Come January 20, working with a Republican president for the first time in his 10 years in office, Benjamin Netanyahu may finally have to decide where he really stands on a two-state solution.
THE MORNING after Donald Trump’s shocking election victory,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to play it safe.
Despite a true sense of joy that spread throughout the Israeli right wing, including some in Netanyahu’s immediate orbit, the PM did his best to avoid any display of emotion regarding the results of the United States election. After calling President-elect Trump to congratulate him on the results, Netanyahu quickly turned to call the losing candidate, Hillary Clinton, to thank her for years of friendship to Israel and invite her to visit the country in the future. His office briefed the Israeli and international press on both calls in detail. The message was clear: Israel didn’t take sides before the elections, and it wasn’t taking sides in judging the results.
According to one senior Israeli official, Netanyahu realized that the election was incredibly divisive for American voters, and particularly so for Jewish-American ones.
Showing signs of excitement over Trump’s victory, especially in the first critical days after November 8, would have thrown Israel into the heart of those bitter divisions and hurt the bi-partisan nature of American support for Israel, which Netanyahu has already been accused of eroding by fighting President Barack Obama over the nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu also has faced criticism in the past over supposedly interfering in the 2012 US elections on behalf of Mitt Romney. So this time, even on the day after the election, he was eager to avoid any action that would give a wrong impression.
Netanyahu is obviously relieved that after eight years of working with Obama, he will now be facing – for the first time in his 10 years as prime minister – an American president who is a member of the Republican Party. As one Likud minister close to Netanyahu told me during the elections, “Bibi has had such terrible luck. Not only did he get two left-wing Democratic presidents, but the second one [Obama] was even more left-wing than the first one [Bill Clinton].”
That bad streak is finally over for Netanyahu.
But even if he was overjoyed about this fact, as some Israeli pundits have suggested, he made sure to keep that feeling a private one. In addition, he ordered all the members of his cabinet to stay mum on the election results, and not to comment on them publicly – leaving him as Israel’s only certified speaker on this delicate matter.
The problem for Netanyahu was that some of his ministers didn’t exactly honor his policy of silence.
It didn’t take long for prominent politicians from the Israeli right wing to begin celebrating Trump’s victory, expressing hope that, under his administration, the long-standing American policy of seeing “peace for territory” as the way to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict would be annulled.
“THE ERA of Palestinian statehood is over,” declared Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi, on the morning after Trump’s victory.
A few days later, Bennett explained that Trump’s victory provided a “unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything.”
Bennett also met with some of Trump’s advisers and urged them to reject the two-state solution that has guided American policy in the region since the 1990s and, instead, consider other ideas that don’t involve the evacuation of Israeli settlements from the West Bank or the foundation of a Palestinian state in that territory.
Bennett’s reaction to Trump’s victory was arguably less careful and responsible than Netanyahu’s, but it seems to be more in sync with the hopes and expectations of many Israeli right-wing voters.
During the election campaign, aides and advisers close to the Republican nominee made a number of promises regarding his future Israel policy that turned him into an ultimate favorite of right-wing Israelis.
Among those promises were moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; giving Israel a free hand with regards to settlement building; tearing apart the Iranian nuclear deal; and refraining from presenting any plan for peace with the Palestinians.
It’s not clear how much Trump himself will stand behind these promises, or if he is even aware of some of them. Since his victory, he has repeated a number of times that he wants to take on the elusive task of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, getting “the ultimate deal” that no other US president before him has succeeded negotiating.
Even before speaking with Netanyahu, Trump received a congratulatory phone call from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, whom he also met in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Sisi enjoys a good working relationship with Netanyahu, and his government has expanded its cooperation with Israel over the last two years. But he is also an outspoken supporter of the two-state solution and has been trying, lately, to organize a regional peace conference on the Palestinian issue, perhaps with the help of Russia. It would be no surprise if he and other Arab leaders encourage Trump to show leadership on this issue once he enters the White House.
Yet, among the ranks of the Israeli right wing, many have already concluded, like Bennett, that Trump’s victory will change everything for Israel. They interpret the words of Trump and his own advisers during the campaign in the most literal way possible.
“When it comes to the relationship with this administration, the sky is the limit,” one cabinet member from Likud told me last week. Does Netanyahu also think that way, I asked. “He certainly knows the relationship will be better than under the current president with whom he had so much tension.”
But, Netanyahu, unlike some of his own ministers, is more cautious ‒ first of all, because he knows that even a pro-Israel president such as Trump, with an emerging pro-Israel cabinet, will have to operate under a complicated set of priorities and interests that won’t always fit those of the Israeli government. Beyond that, Netanyahu also realizes that the high level of expectations among the Israeli right wing could become a problem. for him.
For the last seven years, ever since he verbally accepted the two-state solution in a foreign-policy speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu has delicately maneuvered between remaining committed to that solution and pleasing his political base, which opposes it.
Whenever his partners and constituents on the Right complained about the slow pace (in their eyes) of settlement building, or the lack of tougher policies toward the Palestinians, Netanyahu would hint in reply that it was the Obama administration that was holding him back.
THIS EXCUSE, which many of Netanyahu’s supporters learned to accept with time, won’t be available anymore starting from January 20.
When that happens, Netanyahu might reach a “moment of truth” on his stated support for a two-state solution. If it is sincere, as his defenders and supporters in the US have been insisting for years, he will have to stand up to Bennett and others within his coalition and tell them to stop advancing policies that seriously undermine that solution, such as the controversial outpost legalization bill, which his coalition is about to sign into law. With Trump in the White House, however, he won’t be able to pin it on the American administration, and will have to provide a better explanation for his objection to such steps.
Of Netanyahu’s various coalition partners, the only one so far who has made a constructive and useful policy proposal in the wake of Trump’s victory was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is positioning himself, unexpectedly, as the current government’s “responsible adult.”
Liberman said Israel should discuss with the incoming administration how to revive the “Bush-Sharon letter” from 2004, which the previous Republican president handed to the previous Likud prime minister in the lead-up to Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. The letter was interpreted by Israel as giving it a “green light” to build new settlement homes within the “settlement blocs” that are located close to the 1967 borders and will likely become a part of Israel under any future peace agreement. Liberman thinks Israel could negotiate a deal with the Trump administration that would allow it to build massively inside those blocs, while refraining from building in more isolated settlements that, in all likelihood, won’t be annexed to the Jewish state in the future.
Liberman was attacked by members of Bennett’s party for making this offer, but by putting it on the table he has presented a clear choice to Netanyahu. The prime minister could potentially join Bennett in asking the Trump administration to abandon the two-state solution and examine other possibilities or he could accept Liberman’s plan and, by doing so, work with Trump on conditions for a two-state solution that would be more favorable to Israel.
The Trump administration probably won’t treat the problems of our small part of the world as a top priority, at least not early on, so Netanyahu could possibly choose the “Bennett option” and get by with it – but does he really want to? After 10 years as prime minister, does he truly believe there is a better option for Israel than a two-state solution? Was everything he has said about his support for this policy over the last seven years, merely a show he put on for Obama? Or does he actually believe it, and has been unable to implement it so far because of Palestinian intransigence and American indifference to it, as some of his supporters have been saying? Trump’s four (or eight) years in the White House could provide us with answers to all of these questions.
If, indeed, “the sky is the limit” with this administration, we will soon find out what Netanyahu actually believes is the perfect scenario for Israel. Is it a two-state solution on terms that are better for Israel, or is it something completely different? It should be noted that inside the Likud, there are only a handful of Knesset members who openly support the two-state solution.
So, if Netanyahu chooses to remain committed to it, he would need the Trump administration to help him in ways similar to how the Bush administration helped Ariel Sharon following the disengagement by providing support and reassuring the Israeli public that Israel’s concessions are appreciated and improve its international standing.
One final note: Netanyahu takes a lot of pride in the secret relationships Jerusalem has built in recent years with a number of important Arab countries that have moved closer to Israel in light of Obama’s failed policies in the region. As part of that rapprochement, Netanyahu also has praised the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, but has stopped short of embracing it completely.
It will be interesting to follow how these relationships evolve under the Trump presidency, and to see if Netanyahu tries to improve them further – even at the price of some political hardships at home.