Netanyahu’s Trump predicament

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at right, is under pressure from education minister Naftali Bennett, at left, to drop the two-state pretense altogether.

Abir Sultan Reuters

When the gods wish to punish us, Oscar Wilde once wrote, “they answer our prayers.”

Something like this now confronts Benjamin Netanyahu as he contemplates a future whose horizon would appear to have broadened significantly with the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Trump’s election should be a gift to Netanyahu: outside restraints on what Israel can do in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and with the Palestinians have almost completely fallen away.

But the Israeli prime minister now has to decide how far his nationalist pro-settler coalition is prepared to go in dismantling decades of peace process logic – however little heed he has paid to it in the past.

Israel’s far-right – comfortably in power at the moment with no serious domestic opposition – has never had it so good. The Middle East is in violent disarray, and Sunni-Shiite conflict and competition dominate a regional agenda down which the Palestinian issue has slid inexorably.

Palestinians themselves are divided and unable to put up a common front.

Trump, meanwhile, has promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a step that would signal US acceptance of the Israeli claim to the city as its “eternal, indivisible capital.” This would also end Palestine Liberation Organization aspirations for the capital of a future Palestinian state in the city’s eastern sector, occupied and unilaterally annexed by Israel in 1967.

Trump’s pick for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, moreover, is a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, illegal under international law, and heads a US nonprofit organization that raises money mostly for the Beit El settlement just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He has also gone on record to say that a Trump administration will support whatever Israel wants in terms of resolution with the Palestinians, even if that means annexing the West Bank.

Seizing the day

Without US support, international efforts to rein in Israel will have even less effect than usual.

December’s UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning West Bank settlements was vigorously protested in Tel Aviv.

But it now seems like the final death throes of a bygone era, one in whose coffin the new Trump administration has not been slow to hammer in nails: Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, called the resolution a “terrible mistake” and a new low for American leadership in the world.

Israel is, in other words, facing an open goal. Shoot and score.

But what is the goal? Jewish Home, a pro-settler party with a primarily Orthodox base, has been quick to assert its aims.

Its leader, and current minister of education, Naftali Bennett, has long advocated the annexation of large tracts of the West Bank and Bennett welcomed Trump’s election by announcing that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.”

He is pushing a bill through parliament that would see the annexation of Maaleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, though he agreed to postpone a vote on it until after Netanyahu and Trump meet in Washington on 15 February.

His party was also the driving force behind the so-called Regularization Law, which allows Israel to expropriate privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank on which settlements have been built.

(For all the moral outrage over the some 4,000 settlement houses this affects, the law is just a pale imitation of the kind of expropriation rubber-stamped under the 1950 absentee property law that allowed the Israeli state to seize the lands and property of some 850,000 Palestinians who fled or were forcibly expelled in 1948.)

Here again, Netanyahu wanted to wait until after his tête-à-tête with Trump, but this time, Bennett forged ahead, mindful that his base had been outraged by the evacuation of the Amona settlement outpost at the beginning of this month.

From this “painful loss,” he doubled down, “will emerge the State of Israel’s application of sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria.”

Applying the brakes

The expropriation law passed parliament on 6 February even though Netanyahu was understood to have been against the bill out of fear that it might see Israeli leaders brought to the International Criminal Court. Still, while Netanyahu conveniently was on a flight back from London, his Likud Party and the government coalition voted for the bill, ensuring its passage.

Israel’s state attorney Avichai Mendelblit, however, has already stated he will not defend the law if it is challenged in court. And it would suit Netanyahu very well should his pick for attorney general do his dirty work for him. That way he can support the expropriation bill – so popular with the Likud base – and see it defeated at the same time.

This is how Netanyahu has operated over the past eight years. His is not a politics of strategic vision. Netanyahu works for the short term, to ensure his political survival and not alter a status quo that favors settlement-building as a way of creating facts on the ground ahead of any potential final status agreement.

Every prime minister since the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993 has engaged in this kind of land grab. The only difference between mainstream Israeli leaders is how much territory to take and what kind of Palestinian entity to eventually countenance.

This requires striking a balance between showing support for the more gung-ho pro-settlement forces while not going so far as to render a pliant Palestinian Authority helpless to maintain the illusion of prospects for statehood or indeed reach the point most Israelis say they fear: a single binational state – whatever rights may or may not be afforded to Palestinians.

Netanyahu tinkered with that balance by forming an extremely settler-friendly coalition. But he could count on Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama to allow him to make political capital from being bullish on settlements while still maintaining that status quo.

That cushy situation has now, temporarily at least, been upset by the Trump wild card. Netanyahu will be very keen for the new US president to play the Obama spoiler role again, lest the balance tilts so far toward facts on the ground that even the Palestinian Authority has to concede that statehood is no longer possible.

“It is reasonable to assume … that Netanyahu has signalled to Trump to put some brakes on,” said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence officer and author of No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine. Alpher told The Electronic Intifada that Netanyahu needs to balance the demands of his “right-wing settler buddies” and “the need to maintain some kind of facade of devotion to the two-state solution.”

Moment of truth

This might explain the sudden shift in mood music from Washington when White House spokesperson Sean Spicer issued a surprise warning to Israel over an accelerated settlement construcion program that has seen the approval of some 6,000 new housing units since Trump’s inauguration.

It would also explain the interview Trump gave the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper published Friday. “I am not somebody,” he said, “that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

This is a moment of truth for Netanyahu. He is under growing pressure to drop the two-state idea altogether when he meets Trump on Wednesday.

But his support for a two-state solution was always predicated on his overriding fear of the alternative, binational scenario. Netanyahu “understands that we are on a slippery slope to some sort of one-entity reality,” said Alpher. And members of Israel’s influential security establishment are already sounding that alarm.

So Netanyahu, prayers answered, finds only a predicament.

Trump – who in the Israel Hayom interview published Friday observed that “every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left” – may get on board to save the charade for another while.

But it is ultimately an unsustainable charade that settlers and their supporters are now rudely exposing.

Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.

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