Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs all the help he can muster before voters head to the ballot box on March 2 – for the third time in a year. Once again, it seems as though US President Donald Trump intends to ride to his rescue.
Despite Mr Trump’s best efforts, Israel’s two elections last year ended in stalemate. Each time, Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and its religious, pro-settler coalition partners tied with the secular, yet hawkish right led by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.
The pressure on Mr Netanyahu to win this time has intensified. His opponents in the Israeli parliament advanced plans last week to set up a committee to weigh whether or not he should be immune from prosecution in three corruption cases.
If he is denied immunity, as seems likely, the path will be clear for a trial that might make it impossible for him to head the next government whatever the outcome.
This was the background to intimations from the Trump administration last week that it may finally publish its long-anticipated peace plan.
The White House reportedly delayed the plan’s release over the course of last year as it waited for Mr Netanyahu to secure a majority government to put it into effect.
Leaks suggest the document will bolster Israel’s maximalist demands, scuppering any hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership severed ties with Washington a while back in protest.
More than any of his recent predecessors, Mr Trump has shown a repeated willingness to meddle in Israeli elections to the benefit of Mr Netanyahu.
Shortly before last April’s vote, Mr Trump declared that the US would formally recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. The seizure of the 1,800-square-kilometre territory in 1967 remains illegal under international law. And days before the most recent ballot in September, Mr Trump publicly alluded to the possibility of a US-Israeli defence pact.
Now US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have hinted that the US peace plan could be published in the run-up to the March election.
Israeli officials have been saying much the same to local media since an unexpected visit this month by Avi Berkowitz, Mr Trump’s new aide overseeing the peace plan.
This prompted Mr Gantz, the prime minister’s main challenger, to condemn any such move as “blatant interference” in the election.
In fact, until recently, Mr Netanyahu had been reluctant for the so-called “deal of the century” to be published because it would be unlikely to satisfy the settlers’ most extreme demands. He had feared that disappointment might drive some Likud voters further to the right, towards smaller, even more hardline parties.
But Mr Netanyahu is now in such precarious political and legal straits that he appears ready to gamble. Publication of the peace plan could attract some more uncompromising Blue and White voters to his side. They may prefer a seasoned player like Mr Netanyahu to manage White House expectations, rather than a politically inexperienced former army general like Mr Gantz.
Furthermore, the settler parties that could steal votes from Likud as a result of a Trump “peace” initiative are the lynchpin of the coalition Mr Netanyahu needs to maintain his grip on power. Netanyahu’s own party may not gain more seats but overall his far-right bloc could prosper, ultimately securing Mr Netanyahu the election and immunity from prosecution.
The key issue on which Mr Netanyahu and Mr Trump appear to agree is on annexing the bulk of the West Bank – territories categorised in the Oslo accords as Area C, the backbone of any future Palestinian state.
Before the September election, Mr Netanyahu announced plans to annex the Jordan Valley, the West Bank’s vast agricultural basin – presumably with Mr Trump’s blessing.
Mr Pompeo offered his apparent backing in November by claiming that Israeli settlements in the West Bank were not necessarily “inconsistent with international law”.
With that as a cue, Mr Netanyahu’s government convened a panel this month to draft an official proposal to annex the Jordan Valley.
Naftali Bennett, the defence minister and a settler leader, revealed last week that Israel was creating seven new “nature reserves” on Palestinian land. Another 12 existing Israeli-seized sites are to be expanded.
Israel would annex Area C “within a short time”, Mr Bennett added.
On Saturday, he also ordered the army to bar from the West Bank prominent Israeli left-wing activists who demonstrate alongside Palestinians against land thefts by the settlers and the army. He equated these non-violent protesters with extremist settler groups that have assaulted Palestinians and torched their olive groves and homes.
Referring to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Palestinian foreign ministry warned that establishment of the nature reserves would “speed up [Mr Bennett’s] appearance before the ICC as a war criminal.”
Nonetheless, the settler right is growing ever bolder on the annexation issue – as evidenced by Israel’s increasingly fraught ties with neighbouring Jordan.
King Abullah II recently declared relations with Israel at an “all-time low”. Meanwhile, Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, blamed Israel for showing “contempt towards Jordan” and creating a crisis that jeopardised the two countries’ 1994 peace treaty, a legacy of the Oslo peace process.
If Israel annexes large swaths of the West Bank, stymying Palestinian statehood, that could unleash waves of unrest among the kingdom’s majority population – Palestinians made refugees by Israel during the 1948 and 1967 wars.
It could also provoke a mass exodus of West Bank Palestinians into Jordan. Senior Jordanian officials recently told a former Israeli journalist, Ori Nir, that they viewed annexation as an “existential threat” to their country.
In November the Jordanian military conducted a drill against an invasion on its western flank – from Israel’s direction – that included the mock blowing up of bridges over the River Jordan.
The Israeli right would be only too delighted to see King Abdullah in trouble. It has long harboured a dream of engineering the destruction of Hashemite rule as a way to transform Jordan, instead of the occupied territories, into the locus of a Palestinian state.
According to Israeli analysts, the right perceives itself as at a historic crossroads.
It can annex most of the West Bank and impose an unmistakeable apartheid rule over a restless, rebellious Palestinian population. Or it can realise its Greater Israel ambitions by helping to topple the Hashemite kingdom and encourage the West Bank’s Palestinians to disperse into Jordan.
All Israeli rightwingers need is a nod of approval from the White House. With Mr Netanyahu desperate to pull a rabbit out of his hat, and with an obliging patron installed in Washington, there is reason enough for them to believe that the stars may finally be aligned.
Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist in Nazareth