How Trump, Brexit play into Netanyahu’s hands

Israel stands to benefit from the closeness between Brexit Britain and Trump America.

Kevin Lamarque Reuters

Since Donald Trump’s election, Palestine campaigners have focused on new settlement construction, Israeli annexation of private Palestinian land and the apparent demise of the two-state solution.

But a broader confluence of interests between Trump’s America, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and Theresa May’s Brexit Britain also deserves scrutiny.

Last year, Netanyahu’s major allies offered disaffected voters the dream of fiercely sovereign and self-reliant nations. But in reality, the future states they are peddling could end up looking like Israel: increasingly paranoid, isolated and ethnocentric countries walled off from their neighbors.

Should the US and UK continue their drift toward Israeli-style ethno-religious nationalism, the political and economic interests of the three countries will align still further. Tel Aviv could pick up the slack left by Trump’s rollback from global trade agreements and become an increasingly important partner for Britain as May grasps for new trade deals. Trump and May have already made significant overtures in this direction.

In turn, these trade opportunities could grant Israel greater political leverage, enabling it to become more of an independent (though junior) partner of the stumbling US superpower. Netanyahu will hope to ride out any global lurch towards economic isolationism, reaping economic and thus political capital.

Trade

Amid the furor over the US embassy’s potential relocation to occupied Jerusalem, just departed US ambassador Dan Shapiro urged Trump to pass a US-Israel free trade deal which sits waiting for his signature.

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) dead in the water and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Trump’s crosshairs, Israel is one potential trade partner that may be more palatable to the tycoon’s anti-globalization, terror-spooked base. The White House and Tel Aviv have both alluded to a potential convergence and intensification of trade and security interests.

Netanyahu has long depicted Israel as America’s key counter-terror bulwark, but he is now dealing with America’s most staunchly pro-Israel executive yet. Using far stronger rhetoric than the Obama administration, Vice President Mike Pence recently called Israel America’s “most important ally.”

What is new is the emphasis on trade, presented as fundamental to the evolving special relationship. In the joint press conference during Netanyahu’s February visit to Washington, the Israeli premier presented trade as bound up with security issues.

“I look forward to working with you to dramatically upgrade our alliance in every field, in security and technology and cyber and trade and so many others,” he said.

Trump made no immediate reply. But the White House’s official response echoed Netanyahu’s words: “as Israel’s largest bilateral trade partner, the United States is eager to expand its economic partnership, which is nearing $50 billion annually.” It depicted the two countries as united “especially in the face of terrorism,” with a “dynamic economic and trade relationship” arising from “shared values.”

Trump’s “tough on trade” stance entails both the rejection of multinational trade deals and the threat of increased American resort to tariffs to encourage internal investment. Alongside NAFTA and the TPP, he’s vocally singled out China and Mexico. Given this generalized rollback from large trade deals, America’s “most important ally” may well step into the vacuum to pursue new bilateral trade agreements, using security issues as a bargaining chip when locking in future pacts.

In one early example of potential new commercial links, the US Department of Homeland Security in late January heard a pitch to expand the US-Mexico border wall from the Israeli security company that walled in Gaza. As per the 2016 military aid deal reached with the Obama administration, expect to see Israeli firms bidding more for US contracts through American subsidiaries.

Leverage

Britain is Israel’s second-largest export market. David Quarrey, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, has already said Brexit presents a “real opportunity” for increased trade between the two countries.

A UK-Israel taskforce is “preparing the ground” for a new trade deal, following Theresa May’s talks with Netanyahu in London. This follows a deal signed in March 2016, the “UK’s biggest ever export deal to Israel,” according to Quarrey, when Rolls-Royce landed a £1 billion ($1.25 billion) aviation contract.

Theresa May’s palpable desperation for new trading partners thus has potential benefits for Netanyahu, some of which have already been felt. Asked whether the British prime minister would challenge Netanyahu over settlement building during his recent visit to the UK, Downing Street said talks would focus on trade, as the “priority is building a stronger bilateral relationship … and improving trade post-Brexit.”

A Downing Street spokesperson declined to expand to The Electronic Intifada on this comment.

Tellingly, May’s spokesperson also criticized outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry after he condemned recent settlement expansion last year. Other Western powers backed Kerry, but May chose to align herself with Trump and Israel.

May cannot afford to make more enemies and Netanyahu will recognize this. With a weakened Britain increasingly taking its cues from Trump, even a hypothetical liberal successor to May would find it more difficult to oppose Israeli expansionism. The Trump administration may have backtracked on its explicit support for settlements, but Israel has already announced 6,000 new units across the West Bank since Trump took office, and shows no sign of slowing the construction.

The future

Potential successors to Netanyahu, from Yair Lapid to Avigdor Lieberman, have all cozied up to the Trump administration.

In a recent opinion poll, hardline Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett was Israel’s second choice after the more centrist Lapid for the premiership post-Netanyahu. Bennett, who has repeatedly outflanked his own prime minister on settlements and has been dubbed Israel’s “Mr. Security”, said in 2013 that Israel was far too dependent on US aid: “US military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it.”

The Obama administration locked in the largest military assistance package to any country in US history, worth $38 billion to Israel over a decade, so true economic autonomy remains distant.

Nevertheless, other possibilities are emerging for Israel’s economy as it strives to beat back the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or BDS.

In his article urging a new trade deal, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro noted how American companies are “helping develop Israel’s offshore gas boom.” These as yet untapped natural gas resources may well fuel an economic boom, but for now Israel is only the 34th largest economy worldwide.

However, Bennett’s comments remain suggestive. Israel does not need to attain economic parity with the UK for its diplomats to enjoy new bargaining powers. By aligning itself as a more independent junior partner working alongside the Western powers, rather than merely a military client state of the US, it can play the UK off against its big North American brother to win concessions.

In a sense, it is thanks to this continued disparity that a few new trade deals, mid-sized by American standards, could have a major impact in Israel. As globalization falls out of favor, the next few years could see Israel, Britain and the US forming an iron triangle of quasi-pariah states – with Palestinians suffering at its sharpest point.

Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist currently working in London. He regularly reports for The Independent and writes for VICE, Dazed and activist media, as well as publishing poetry and fiction. Twitter: @hashtagbroom. Website: mattbroomfield.contently.com

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