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Netanyahu prefers an uninvolved Trump

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes that President-elect Donald Trump won’t invest his energies in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RTX2TEZ9

It stands to reason that President-elect Donald Trump’s staff members tasked with formulating his administration’s foreign policy are monitoring the issues with which the State Department currently concerns itself. One can assume, too, that they did not miss the department’s Nov. 14 statement in response to the decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to approve proposed legislation retroactively legalizing illegal outposts in the West Bank (by means of advancing in the Knesset the “regularization law’’). The statement said the Barack Obama administration was “deeply concerned” about the approval of the proposed legislation, which contradicts international law and paves the way for the legalization of dozens of illegal outposts deep in the West Bank. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau threw the ball into Israel’s court, saying it had to choose between the desire to build more settlements or to preserve “the possibility of peace” by promoting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The answer of the ministers who voted in favor of the controversial bill is completely clear: They would rather build more and more settlements. They never supported the two-state solution, but unlike Netanyahu, who claimed to support it but did all in his power to undermine it — mostly by encouraging the settlement enterprise — they practice what they preach. They have not missed a single opportunity to express their decisive opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Knowing that most of his ruling coalition members, and even most of his Likud Knesset faction, are unwilling to even hear the combination of the two words “Palestinian state,” Netanyahu has over the years avoided putting the two-state solution to a political party test. He never brought up the principles that he laid out in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech — i.e., the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — for a vote by his party, government or Knesset. Instead, he rolled the ball into the Palestinian court and claimed that President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish nation was the real obstacle to peace.

According to a leaked email made public on WikiLeaks, had Hillary Clinton won the elections, she would have continued with the game known as the “peace process” without making any effort to score goals. In the leaked email exposed by WikiLeaks, Clinton wrote to her senior advisers that a “Potemkin” — meaning, for show only — peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is preferable to a freeze in diplomacy. Netanyahu seems to be betting on the fact that after he drops the word “elect” from his title, President Trump will adopt a similar attitude to that of the former secretary of state.

Even if Trump goes along with this policy for managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (instead of resolving it), Netanyahu will have to prevent any shock waves that would call attention to the Israeli occupation and force the international community to take a stand. In a position paper he posted Nov. 15 on the Institute for National Security Studies’ website, which he directs, former head of military intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin recommended that the government renew at once the understandings outlined in the 2004 letter sent by President George W. Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In it, Bush expressed support for the annexation to Israel of areas in the West Bank with a dense Jewish population, commonly known as “settlement blocs.” Yadlin believes such an understanding would significantly reduce tensions regarding the settlement issue, which have poisoned ties between Israel and the United States over the past eight years.

Yadlin is not entirely correct. The settlements have been poisoning ties between the United States and Israel almost from the day they were conceived some 50 years ago. Relations between the two states were never tenser over the settlement issue than during the administrations of President H.W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. What’s more, the letter by George W. Bush refers to “settlement blocs” but uniquely and only in the context of a permanent Israeli agreement with the Palestinians. In the 2003 “road map” dictated by George W. Bush to both sides through the Mideast Peace Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia), Israel was forced to agree to a complete freeze of settlement construction and to vacate all West Bank outposts established since March 2001. It agreed to do so, but did not bother honoring its commitment.

Netanyahu’s objection to the so-called “regularization” of outposts’ bill clearly reflects his modus operandi. Unlike the right-wing ministers from the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi party, Netanyahu also takes into account external pressures. He tries to avoid battles he knows he cannot win, especially in the Israeli-American arena. During the terms of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, Netanyahu could mobilize the Republican congressional majority in the battles he waged against them. In the coming four years, he will have to hold his fire. A thundering pledge (by Trump during his campaign) to “make America great again” is not in keeping with allowing a small state to hatch plots behind the back of the president of a great power.

Were it only up to him, Netanyahu would treat Trump with kid gloves and do all he can to keep him away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in his current six-party coalition, not everything depends on Netanyahu and not even on his Likud party. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had said, “It doesn't matter what the gentiles say, but what the Jews do.” Indeed, the ideologically motivated settlers, those pulling the strings in the Likud party central committee and in the upper echelons of HaBayit HaYehudi, don’t care what the outside world thinks, nor even what it plans to do. What they care about is what the Jews are doing. God almighty will take care of all the others. In the case of the illegal Amona outpost and the proposed regularization bill, Netanyahu is being forced to choose not only between a deep crisis with the right-wing members of his government and the threat of a crisis with a new American president, but the prime minister will have to choose between complying with international law and with the decisive opinion of his attorney general and obeying a bunch of lawbreakers (Amona settlers) and giving in to the threats of their political representatives.

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