Can Netanyahu say 'no' to Trump?

Israeli right-wing ministers forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reject a Palestinian reconciliation, even though the Trump administration is determined to support it.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Oct 23, 2017

Reports dribbling in to Jerusalem over the past few days indicate that US officials are enthusiastic about the Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The news came as no surprise to the Israeli leadership.

True, previous more cautious American comments about the reconciliation effort seemed in accord with the Israeli position, including demands that any ensuing Palestinian administration must recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and approve all agreements signed between the parties. After the dust began to settle, a senior White House official was quoted by Haaretz as saying, "Egypt has helped us crack open a door to Gaza that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and we see it as a possible opportunity." At the same time, the caveat was included that disarming Hamas will not happen overnight.

It had been clear to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Security Cabinet that the United States would support the negotiations. That is why they put a ticking time bomb of sorts on the desk of US envoy Jason Greenblatt in the form of a Cabinet decision adopted Oct. 17. During two days of talks, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin in particular succeeded in dragging the Cabinet far to the right. The resulting decision announced by the government, read, "[Israel] will not conduct diplomatic negotiations with a Palestinian government that relies on Hamas."

As always, the devil was in the details, patiently waiting to pounce. Had the Americans analyzed the precise wording of the Cabinet's decision in real time, they would have realized that Netanyahu had just laid a booby trap for them. By announcing that Israel would not negotiate with any Palestinian government that "relies on Hamas," the Cabinet eliminated any possibility of bypassing the situation, as it did in 2014. Back then, after Fatah's previous "reconciliation" with Hamas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formed his "government of technocrats," which did not include any official members of Fatah or Hamas. That way, he kept the possibility of negotiations with Israel alive.

At the time, and with international support, Abbas was able to have it both ways. On the one hand, he had a national unity government, while on the other, members of Hamas were not officially part of it. Such a government would theoretically have no problem recognizing Israel and making a commitment to take action against terrorism. Hamas would be able to keep its military wing in Gaza and manage things that were really important to it. It was, in effect, the "Hezbollah model," which leaves Israel constantly worried. Up north, the model allows the Lebanese government to run the country, ostensibly at least, while Hezbollah grows in strength and has complete independence to take action against Israel.

Under the current Israeli formulation, however, the possibility of "having it both ways" no longer exists. Now even a Palestinian "government of technocrats" would be considered as "relying on Hamas," since it would be composed according to the reconciliation agreement and draw its authority from it. Also, the members of any Palestinian government will evidently be approved by Hamas. All that is left to do is wait and see how the Americans deal with this new obstacle.

All indications are that the United States has no intention of giving up. There are an increasing number of leaks from Washington about the upcoming peace initiative. They seem to be saying that they will not force anything on either party, but at the same time, they certainly intend to present the parties with the "ultimate deal." Will this be the first time that President Donald Trump forces Netanyahu's hand and drags him to the negotiating table?

Amid the aforementioned meetings by the Israeli Cabinet to discuss the decision it ultimately reached, Netanyahu called US Ambassador David Friedman to report to him about the emerging decision, although it is unclear whether Netanyahu delved into a detailed account of the decision, from which Friedman could infer its implications. It is quite possible that Netanyahu intentionally obscured the outcome. Netanyahu later told his Cabinet that Friedman had listened, but did not respond. The Cabinet then rushed to make its decision, before it could be vetoed by Washington.

Bennett and Shaked were the primary drivers behind all this. Since the government was formed, they have been pressing Netanyahu from the right. Netanyahu would have been satisfied with a more generic statement or even with the option of avoiding all decisions and statements. In that case, he would have followed events as they unfolded and then flowed with them. Bennett would not, however, allow him this option. The HaBayit HaYehudi leader insisted that Israel slam the door on any possibility for negotiations after the Palestinian reconciliation. Netanyahu squirmed. He had his qualms, but in the end he obeyed. Over time, it will be revealed on whose hand he slammed the door. Was it Trump's? The Palestinians'? Was it his own hand, which actually did the slamming?

Netanyahu may be laying a trap for the Americans, but he is caught in a more dangerous trap. He is under pressure from three opposing directions. On one side are the Americans, with their clear intent to renew negotiations. On another side are the investigations into his affairs, which, according to most assessments, will lead to the recommendation of a criminal indictment. On the other side is the Israeli right, which is constantly pushing him to the farthest extremes.

Under normal circumstances, Netanyahu would ignore the right and formulate a kind of reasonable diplomatic position that would not be perceived by Washington as reshuffling the deck, but these are not ordinary times. These days, Netanyahu is busy preparing an escape route to extricate himself from his legal problems. This includes the rapid passage of legislation prohibiting investigations into a sitting prime minister, followed immediately by a snap election. For Netanyahu to run and win again, he needs the entire right, including the settlers and other extreme elements. He needs to win exactly the same way that he won the last time, in 2015.

That is why, unlike Abbas, Netanyahu cannot have it both ways. He needs a lot more than that, and it may well be impossible to get. Netanyahu knows that despite the Americans' declaration that they will not force an arrangement on the parties, it is always best not be the one to say no to Trump. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, that is exactly where he is now.

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