White House, Arab officials cite congressional elections in November, possible Israeli elections in early 2019 as reasons for delay. Trump administration seeks staff for Middle East policy team under point men Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.
White House adviser Jared Kushner speaks at a White House event in Washington (Photo: AP)
A White House source and senior Arab officials on Thursday said the Trump administration was postponing by several months the rollout of its so-called “deal of the century” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The U.S. official said the administration has already decided not to present the peace plan before the congressional mid-term elections on Nov. 6 because certain components of the plan call for Israeli concessions and could harm Republican candidates' election bids.
The official also said that if Israel goes to elections after the Jewish holidays this September, then the administration would postpone the peace plan even further, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to adopt certain aspects during an election campaign.
Israel's next election is scheduled for November 2019. But a single party could force early elections by withdrawing from the government coalition. Due to the wide range of views among the coalition parties, Israeli governments rarely complete a full term.
Announcing the peace plan during an Israeli election campaign “would play into the hands of [Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali] Bennett and the administration understands this,” the official said, referring to the politician deemed Netanyahu's chief rival for the premiership.
“During an election campaign, Netanyahu wouldn't be able to say 'yes' to such ideas. On the other hand, he also can't say 'no' to [President Donald] Trump. It appears, therefore, that the sides would rather play it smart and simply wait until the elections are over, in the U.S. and in Israel,” the official said.
If Israel does not hold elections this year, a window of opportunity for unveiling Trump's Middle East peace plan would be opened.
Senior Arab officials confirmed to Israel Hayom that the peace plan will likely be delayed by several months, because of assessments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Israel will hold elections in early 2019.
The officials said that regardless of the possibility of elections in Israel, the leaders of moderate Arab states, chief among them Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, sent a joint message to the White House, saying they preferred to wait for the Congressional elections in the U.S. to conclude before the peace plan is presented.
A White House National Security Council official told Israel Hayom, “The release date for the peace plan won't be determined by political matters in the U.S. or the political situation in Israel, but rather by the date it is completed and when the timing is appropriate.”
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said Thursday that the Trump administration was staffing up the Middle East policy team at the White House in anticipation of unveiling the still largely mysterious peace plan.
Last week, the National Security Council began approaching other agencies seeking volunteers to join the team, which will work under Trump's Middle East peace point men, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the officials said.
The team, which will organize the peace plan's public presentation and any negotiations that may follow, is to be made up of three units: one concentrating on its political and security details, one on its significant economic focus and one on strategic communications, the officials said.
The establishment of a White House team is the first evidence in months that the plan is advancing. Although Trump officials have long promised the most comprehensive package ever put forward to resolve the conflict, not even a small detail of the emerging plan has been offered by Kushner, Greenblatt or any other official.
The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and Congress have been asked to detail personnel to the team for six months to a year, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The agencies declined to comment, but an NSC official said that Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and Greenblatt, Trump's special envoy for international negotiations, “are expanding their team and the resources available as they finalize the details and rollout strategy of the peace initiative.”
White House officials say the plan will focus on pragmatic details, rather than top-line concepts, in a way that will help win public support.
The Palestinian leadership has been openly hostile to any proposal from the Trump administration, saying it has a pro-Israel bias, notably after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December and moved the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv in May.
Since the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas broke off contact after the Jerusalem announcement, the U.S. negotiating team has been talking to independent Palestinian experts.
The White House expects that the Palestinian Authority will engage on the plan and has been resisting Congressional demands to fully close the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington because Greenblatt and Kushner want to keep that channel open. But officials have offered little evidence to back that up.
Palestinian alienation has continued to grow as millions of dollars in U.S. assistance remains on hold and appears likely to be cut entirely. With just two months left in the current budget year, less than half of the planned $251 million in U.S. aid planned for the Palestinians in 2018 – $92.8 million – has been released, according to the government's online tracker, www.foreignassistance.gov.
The remaining amount is still on hold as is an additional $65 million in frozen U.S. assistance to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.
In addition, Israel's response to the plan is far from certain. Although Netanyahu is one of Trump's top foreign allies, it remains unclear if he will back massive investment in Gaza, which is run by the terrorist Hamas movement.
For the plan to succeed or even survive the starting gate, it will need at least initial buy-in from both Israel and the Palestinians as well as from the Gulf Arab states, which officials say will be asked to substantially bankroll its economic portion. Arab officials have thus far adopted a wait-and-see approach.