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Why Israel's right has its doubts about Trump

The euphoria that swept the Israeli right following Donald Trump’s electoral victory is swiftly fading as the world begins the tense wait to learn whether his campaign promises will become realities.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) meets with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY  - RTX2T38N

The euphoria that spread across the Israeli right on the night that Donald Trump was elected was in some ways reminiscent of Israel right after the 1967 Six-Day War. Some Israelis saw Trump as the envoy of the Messiah who will complete the divine process that began in 1967, when Israel defeated Jordan and captured Judea and Samaria, the birthplace of the Jewish people, and liberated King David’s capital in East Jerusalem.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of that war. And for the first time, there is a real chance that the United States of America, Israel’s official patron, will lift its opposition to the occupation in a historic change of course. Ever since the morning of Nov. 9, various spokespeople for the Israeli right have competed among themselves to find the most enthusiastic superlatives to describe the president-elect and to sketch out settlement-expansion plans for immediate action. They wanted to strike while the American iron was still red hot.

Naftali Bennett, the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, overshadowed everyone when he made the festive assertion that the results of the US election mean that "the era of a Palestinian state is over." He went on to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announce Israel’s annexation of all of West Bank's Area C, including all the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. While many cautioned Bennett to wait patiently until the Trump administration formulates its policies, a source close to Bennett, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted him as responding, “This requires leadership. We must demand this of ourselves — first and foremost — and only then from the international community.”

In the 48 hours following the American drama, the gamut of Trump’s campaign promises echoed across Israel. The loudest among them was his declaration that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

The settlers released a video clip in which Trump confidante David Friedman, considered the leading candidate for American ambassador to Israel, spoke behind closed doors with leaders of the settlement movement about Trump’s pro-Israel platform. Listing all of its advantages, Friedman noted that even if Israel annexes Judea and Samaria, Jews would still make up just 65% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, it would be wrong to say that Israel would no longer be a Jewish state.

Filmed during the campaign, this video clip was like a strong breeze blowing right into the sails of the settler movement. The problem is that since his campaign ended, the president-elect and his team have taken an entirely different tack. As Trump slowly climbs down from his high horse, the Israeli right is beginning to calm down, too. Rehearsals for the coming of the Messiah have been postponed to a later date. Skepticism has begun to gnaw at people’s hearts and minds.

On Nov. 13, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, both leaders of HaBayit HaYehudi, decided to take action. They brought the proposed Regularization law up for a vote before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The proposed law would enable the Israeli government to circumvent court rulings, such as the High Court order to evacuate the Amona outpost by Dec. 25 and retroactively approve thousands of settler housing units built on privately owned Palestinian land in the occupied territories. They did so despite explicit opposition to the move by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Netanyahu has spent months trying to soften the impact of this law, reject it entirely or postpone it, but the members of HaBayit HaYehudi refused to blink. He even recruited the support of Liberman, who posted a stinging retort on Facebook, writing, “Anyone worried about the future of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria realizes that the most important thing right now is to coordinate our positions with the new administration in the US.”

According to political insiders, Liberman has been saying privately that he hopes that he can get the Trump administration to ratify understandings reached in correspondence between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush in 2004 regarding the settlement blocs. The Regularization law is now right in the middle of these efforts.

That's the only argument presented by Netanyahu and Liberman. Trump isn’t the only person they are trying not to upset right now. There is also current President Barack Obama, who has yet to decide what diplomatic measure he will take and whether, now that he is leaving office, it will be worth his while to teach Israel a lesson. The Regularization law could give the president the impetus he currently lacks to make Israel pay a steep diplomatic price. Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit also released a sharp legal response to the proposed law, saying that it is unconstitutional.

None of this seems to have bothered Bennett or Shaked. The enormous pressure put on the Likud’s own ministers the day of the vote didn’t help either. Despite a raging Netanyahu, Shaked convened the committee. The prime minister sent one of his aides to the meeting with explicit instructions to keep them from voting, but Shaked snubbed that attempt and announced that the vote would be held anyway. The five Likud ministers present at the meeting voted with her, against Netanyahu. They were more concerned about the response of the right-wing electorate than that of their own prime minister. The committee passed the proposed law unanimously and it will now proceed to the Knesset.

It was a humiliating public blow to Netanyahu and Liberman. Not only did they lose, they were also blamed by voters on the radical right for having tried to block a law that would have regulated West Bank Jewish settlement. None of their explanations helped. Nothing mattered to the settlers apart from formal recognition of their status. They are now insisting on calling in all the IOUs scattered about during the campaign, and anyone really knows if the bank can or will cover them.

It is Netanyahu’s headache now. After over a decade in power, he finally has a Republican US president. The problem is that it's not the Republican he was hoping for. Trump may have run on the Republican ticket, but no one knows how he will really govern. He owes nothing to anyone. He has no obligations to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or even to casino mogul and close Netanyahu associate Sheldon Adelson. Trump is a businessman. His statement to the Wall Street Journal that he considers achieving a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians a top priority sent blood pressures in Jerusalem soaring. The footsteps of the Messiah heard in Israel on Nov. 9 have since been replaced by whispers of deep confusion and concern.

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