middle East,” as Trump said?

What is in the plan? Three important items: 

1. Israel must agree to the principle of a Palestinian state. Small and demilitarized, but a state. 

2. This Palestinian state no longer means an evacuation of settlements and an Israeli withdrawal from territory it deems crucial for its security or for symbolic reasons. In fact, the opposite is true: Israel can annex the rest of the territory, and can do it now. 

3. No more waiting for the other side to accept the unacceptable plans offered.

The rest is commentary.

Was it a historic event? Are we at the beginning of a “new dawn in the Middle East,” as Trump said? You can agree or not, depending on your expectations and assessment of what comes next. But one thing is clear: The old “Clinton parameters” — those outdated truisms that made so many believe “we all know what a final status agreement looks like” — no longer are relevant. There are new “Trump parameters.”

You may debate whether it’s history in a good way (because Israel is supposed to get more land) or a bad way (because it is unacceptable to the Palestinians, which will not bring about peace). You also could say it’s not historic, that the plan is nothing but a show, a diversion from Netanyahu’s indictment troubles at home and Trump’s impeachment troubles on Capitol Hill. In fact, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk called the plan’s unveiling a “farce.”

But the more the plan — whose primary architect is Senior Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner — followed by action — possibly annexation of areas in Judea and Samaria — the more difficult it will become to deny the significance of the moment.

Israel will remain a Jewish state and the Palestinians must acknowledge that fact if they want to move forward and receive benefits. (U.S. diplomats have blasted the Trump administration for not soliciting input from  Palestinians for the plan, which heavily favors Israel.) Israel will have control over a lot of territory in the West Bank — including the Jordan Valley and the settlement blocs. (The international community and the Palestinians consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal.) The 1967 borders no longer are the key to resolving the conflict. Israel will have control over the most important quarters of Jerusalem. It will control all borders. It will not have to evacuate settlements but must evacuate outposts — an operational headache for the government. (The Palestinians seek part of Jerusalem as the capital for an eventual independent state and hoped that would be stipulated in an overall peace agreement.)

Ultimately, this plan that aims to begin a four-year process of implementation poses the same dilemma presented by all previous plans to Israel and its neighbors: Is this the best deal the sides can hope for, or should they wait for a better option in the future?

The Palestinians have no doubt: The future will be more promising than the present, whether a near future when another candidate is elected to the White House or a more distant future. The Palestinians have rejected all plans for settling the conflict since 1947; they have the necessary patience and are used to waiting. 

Israel faces a more profound moment of choice this time. In return for the many advantages this plan offers compared with all previous plans, Israel must accept, on principle, that the Palestinians deserve to get something they can call a “state.” They must accept, on principle, that most of Judea and Samaria will be under Palestinian jurisdiction. For some Israelis, this isn’t easy.

This plan that aims to begin a four-year process of implementation poses the same dilemma presented by all previous plans to Israel and its neighbors.

As of the Journal’s press time, the Palestinians reportedly had rejected the peace plan. Leader Mahmoud Abbas said, “After the nonsense that we heard today, we say a thousand no’s to the ‘deal of the century.’ ”

Demonstrators burned images of Trump and Netanyahu as protests erupted across the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip.

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Photo by Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

In his 2018 book, “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life,” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb observes there are “way too many cooks” in the “tiny kitchen” of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The crux of the argument is that things go awry when the people involved do not have a significant stake in something.

The obvious rest of the analogy is that the cooks never have to taste the food. These teams of do-gooders have no skin in our game. U.S. peacemakers come, discuss, prod, pressure, charm, speak and threaten — yet, they ultimately retire to their hotels, golf courses or other pursuits. In this, the Trump team is no better nor worse than all previous U.S. teams that attempted — without much success — to resolve the “conflict,” be it by one dramatic stroke or by incremental steps.

They are different only in one important sense: their disregard of the notion that an advancement necessitates a compromise to which both sides must agree. “Had the Palestinians settled in 1947,” Taleb writes, “they would have been better off.” This is no doubt right, but requires an addition: Had Israel waited for the Palestinians to settle in 1947, it would have been worse off.

Many Israelis on the right (but not the far right) inadvertently alluded to this notion when the first details of the Trump plan began to leak. They also called this “a historic moment” and urged Netanyahu to “seize the moment.” They warned against hesitation and inaction. They complained that Israel has waited “long enough.” In essence, they were calling on the government to act; to annex the Jordan Valley, change the legal status of Judaea and Samaria settlements, and make all the moves Palestinians wouldn’t be willing to discuss and which the Trump administration supports.

Last spring, Netanyahu surpassed David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving prime minister of Israel. Now his supporters want him to exhibit Ben-Gurion’s decisiveness. 

Of course, there is a bit of a problem with this comparison. In 1948, Ben-Gurion was at the peak of his political career and authority. In 2020, Netanyahu is a leader who just failed to win two consecutive elections, has no majority in parliament and is facing criminal charges. Netanyahu might remind us of Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit in 2000, when there was a lot of fanfare but the prime minister had no public support. He might remind us of Ehud Olmert’s negotiations with Abbas, when the prime minister had good intentions and also a corruption case hanging over his head. He might remind us of Shimon Peres at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in 1996, when a popular U.S. president, Bill Clinton, attempted to save him from becoming a losing political candidate, without success.  

Ben-Gurion? We will talk about him, too.

The Palestinians have no doubt: The future will be more promising than the present, whether a near future when another candidate is elected to the White House or a more distant future.

Tom Segev’s biography of Israel’s founder, “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion,” is controversial and fascinating. Among many other things, it details the story of a somewhat mysterious series of meetings between Ben-Gurion and his archrival, Zeev Jabotinsky, in 1943 in London. These great Zionist leaders tended to denigrate each other using the harshest terms before and after this episode of engagement that lasted just a few short weeks. Ben-Gurion compared Jabotinsky to Hitler. Jabotinsky retorted by comparing Ben-Gurion to Hitler and Stalin. Their secret encounters, when discovered, stunned and disgusted some of their peers. A meeting of minds of the leader of the Labor-left and the leader of the revisionist-right seemed like the mixing of oil and water. Yet, as Segev comments, the differences between them hardly were as stark their rhetoric suggested.

They had similar aims, Segev writes, somewhat disapprovingly. They both wanted a Jewish state in all the land of Israel. They both believed the Arabs would never agree to such a state and would accept it as reality only after Israel became strong enough to be indestructible. Both wanted to respect the civil rights of Arab citizens of Israel. Jabotinsky was not really a “fascist” and Ben-Gurion was not really a “Marxist,” the historian writes. He explains that the divide between left and right in the Zionist movement was more about style and tactics than it was about the main principles.

Fast forward 77 years later, the supposed heirs to Ben-Gurion (Gantz, whose background and constituency put him in this position) and Jabotinsky (Netanyahu, whose Likud Party is the direct descendant of the revisionist movement) find themselves in a similar position. Gantz and Netanyahu’s great rivalry is more style than substance; the great obstacle to them having a conversation is the expected disapproval of their peers and voters; the names they call each other are no more than political rhetoric. Much like the founding generation, Netanyahu and Gantz agree on the main principles; these principles changed somewhat, but not in a fundamental way compared with the principles that guided Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky. They want Israel as a Jewish state. They want an Israel that extends beyond its current official boundaries. They believe the Arabs will let Israel exist only if it is strong enough to defeat any foe. 

Israel will remain a Jewish state and the Palestinians must acknowledge that fact if they want to move forward and receive benefits. 

That they both accepted the Trump peace plan and commended the president for devising it should not come as a surprise. True, Netanyahu wanted to utilize the plan as a political ploy to win an election. Yes, Gantz traveled to Washington without cheer, highly suspecting this whole affair was a political trap. He also has a few reservations about the details of the plan and insists on implementation of the plan “in tandem with the other countries in our region” (which could mean never).

Yet, the plan itself is not the problem. If the circumstances allow Israel to implement this plan, Gantz and Netanyahu gladly will embrace it. To borrow one last line from Segev: Netanyahu is not really a “corrupted leader” (surely not as corrupt as the book portrays Ben-Gurion), and Gantz is not really a “leftist” (nor more so than the legendary combative leader of the Labor movement).

On the morning of Jan. 26, when Gantz was en route to Washington, one of his peers of the Blue and White Party “cockpit” of leaders — a military label fitting a party of three former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff — made a worthy observation. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon was chief of intelligence when the Oslo Accord began to collapse in the mid-’90s, and enraged the right when he argued that Iran initiated terror attacks to topple Peres’ government. He was chief of staff during the Second Intifada, and enraged the left by opposing the disengagement from Gaza. He was Netanyahu’s minister of defense — then he was not. He entertained the idea of becoming Netanyahu’s main rival but then realized the only way for him to stay in the game was by joining Gantz’s “cockpit.”

When speaking about Netanyahu, Ya’alon is the most resentful of the four members of the cockpit. All of them worked with him — Yair Lapid as minister of finance, and the other three as senior defense professionals. All of them had to deal with Netanyahu’s manipulation and cunning. Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi seem to have escaped unharmed; Lapid seems slightly bitter; Ya’alon is the one with real scars.  

So, on the morning of Jan. 26, it was not a surprise to hear Ya’alon say that the prime minister is using the Trump plan as a scheme to “escape the defendant’s bench.” That was, generally speaking, the unified message of Blue and White: Treat the Trump plan as if there’s no legal battle — and the legal battle as if there’s no Trump plan.

If the circumstances allow Israel to implement this plan, Gantz and Netanyahu gladly will embrace it.

But what Ya’alon had to say about the plan was quite interesting. He said the plan fits with the “national consensus” and “restores the Israeli position that eroded along the years.” When Ya’alon talks about an Israeli position that eroded with time, he means the past 30 years or so. He talks about Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo and its aftermath. He talks about Ariel Sharon’s disengagement; Ehud Barak’s Camp David; the Clinton parameters; the ideas of a “messianic” (Ya’alon’s term) John Kerry. He talks about the naïve notion that Israel has a Palestinian partner for peace, and the only way to get to such peace is for Israel to be squeezed until it gives the Palestinians the minimum they require.

Ya’alon dislikes and distrusts Netanyahu, and is eager to see Netanyahu’s departure. He surely will fight him as if there is no Trump plan, but later might support the implementation of a Trump plan as if Netanyahu were out of the picture.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (center), listen during a press conference on Jan. 28. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

After Washington, Netanyahu’s next planned stop was Moscow. He wanted to bring home an Israeli detained by the Russians and perhaps get another photo op for his campaign. Say what you want about him as prime minister, his focus and determination in fighting for his political life is admirable. No stunt is off limits. No maneuver is off the table. The court might rule that he’s corrupt. The public might decide he ought to go. But no one can say with a straight face that Netanyahu isn’t a fighter. He fights for Israel the way he fights for his career, which would explain why Israel has wanted him as its leader for such a long time.

Ultimately, there is a very good chance the Trump plan will not have a significant impact on Israel’s elections.

His next move is tied to the Trump plan and limited by the leash Trump holds around his waist. Netanyahu wants to convey to his voters the following story: If I am prime minister, Israel will have borders recognized by the U.S. that include settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley; if my rivals get the helm, their hesitation and political constraints (possibly having to rely on the Arab party) will deny Israel a great prize.

This could work but don’t bet on it. Ultimately, there is a very good chance the Trump plan will not have a significant impact on Israel’s elections. For about a year now, the polls show an unchanged picture of voters who have already made up their minds. No crisis or tactic has significantly altered their principled preference, for or against Netanyahu. There is reason to suspect the Trump deal will have the same effect, which is no effect. 

If that’s the case, Netanyahu will get a shot at making history once more: a fourth election.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.