Trump’s “Ultimate Deal” is now timed to affect post-election coalition negotiations, but the president may yet provide Netanyahu with a pre-elections September surprise.

Despite Israeli efforts to prevent a security escalation on the eve of elections, Gaza and the West Bank are anything but calm, with a potential for two-front violence looming.

Netanyahu’s Changing Strategy and the Trump Factor

Public opinion polls reflect uncertainty about the fate of small parties and none suggests significant shifts between the center-right and center-left blocs. All surveys seem to rule out the option of either side securing the 61 Knesset seats required for coalition formation.

Accordingly, Netanyahu’s preferred right-wing-only coalition, which would trade immunity for annexation and/or pro-ultra-Orthodox legislation, seems no longer to be in the cards.

This realization triggered a shift in his strategy that was sharp and swift. If previously the target of 61 seats mandated “wasting” no votes by ensuring that all small parties to the right of Likud pass the threshold for Knesset representation, this is no longer the case. If the bloc is not likely to secure Netanyahu a mandate for forming a coalition, the fallback is for Likud to emerge as the biggest party. Syphoning votes from all smaller parties has replaced efforts to secure their survival.

Still, securing the mandate is hardly enough. Forming a coalition across the aisle, when Blue White and Democracy rule out serving with him, may prove challenging.

Though Labor under Peretz have not ruled Bibi out definitively, Bibi does not want to take a chance on Labor both crossing the electoral threshold and betraying their dwindling constituency by serving with him.

Enter President Trump.

To distinguish himself further from the smaller, more ideological parties, Bibi needs a September surprise. Hence, among other efforts, the prime minister’s request is for President Trump to extend a hand in some or all of the following matters:

  • Allow Jonathan Pollard to make aliyah;
  • Upgrade U.S.-Israel strategic relations (via some presidential decree or otherwise);
  • Most importantly: reiterate in some form Ambassador’s Friedman’s statement regarding Israel’s right to annex parts of the West Bank.

Whether the president is in the mood to deliver is anyone’s guess. However, his invitation to interfere with the Israeli democratic process does not end there. The recently announced timing for unveiling the White House’s Deal of the Century is a likely next move.

Under normal circumstances, presenting the plan after the September 17 elections but before a new government is sworn in, would have been puzzling at best: why do so when the outgoing government is prohibited from reacting? Why not wait for a newly mandated one?

It seems that much like the substance,* the timing is intended to help Netanyahu. Should Likud emerge as the largest party, and President Rivlin does offer Netanyahu the mandate to form a coalition, few arguments will release Blue and White from its commitment to not serve under or with Netanyahu as would the need to respond positively to an American peace initiative, given the opportunity it (arguably) presents for changing the course of history.

*Note: Much like previous Trump administration tours to the Middle East region, the more recent (early July) Kushner-Greenblatt trip was met with the same regional reaction: Arab leaders reiterated their refusal to help persuade President Abbas to give a chance to a plan that does not specify a Palestinian state whose capital is in Jerusalem and borders are based on the June 1967 lines.

Gaza and the West Bank: Risks of a Two-Front Conflict

In Gaza, we witness several destabilizing factors. In no order of importance, they are:

First, an intra-Hamas leadership struggle. Three players compete for leadership. First, there is the veteran and past leader Khaled Mashal, who is campaigning for a comeback with support from Qatar (where he resides) and Turkey. He is considered a true Muslim Brotherhood believer, and thus vehemently rejected by Egypt.

Saleh al-Arouri, deputy to the current leader, and responsible for some of the most brutal terror acts, resides in Lebanon, where he coordinates terror operations in and out of the West Bank. Al-Arouri is supported by Iran. He too is unacceptable to Egypt.

Ismail Haniyeh, the current leader of Hamas, resides in Gaza and is supported by Yahya Sinwar, Gaza’s strongman, and by Egypt. Considered more pragmatic than the other two, he supports the Egyptian-Sinwar strategy of changing Gaza’s reality by seeking a stable ceasefire with Israel, restoring PA control of the Strip in all non-military matters, thus allowing for Gaza’s reconstruction and for Hamas to regroup and gradually shift from a primarily military to a political organization.

This leadership contest manifests in efforts to pull Hamas policy in three different directions, thus undermining the tradition of decision by consensus. Moreover, Hamas hardliners, both in and out of Gaza, reject the Haniyeh-Sinwar effort to limit the use of force against Israel.

Second, there is intra-Gaza fragmentation. Recent security incidents are attributable to several factors, including a new phenomenon of Hamas being challenged by the smaller yet potent and more aggressive Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). While meddling by Iran — its traditional sponsor — must not be ruled out as a contributing factor, it appears that PIJ’s new leaders are far more reckless than their predecessors, and they are out to demonstrate independence from Hamas.

Third, we have to account for public resentment. With Israel dragging its feet in rewarding tranquility with steps that improve life in Gaza, public pressure on the local Hamas leadership is mounting and adherence to its instructions to stay away from the border are repeatedly ignored.

All these factors now converge in enhancing instability as Gazans assume that Netanyahu’s election eve vulnerabilities must be exploited to extract concessions. As always, Gazans’ way of attracting his attention is by using controlled violence. Alas, as happened before, once violence is triggered, mutual desire to contain it might prove insufficient with the first tragic outcome.

Concurrently, the West Bank is hardly stable. Last week’s partial resolution of the deadlock over the transfer of taxes Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) did not resolve its financial crisis. For over six months now, the PA has been forced to cut salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants by 40 to 50 percent. Public resentment is apparent. Those who tolerated PA incompetence as long as it represented the hope for independence lost their last excuse. Those willing to look the other way in the face of evidence of widespread corruption no longer do. Those expressing these sentiments in social media, street demonstrations and otherwise encounter increasingly oppressive reactions.

The manifestation of all of this most relevant to stability (and Israeli security) is the decline in motivation of the rank and file in the PA security agencies. Once the symbol of aspirations for statehood, with the current Israeli-U.S. policy perceived as closing the door on such hopes, they have long been accused of serving the Israeli occupation. Still, the need to provide for their families kept them showing up for work.

With the increasingly hostile peer attitude and the need to find a second job to make up for the salary cut, on average, close to 30 percent of security personnel are reported absent.

Thus, just as Arouri intensifies efforts to activate Hamas networks in destabilizing the West Bank on election eve, the PA is at its weakest point to react.

It is no accident that Israel’s security establishment has been signaling that there is an urgent need for a change in government policy on both Gaza and the West Bank if we wish to avoid escalating violence on both fronts as early as the coming weeks.