Trump Hosts Israeli Political Rivals to Discuss Peace Plan

WASHINGTON—President Trump on Monday opened a series of events designed to pull back the curtain on the longest developing foreign policy initiative of his administration, a proposal for peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump greeted Israeli Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

at the White House and planned to meet later Monday with Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival, Blue and White party leader

Benny Gantz.

The president said he would release details of his administration’s long-delayed, 50-page political blueprint under development since 2017 before holding additional meetings with Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday. He offered a restrained assessment of the plan’s prospects.

“Peace in the Middle East has been long sought, for many, many, many years and decades and centuries,” Mr. Trump said in welcoming Mr. Netanyahu. “This is an opportunity, we’ll see what happens. Whatever it is, it is.”

Few details of the plan have ever been made public. While economic proposals were issued by administration officials last June, the key political differences—including resolving borders, refugees and security arrangements—have been considered the most difficult part of any peace effort, and Mr. Trump hasn’t divulged his administration’s proposals for them.

The plan will be released around noon Tuesday, Mr. Trump said. “We’re going show a plan. It’s been worked on by everybody and we’ll see whether or not it gets [support],” Mr. Trump said. “If it does, that will be great. And if it doesn’t, we can live with it too. But I think it might have a chance.”

Mr. Netanyahu sounded a somewhat more upbeat assessment. “I look forward to making history with you tomorrow,” he told Mr. Trump.

Palestinian officials aren’t included in this week’s meetings, and the coming days are shaping up to be dueling sets of handshakes between Mr. Trump and the Israeli political rivals, in the process jolting Israel’s unprecedented third elections in March.

Analysts in Israel and Washington have described the Washington visit a little over one month away from Israel’s vote as an election boost for Mr. Netanyahu, who has campaigned as an indispensable statesman best poised to capitalize on his close ties with Mr. Trump.

Palestinian officials cut ties with the Trump administration in December 2017 after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and have repeatedly criticized the Trump administration peace effort, saying it could make permanent Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Relations were further strained after the Trump administration slashed funds for the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, cut bilateral assistance and closed the Palestinian mission in Washington.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Sunday that the meeting absent any Palestinian input “is the hoax and the fraud of the century.”

The Trump administration has said it hopes its plan could be the basis for discussions between Israel and the Palestinians. But in Israel, right-wing politicians largely have dismissed the idea that talks would result.

President Trump will meet separately with Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz.


Photo:

emmanuel dunand/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Palestinian officials have also said they would reject any plan that doesn’t include East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state that is based on borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing politicians framed the plan as a step on the road to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, because the expected Palestinian rejection of the plan could then give Israel cover to follow through on Mr. Netanyahu’s election pledges.

The plan’s rollout could also put pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to take unilateral steps before Israel’s March 2 vote and is expected to boost him domestically because of how favorable it is anticipated to be to Israel.

“Annex, we’ll support. Don’t annex—we’ll oppose. If this whole event ends without applying sovereignty now, before the elections, with the American tailwind, then this won’t be the deal of the century, but the missed opportunity of the century,” said

Naftali Bennett,

head of the Yamina party that is to the right of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud.

Mr. Netanyahu has pledged to unilaterally annex the Jordan Valley if he is re-elected and called for the parliament to vote on the matter as early as this week.

Mr. Gantz said last week that he would look to do the same by seeking consensus in Israel and with the help of the international community. U.S. officials have said they oppose any unilateral actions before the plan is released.

Palestinian officials said a failed plan could have consequences, including opening “the doors of one person one vote” across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Currently, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza aren’t Israeli citizens and cannot vote in Israeli elections.

Israel wants to make sure that any arrangement would ensure its survival as a Jewish democratic state, which its leaders fear would be threatened if a large number of Palestinians gained voting rights through annexation of territories. Some two million Arab Israelis live inside Israel and are Israeli citizens, about one-fifth of the nation’s population.

The meetings could distract from domestic political and legal problems both Messrs. Netanyahu and Trump face ahead of tough election contests. In a week that Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party had hoped would focus on Mr. Netanyahu’s legal troubles, much of the Israeli political has shifted to feverish speculation about what parts of the West Bank Mr. Netanyahu may annex.

Israel’s parliament is set to vote Tuesday to form a panel to hear Mr. Netanyahu’s immunity request from bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. In Washington, Mr. Trump is facing the second week of his impeachment trial in the Senate.

Some details of the Middle East plan have been reported in the Israeli press, but not confirmed by U.S. officials. Some of the reports said the Trump plan would provide for Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and 100 settlements as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state provided that Hamas, which controls Gaza, disarms and the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Trump administration officials refused to comment on the details circulating, and Mr. Trump tweeted last week that reports about details are speculative.

Mr. Trump said last week that Palestinian leaders had been “briefly” contacted but didn’t elaborate. “But we will speak to them in a period of time,” Mr. Trump added.

Mr. Trump acknowledged the difficulty of attaining a pact for peace in the Middle East, calling it “the toughest of any deal.”

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com and Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com

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