Photo Credit: flash90
Judea and Samaria youth protest near Bet El, 2011

The United States gave consent to a historic move on Jan. 28, 2020, when as part of its peace plan, it recognized Israel’s right to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in one-third of Judea and Samaria.

“We will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved,” President Donald Trump said at the White House ceremony that day.

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Note his use of the word “immediately.” That one word would determine the entire future of the sovereignty clause.

Despite Trump’s explicit statements and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises, to this day the plan has not been implemented. Despite Former Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner’s elusive commitments and Former United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s assurances, the bold political move that was meant to turn the tide of history was shelved instead.

How and why did the plan fail?

Netanyahu started entertaining the notion of applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria back in 2018. At a Likud faction meeting, he said he had been conversing with the US on the subject for some time. He stressed that one of the most important things was to maintain “as much coordination with the US as possible, a connection with whom is a strategic asset to Israel and its settlements.”

In a response uncharacteristic of the Trump administration, the White House quickly denied the allegations. “Reports that the United States discussed with Israel an annexation plan for the West Bank are false,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said in a statement.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu and his advisers, including former Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, remained in close contact with Trump, Kushner, Friedman, and presidential adviser Jason Greenblatt about formulating the sovereignty deal.

The plan was completed by the end of 2018, but Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman bolted the coalition, forcing Israel into an early election. In fear of being perceived as meddlers in Israeli elections, a matter that constantly bothered Kushner, the US decided to delay the plan until Israel formed a government. No one could have predicted that Israel was about to plunge into two years of political turmoil.

Knowing the details of the sovereignty plan full well, Netanyahu shared them throughout his campaign, but many perceived his remarks as attempts to garner more votes ahead of the election.

Another year went by. Israel was in the midst of its third election by the end of 2019 and Trump was getting ready for a new presidential race. Nevertheless, despite the political situation in Israel, the leaders decided to unveil the plan, marking January 2020 as the month when the “deal of the century” would be presented to the public.

Netanyahu requested that Friedman be the one to present right-wing leaders with the main points of the deal and mobilize their support, as he was well-respected and trusted in right-wing circles. Friedman agreed to what was considered a historic plan at the time.

In the weeks leading up to the White House ceremony, Friedman spoke with prominent figures in the right-wing media and political system in Israel. One of his key promises was the “green light” that Israel would be given to “immediately” apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria.

Until that moment, the notion of Israeli sovereignty over these regions was considered absurd, but after Friedman’s promises, right-wing leaders sided with the move.

Then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett called the plan Israel’s “greatest political opportunity in the last 50 years.” Journalists affiliated with the national camp spoke out in support as well. The prime minister applied pressure on the leaders of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish authorities in Judea and Samaria, to accompany him to Washington.

On Monday morning, Jan. 27, Netanyahu arrived in Washington with his advisers, Friedman and Likud MK Yariv Levin, who turned out had been involved in the drafting of the plan all along.

Levin called the sovereignty plan “groundbreaking on every level, an idea never before talked about.”

“It was difficult at first to convince the US of the logic [behind the plan,] and the urgency of its implementation. But in the end, the conclusion was clear: they were going to recognize our right for sovereignty,” Levin said.

While after arriving in Washington Netanyahu began preparing for the next day’s ceremony, Trump and his team were busy with a completely different issue. January saw the culmination of Trump’s first impeachment trial when America was on the edge of its seat to find out whether former National Security Adviser John Bolton would appear in front of the Senate to testify against the president. That same day Trump was briefed on the country’s coronavirus situation and tweeted, who would have believed, that the US was offering to help China in combating the virus.

Netanyahu, Trump and their advisers were supposed to meet that evening for a last-minute meeting to discuss the deal, but due to the president’s busy schedule, it was canceled. That cancellation marked the first malfunction in the plan.

The ceremony was held the next day at the White House. Netanyahu seemed excited and enthusiastic, but Trump came across as impatient, perhaps due to the stress of the impeachment trial.

Immediately after, Netanyahu held a media briefing at Blair House. He was over the moon. Three years’ worth of hard work finally bore fruits. Such a historic breakthrough had been unparalleled since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel was about to strengthen its position in Judea and Samaria.

The briefing took a while. Netanyahu described the nitty-gritty of the plan and said that the following week the Israeli government would meet to discuss the implementation.

“Sovereignty over the settlements on Sunday,” Netanyahu’s adviser Yonatan Orich tweeted at the time.

Kushner, who was being interviewed by American media at the same time as Netanyahu was talking to journalists at Blair House, expressed a different opinion. He clearly stated that the plan’s implementation was not a matter of a few days. That inconsistency became the sovereignty plan’s second malfunction.

In Israel, Orich quickly deleted the tweet. In Washington, the situation continued to deteriorate.

The Yesha Council representatives that had come with Netanyahu were Chairman David Elhayani, head of the Efrat Local Council in Samaria Oded Revivi, and Chairman of the Gush Etzion Regional Council Shlomo Ne’eman.

Arriving with Netanyahu was Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council.

Dagan was eager to meet with Netanyahu alone. But Elhayani had Netanyahu promise not to do so.

Nevertheless, at about one in the morning, when Elhayani was stepping out of Blair House, he saw Dagan waiting outside. He got angry and drafted an opposition statement against the sovereignty plan on behalf of the Yesha Council.

The White House found out about his statement soon enough. Friedman was shocked to read it. “The ambassador was very frustrated,” an American official confirmed.

The settlers and their leaders are idealistic people, but their behavior was childish. It reflected a lack of understanding of the political arena on their part.

In any case, the most pressing issue at the time was the inconsistency between Netanyahu and Friedman’s timeline versus Kushner’s. The former said “sovereignty on Sunday,” the latter “sovereignty later, after the election.”

“To this day, I don’t understand what happened there,” Levin admitted. “It was clear to us that the plan should be implemented immediately. Nobody in the administration denied that had been our conclusion. When that same evening they requested a delay, the reason behind it was technical, to put the maps in order, but both at that time and later they showed no fundamental opposition.”

“There is no doubt that Ambassador Friedman and Envoy Greenblatt were enthusiastic about the idea [of sovereignty] and therefore it was added to the plan,” a former White House official told Israel Hayom.

As for Kushner, “he was the boss. We briefed him many times on the plan, including the idea of sovereignty. Even if he was less enthusiastic than the others, he did not object [to the idea]. For if he had opposed it, the idea would never have made it into the plan.”

“Jared is a smart man, with a knack for strategic thinking. Claiming that he did not understand, or that the entire idea of sovereignty was a political bluff by Netanyahu is complete nonsense,” the former official said.

The official explained that the remarks Greenblatt made to i24NEWS were proof of this. Greenblatt said that what Israel was considering to do [applying sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria] was entirely in line with the plan.”

The official added that after the Abraham Accords, when speaking to journalists on board the first commercial flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 31, 2020, Kushnir himself told journalists, “I don’t see any probability that Israel is going to give up that territory.”

An Israeli official familiar with the matter remarked that “if Netanyahu had known for a fact that that was indeed Washington’s standing in the matter, he would never have gone as far as Washington to declare sovereignty. Why would he do that to himself?”

In later interviews, Friedman explained that the inconsistency that day resulted from a “misunderstanding.”

According to one US official, the misunderstanding occurred when Trump used the word “immediately” during his announcement of the plan. For Friedman and Netanyahu that meant “at the next cabinet meeting,” for Kushner, who was aware of the internal political situation in Israel, that meant “after the election.”

Another senior official in the Trump administration told Israel Hayom that if the meeting the evening before the ceremony had taken place, the mishap could have been avoided. “It was embarrassing, but the plan was 180-pages long. It would make sense if one or two details were misunderstood.”

Israel Hayom interviewed seven top officials both in Washington and Jerusalem, and all of them rejected the claim that Friedman and Kushner locked horns over the matter.

“Jared waged many wars in the White House and won every one of them,” one of those officials said. “If he wanted to, he could have gotten rid of the ambassador. The fact that no such thing happened proves that was not the case. On the contrary, the ambassador greatly appreciated Jared’s work. He even organized a farewell ceremony for him and named the courtyard of the US embassy in Jerusalem after him.”

One way or another, both Americans and Israelis tried to use this opportunity and toe the line. Early on Wednesday morning, still in Washington, Friedman was woken up by a call from the White House for a second over-the-phone briefing on the peace plan. He explained that “a mapping committee will be established, but it is a process that requires [lots of] effort, understanding and coordination.”

This was a compromise everyone agreed to: to establish a US-Israeli committee that will map out areas of Judea and Samaria that Israel may apply sovereignty over as part of the peace plan. Nevertheless, Kushner carried on talking about postponement until after the Israeli election, i.e., at least two months, while Netanyahu and his advisers continued their briefs to make a decision in the upcoming days.

Later on Wednesday, the Israeli delegation departed for Israel, making a stopover in Moscow to visit Naama Issachar, who had been arrested by Russian authorities in April 2019 in Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Onboard the plane, despite journalists’ attempts to extract some criticism from Netanyahu for the embarrassment caused by Kushner, the prime minister only summed up the incident with the word “misunderstanding.”

Several weeks had gone by and the coronavirus was beginning to reign over the world. The sovereignty missile, so to speak, was deviating from its course, but control centers in Jerusalem and Washington were still trying to take control of it. The US-Israeli mapping committee convened at the end of February in Israel. In the upcoming weeks, both before and after the Israeli election, the committee met several times and made significant progress.

However, obstacles kept coming, including from those who were supposed to have been the move’s biggest proponents. Elhayani, Dagan, and other settlement leaders competed against each other as to who could out-condemn the plan. MKs Bezalel Smotrich, Ayelet Shaked, and Naftali Bennett made sure to keep a safe distance from the sovereignty plan too.

The Left, unsurprisingly, began its campaign against “the annexation.” Israeli journalists advised Arab diplomats in the country to threaten to sever relations with Israel. The international community, and especially Western Europe, joined in the threats, and momentum was lost.

And yet, despite all that, Netanyahu and the Trump administration continued to claim that the sovereignty plan was still on the agenda. The mapping committee continued its work, with many officials from Judea and Samaria butting in to influence the final version of the plan.

Finally, by Jul. 1, a deadline set forth by Netanyahu, the committee had prepared four possible maps.

Israel finally established a government at the end of June, but by then Trump’s domestic and international status had been undermined by the coronavirus, making Kushner even more reluctant to take political risks.

At the same time, the US gave Blue and White leader Benny Gantz the right to veto the political process. When speaking to settlers, Gantz might have shown enthusiasm and support for the possibility of sovereignty, even encouraging them, but to the US, his message was the complete opposite. The same happened with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

According to Levin, the plan could still have been implemented at that stage, but the continued opposition on behalf of the Yesha Council eliminated all chances.  “The leadership needs to learn its lesson from missing out on this incredible opportunity,” he said.

Earlier in June, UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba suggested a proposal to suspend the sovereignty plan in lieu of a peace deal between Israel and the Emirates. Before the article on the proposal was published in Yedioth Ahronoth on June 12, it had already been passed on to former presidential assistant Avi Berkowitz, who gave it the green light.

At the end of June, Berkowitz arrived in Israel and met with Ashkenazi, Gantz and Netanyahu, each one separately. The first two spoke of their opposition to the plan, while the prime minister approved the conversion of the sovereignty plan into a peace agreement with the UAE, a process that had in any case been underway after years of behind the scenes negotiations.

That day was the end of Israel’s sovereignty plans, exchanged for a peace deal with the Emirates.

Farewell to the sovereignty plan until the next announcement on the matter or a new Republican administration decides to put it back on track.

In response to the article, the Yesha Council said in a statement that “for years the Israeli Right has been fighting to establish a Palestinian state, which poses a great danger to Israel. We warned Washington, the prime minister and his staff about it, even before the plan was published. After the plan was published, it stated the establishment of a Palestinian state as one of its goals, and turned out we had been right.”

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan was unavailable for comment.

(Reposted from the Israel Hayom website}

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Ariel Kahana is a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom.