How will the US Middle East plan impact the Israeli election?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has yet to see a boost in pre-vote polls ahead of March 2 election, analysts say.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during an event marking Tu BiShvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, in the Israeli settlement of Mevo''ot Yericho, in the occupied West Bank
Netanyahu is hoping Trump's Middle East plan will bring him more votes in the upcoming election [File: Nir Elias/Reuters]

Amid the fallout from the announcement of US President Donal Trump’s plan for Israel-Palestine, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the timing and manner of its publication had much to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle for political survival.

Facing an election on March 2, Israel’s third national vote in less than a year, Netanyahu has crisscrossed the globe to meet leaders and officials. His meeting with Trump was the most high-profile stop and saw the unveiling of the US plan which, analysts have noted, heavily favours Israel.

The plan proposes the annexation of huge swaths of the occupied West Bank by Israel and falls short of offering the Palestinians many of their long-held minimum demands, which include a capital in East Jerusalem.

Opinion polls in Israel, however, have shown no signs of a post-plan bounce; the average results of recent surveys are almost identical to those of the previous few weeks. Moreover, polls also point to yet another post-election deadlock that could only be broken through the formation of a unity government.

Orly Noy, an Israeli journalist and political activist, believes that Netanyahu “grossly overestimated the possible impact of the Trump plan on his election campaign”.

“While concrete American actions – even if symbolic, like moving the embassy to Jerusalem – are being seen as a tangible victory, vague ‘peace plans’ have little impact on Israeli public opinion in general,” Noy told Al Jazeera. “We’ve seen too many of those come and go during the years.”

More importantly, Noy added, three elections in a year “have already exhausted any actual content and became only about ‘Netanyahu – yes or no'”.

This bodes ill for the prime minister, who, in the words of Edo Konrad, editor in chief of 972 Magazine, “essentially launched his stay-out-of-jail campaign by securing Trump’s approval for endless occupation”.

But how much of an effect will the Trump plan have when, as several pundits say, there is a severe case not just of voter fatigue, but “Bibi fatigue”?

What is in Trump’s Middle East plan?

‘Political leverage’ for Joint List

Daniel Levy, president of the US/Middle East Project, believes that the Trump plan has had “some influence on the political debate taking place in the election”, including “the effect of bringing issues of the future of the territories and the Palestinians front and centre when they had for so long been marginalised.”

Levy told Al Jazeera that this has played out in a complicated fashion for both Netanyahu and his natural right-wing allies, as well as main rival and former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue and White party.

“The plan has exposed the disagreements within [the Gantz-led] Blue and White, and in part led to a spat between Likud and the further right Yamina party over the timing of annexation,” Levy noted.

The Joint List, meanwhile, a united ticket of parties predominantly representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, will be hoping to repeat, or even improve on, its showing in last September’s election when it won 13 seats.

“The Palestinian citizens’ vote is actually the only place where the Trump plan might have an actual impact,” Noy told Al Jazeera, pointing to the document’s support for a so-called “population swap” that would see thousands of Israel’s Palestinian citizens become part of the new Palestinian entity to be created on parts of the West Bank.

“The Joint List and the Palestinian leadership in Israel have used the plan as a political leverage very effectively by organising a series of protests and demonstrations, emphasising the ‘population swap’ proposal,” Noy added.

Anger at the Nation State Law, which defines Israel as an exclusively Jewish homeland, is seen as a key reason for the rise in Palestinian citizens’ voting rate in last September’s election, and there are those, like Noy, who hope “the Trump plan will do the trick and make those numbers even higher”.

“This just might be Trump’s biggest contribution to the Israeli politics,” she added wryly.

On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that a proposal in a plan that may or may not be adopted will have as galvanising an effect as Israeli legislation.

“The Joint List was able to make significant gains in the previous election, but it is yet unclear whether voters will come out in the same numbers we saw in 2019, and it is even less certain that the Trump plan is what will give the Palestinian leadership in Israel the electoral boost it is hoping to recreate,” Konrad told Al Jazeera.

Levy also noted that while “racist provocations” have increased Palestinian citizens’ turnout before, the Trump plan has also served to “drive more of a wedge between the Joint List and Blue and White”, thus “undermining the efficacy argument when it comes to those who question whether Palestinian votes can change things”.

Will the plan be implemented?

While it remains unclear exactly what – if any – effect Trump’s plan will have on Israelis’ decision-making when they head into the voting booths, there remains the question of the fate of the plan when, eventually, a new coalition government is formed.

“Neither side can form a coalition which would be able to adopt that plan in its entirety,” Noy told Al Jazeera. “Gantz won’t be able to do so because of Meretz, and Netanyahu’s partners won’t be able to bring themselves to vote for a future Palestinian state, even if only nominally.”

But even if the plan may never be implemented in full, unilateral Israeli annexation of West Bank territory is a different matter.

For Levy, “the timing of the publication of the plan was almost certainly in part intended to create a situation in which any future Israeli government would be on board with the new terms of reference.” Thus, particularly in light of Netanyahu likely being in the twilight of his premiership, “the premeditated intention is to lock in annexation.”

In assessing the next Israeli government’s likely approach to the Trump plan, observers point to the responses issued at the time of its publication by the main parties.

“Regardless of who is or isn’t included in the next government,” said Konrad, “the acceptance of the Trump plan by leaders of both blocs is a reflection that Israel’s goal of endless military control over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is shared across the vast majority of the political spectrum.”

Source: Al Jazeera