WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump hosted Israel’s prime minister and his chief rival Monday at the White House on the eve of unveiling a long-awaited Mideast peace plan, expressing confidence that despite adamant Palestinian rejection they would ultimately go along with a blueprint he said was “very good for them.”
The Trump proposal is widely expected to be favorable to Israel, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz speaking in glowing terms about the president and his initiative. But with the Palestinians steadfastly refusing to even speak to Trump, and urging other Arab nations to boycott Tuesday’s event, there is great skepticism over the plan’s chances of success.
The meetings come just a month before Netanyahu and Gantz are set to face off in national elections for the third time in less than a year, and both were looking to project leadership in their separate meetings with the president.
Trump called his proposal a great “opportunity” but wouldn’t discuss further details, noting that its release has long been delayed because of the uncertain political situation in Israel. He refused to answer questions over whether it would include Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, signaling that it was premature for Palestinians to rule it out.
“I think in the end they’re going to want it. It’s very good for them,” he said alongside Netanyahu. “We’re going to show a plan. It’s been worked on by everybody, and we’ll see whether or not it catches hold. If it does, that would be great, and if it doesn’t, we can live with it, too. But I think it might have a chance.”
Netanyahu has hailed it as a chance to “make history” and define Israel’s final borders. At the White House, Netanyahu pointed out Trump’s various gestures to Israel as well as his strong stance against Iran. Netanyahu’s office said most of the meeting actually focused on Iran, though the peace plan was also discussed.
“You have made our alliance stronger than ever,” Netanyahu said to Trump.
Shortly after Netanyahu left, Gantz was invited into the White House for his first meeting with Trump. Speaking to reporters later, he did not disclose details of their conversation, but he did shower Trump with praise. He called his peace plan “a significant and historic milestone” that he looked forward to implementing once he became prime minister, in tandem with other countries in the region — specifically mentioning Jordan.
In the run-up to the March 2 vote, Netanyahu has called for annexing parts of the West Bank and imposing Israeli sovereignty on all its settlements there. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Jordan Valley in particular is considered a vital security asset.
Reports in Israeli media have speculated that Trump’s plan could include the possible annexation of large pieces of territory that the Palestinians seek for a future independent state. American approval could give Netanyahu the type of cover to go ahead with a move that he’s resisted taking for more than a decade in power.
Annexing Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank would appeal to Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist supporters but would almost certainly torpedo the viability of an independent Palestinian state and likely infuriate neighboring Jordan. In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty, the second between Israel and its Arab neighbors after Egypt.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh denounced the still-unpublished proposal again Monday in Ramallah, saying it “doesn’t constitute a basis for resolving the conflict.” He said the plan violates international law and “comes from a party that has lost its credibility to be an honest broker in a serious and genuine political process.”
The Palestinians are still fuming at Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. Embassy there and taking other steps they consider biased toward Israel.
A Palestinian official said President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected overtures from mediators in recent weeks to arrange a phone call with Trump. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a classified diplomatic issue. Abbas’ spokesman also called on ambassadors of Arab countries who were invited to the White House on Tuesday to boycott the event.
Netanyahu’s foray to Washington gives him a major boost. The longtime leader has been reeling from a stiff challenge from Gantz and the fallout of his indictment on corruption charges. The Israeli parliament is expected to reject his request for immunity on Tuesday, and a damaging criminal trial looms.
Gantz, a former military chief, has focused his campaign on Netanyahu’s legal problems and his character, saying he is unfit for office. “Netanyahu will not be able to also manage a country and also manage his trial,” Gantz added in Hebrew in Washington.
Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through difficult times. He has tried to use his close friendship with Trump as a strategic asset to stay in power.
Trump, himself under the cloud of his impeachment trial in the Senate, appears poised to offer Netanyahu some needed help in the form of the most generous American peace proposal ever. Previous peace plans have included conditions for Israeli withdrawals and the prospect of evacuating Jewish settlements.
Netanyahu was charged in November with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases involving accepting gifts from billionaire friends and trading political and regulatory favors for positive news coverage. In two election rounds, neither has been able to secure a required parliamentary majority without the other’s support. Each is seeking a knockout punch in the upcoming third round.
Trump delivered political favors to Netanyahu during the previous two races, only to see his friend fall short of victory. Netanyahu’s confidants have suggested that his motivations are mostly ideological, since he may be coming to terms with an end to his lengthy career and is eager to leave West Bank annexation behind as a form of legacy.
Follow Aron Heller at twitter.com/aronhellerap