Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, a former Israeli Air Force chief who has been Defense Ministry director general for the past two years, is by all accounts a serious man who has done a lot for the state. As such, it was jaw-dropping to learn how he thwarted one of the most historic potential developments in recent years, which could have been on the same scale as the United States recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Reading Ben Caspit’s interview with Eshel in Maariv earlier this month, one cannot but feel both surprise and disappointment.
To understand just how much damage was inflicted by Eshel, one has to go back three years. In January 2020, after some two years of meticulous preparations and another year of delay because of Israel’s elections, the Trump administration unveiled its “deal of the century”— perhaps the most detailed, creative and most pro-Israel plan ever produced. Among other things, it stipulated that Israel would incorporate large swaths of Judea and Samaria, and according to Trump officials Jared Kushner and David Friedman, also ensured that “no one would be uprooted from their homes.”
For the first time, a U.S. peace plan did not include provisions that threatened Israel’s security. One of the measures announced as part of the plan’s implementation was a U.S. green light to an immediate Israeli application of Israeli law in areas in Judea and Samaria that were to remain in Israeli control under the deal.
That measure was agreed upon by Kushner, Friedman and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It stipulates that about 50% of Area C would become part of Israel, including the Jordan Valley and all the Jewish settlements. These areas are considered essential for Israel’s security according to most Israelis and the majority of senior security officials both past and present.
The other 50% was to be subject to negotiations by the two parties, but only if the Palestinians met various stringent benchmarks such as stopping incitement and cracking down on corruption; connecting Gaza and Judea and Samaria under one authority; and adopting of democratic norms.
The plan, officially called “Peace to Prosperity,” was launched at the White House on Jan. 28, 2020. Trump said at the time that “recognition can be immediately achieved” and that the United States “will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering” so that the lines of sovereignty be clearly defined. Moments later Netanyahu told the press entourage that he would pass a resolution to that effect in the upcoming weekly Cabinet meeting.
That’s when things got messy. Even as Netanyahu made those comments, Kushner said the exact opposite to the U.S. media. Despite his prearranged understanding with Netanyahu, Kushner said that the sovereignty bid would be carried out only after the Israeli election two months later.
This put Netanyahu in an embarrassing situation, as it turned the prime minister’s comments to the press into a farce; Netanyahu was once again cast as a liar and the trip to Washington was considered a failure. Sovereignty slipped between Israel’s fingers.
It’s still not clear why Kushner effectively misled Netanyahu. In his book, he writes that the sovereignty bid was part of the plan and thus it should not have unfolded in the way Netanyahu envisioned. But this runs contrary to what all the other actors have said, including Trump in his speech. There is a big difference between “immediately” and in two months.
In his interview with Caspit, Eshel seems to complete this puzzle. He admitted to telling Kushner that the sovereignty push should not go through so fast. He convinced Defense Minister Benny Gantz that the United States should be pressured on this so that Netanyahu would be stopped. At the time, Gantz was the main challenger to Netanyahu in the race to become the next prime minister. The Trump administration was careful not to treat him with disrespect because they were worried about being portrayed as meddling in the election. That’s why Gantz and Eshel were invited to White House.
Eshel claimed that if the sovereignty bid was carried out immediately, “This would kill the Trump plan … No Arab ruler would agree to have Israel reap the benefits of the deal without giving anything in return. No one would be able to support having Israel get upfront payment, whereas the Palestinians wait indefinitely for their back-loaded end of the bargain.”
When Eshel told this to Kushner, the latter responded that the White House had gotten the Arab rulers to agree to the move. But Eshel put his foot down, and apparently managed to have Kushner slam the brakes.
The unfortunate truth is that Israeli defense officials (both serving and retired) are wedded to a paradigm that ultimately prevented Israel from realizing this historic move—even though those very officials agreed that Israel would be well served by it.
Looking back, it is clear that Eshel’s move resulted in the entire Trump plan being shelved. As soon as the sovereignty bid collapsed, the “deal of the century” joined a whole host of other peace plans that would never go forward. But this time, the plan was actually pro-Israel.
Eshel’s rationale about Arab rulers supposedly being against the measure is disappointing. Why should Israel not take something if it is offered by the United States? Why is it Eshel’s job to think for the Arab rulers? If Kushner said that he had their support, why would Eshel undermine this without even talking to them? Why try to outsmart the prime minister, the White House and the Arab rulers?
The entire rationale of the Trump peace plan, as Kushner and then Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer explained, was to bring Israel closer to the Gulf states. With the Palestinian issue no longer topping the Arab agenda—as was made clear by Gulf officials in direct and indirect conversations—why would the sovereignty move have stopped this?
In 2019, I saw with my own eyes how a Bahraini official lashed out at the Palestinians, employing coarse language. If that’s what the senior Gulf official was willing to show an Israeli journalist even before the Abraham Accords were signed, just imagine what he was actually thinking. So it is quite possible Eshel missed the mark with regard to the Arab rulers’ sentiments.
Moreover, despite Eshel’s claim—that Israel would be cashing in the rewards of the deal too early—the deal does involve Israeli concessions. Netanyahu agreed to a Palestinian state and was essentially willing to give up 50% of Area C. The proof in the pudding is that even on the Israeli right there was opposition to the plan; Eshel’s claim that “Israel was not giving anything in return” was flat wrong.
This is what the timeline of the deal included: Israel was to adopt the plan, which was indeed good for Israel despite forcing it to make concessions, and this would have made Gulf states and other countries tell the Palestinians, “Look, we’ve made sure that you will get your share from Israel and the United States. Now it’s our turn for normalization.” Eshel and Gantz, unfortunately, killed this before it got underway. Only because Netanyahu remained laser-focused on sovereignty were the Abraham Accords eventually finalized, miraculously.
Eshel claimed that his views were professional advice, not political. But it is clear that he inflicted major political damage on Netanyahu, and perhaps cost him the March 2020 election. It is also clear that Eshel’s move put Israel in a diplomatic quagmire. It is too bad that this crisis was triggered by a former major general in the IDF. It is not the first time that former generals turn out to be bunglers of diplomacy despite being experts in security.
Ariel Kahana is Israel Hayom’s senior diplomatic correspondent.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.