When Donald Trump presented his “vision for peace” last week, it read like a checklist of far-right Israeli aspirations for permanent control over Palestinians and much of the land they live on.
In the triumphant delirium of what Benjamin Netanyahu has sold as his diplomatic masterstroke, the prime minister bragged to reporters the same day that the US had greenlighted an immediate beginning of the annexation of occupied territory.
Trump’s man in Jerusalem, the pro-settler US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, made clear that Israel “does not have to wait at all” and could fast-track extending its sovereignty over Jewish settlements as detailed in the plan.
A vote on the issue was set for an Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday, and Palestinians awaited what is largely seen as the endgame in their decade-long struggle for real independence.
But Sunday came and went, with the cabinet meeting postponed. And on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu, speaking at a campaign rally, made an about-turn, saying he would ask his government to approve the annexation only if he wins a 2 March election. As with much in the Trump administration, it was not clear where the blockage was coming from.
While Friedman has proved accommodating to Israel, in last Tuesday’s announcement Trump said recognition of land given to Israel under the plan could be “immediately achieved”. However, he said a joint US-Israeli committee would need first to verify that it conforms with a vaguely drawn map in the plan.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the plan’s chief architect, later said he wanted Israel – currently being run by an interim government – to hold off until after the election. “I think we need an Israeli government in place in order to move forward,” said Kushner.
Both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League have firmly rejected the Trump plan. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, separately warned that “steps towards annexation, if implemented, could not pass unchallenged”.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said he would support a plan only if it respected UN resolutions and international law – something Trump’s vision appears to ignore.
Instead, it envisions what Trump called a “realistic two-state solution”, but one that gives Israel most of what it has long sought, including recognition of Israeli sovereignty over large sections of territory that it occupied in a 1967 war.
The 181-page document dangles the possibility of a small, demilitarised Palestinian “state” that is significantly broken up and with severe restrictions on its independence, including Israeli control of its borders, skies and seas.
During his State of the Union address, Trump said his “plan for peace” between Israel and the Palestinians was “groundbreaking”. But Israeli hardliners don’t want groundbreaking – they want to break ground.
Netanyahu’s walk back on his perhaps overly zealous annexation pledge could blow up what was supposed to be his key election strategy. He wanted to spotlight his diplomatic wins, taking the focus off his three damning corruption indictments and political failures after two inconclusive elections.
The 70-year-old leader is also now in danger of losing votes from exactly the group he intended to court: the settler movement. On Tuesday, settlers set up a protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, demanding that he not wait for Washington’s signal.
Yossi Dagan, a settler regional council head, said Netanyahu had been conned by the Americans, who “elevated him to the top of the Empire State Building … then they try to throw our prime minister all the way down”.
Netanyahu’s hawkish defence minister, Naftali Bennett, also warned him not to balk. “Whatever is postponed after the election will never happen,” he said on Twitter.
Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli journalist and author of Bibi, a biography of Netanyahu, said the prime minister had always preferred to maintain the status quo of occupation rather than highly contentious moves to annex land.
“The prime minister is now stuck between the far right, who are very eager to annex, and the US administration. He’s snookered himself,” he said.
A cartoon for Israel’s top-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Wednesday showed Netanyahu bed-ridden with a fever. His wife, Sara, offers him water, asking if he has coronavirus. The prime minister replies: “Annexationitis.”