Would Netanyahu be better off without Trump?

The overly pro-Israeli policies of President Donald Trump, especially his decision to cut funding for the Palestinians, poses a threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to continue using the Oslo Accords as a permanent status solution and for the international community to pay for Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the building of settlements.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, March 5, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Sep 17, 2018

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t have hoped for an easier US administration than the one in power today.

President Bill Clinton despised him and suggests as much in his autobiography. He believes that Netanyahu sabotaged the Oslo Accords. Yes, Netanyahu walked it back temporarily, by fulfilling the agreement in part during the 1998 Wye Plantation talks, but Netanyahu quickly returned to his old self. As soon as he landed in Israel, he announced that the third phase of redeployment on the West Bank, out of the three phases agreed to in the accords, would not exceed 1% of the territory!

As for President Barack Obama, Netanyahu portrayed him as hating Israel. The lack of chemistry between the two men dates back to the moment they first met, in Israel during the 2008 election campaign. Obama had no qualms saying that people could support Israel without supporting Likud. The ensuing conflict between the two men was well known to everyone. Even the $38 billion defense aid package that Obama provided Israel over the course of 10 years wasn’t enough to thaw their icy relationship. Netanyahu went on to address a joint session of Congress about the Iran nuclear deal, hoping to convince the House and Senate to oppose Obama’s policies toward Iran. This unusual step set a precedent in the relationship between Israel and its benefactor, which had never reached such a low point.

Netanyahu’s gamble on Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton seemed risky, with little chance of success. Trump never went so far as to utter a cavalcade of pro-Israel statements during his campaign. At one point, he even declared that Israel would be forced to pay a price for the defense assistance it receives. Trump announced that under his leadership, the United States would be neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so it could broker the “deal of the century.”

Netanyahu’s gamble paid off, however, at least ostensibly. It came to look like Netanyahu had gotten his dream team.

As president, Trump has never implemented his assertion that Israel pay a price for US aid, and he has not tried to appear to be neutral. He appointed a team of hawkish Jews to negotiate a peace agreement and stood by his word to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He even moved the US Embassy to the western part of the city. The most prominent member of the administration's peace negotiations team is David Friedman, who is also the US ambassador to Israel and who constantly visits the settlements, claiming they are legitimate and discussing the need to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Then there is Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, an advocate of the most right-wing US defense and security policies.

The decision to relocate the US Embassy apparently pleased Netanyahu. At first, Trump had delayed the move, twice signing a waiver postponing the 1995 decision by Congress. Even after delivering a speech recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, Trump said actually moving the embassy would take years. Soon afterward, he expedited the embassy’s relocation. Then on May 15, Israeli forces killed some 60 Palestinians along the Gaza border, one of the bloodiest days of violence during the Great Return March protests, spurred on by the dedication of the new embassy. It was certainly a steep price to pay, but it failed to ignite a significant wave of protest in the Arab world or even among the Palestinians themselves, proving that it is possible to go wild. It also instigated an informal demand to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan.

The next steps taken by the US administration, however, were less likely to be supported by any Israeli government. Israel has been critical of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and rightly so, but the last thing it wants is to eliminate the organization in a single stroke and to step into its shoes in the West Bank and Gaza. Cutting direct aid to the Palestinians — only a small part of which goes toward the Palestinian Authority (PA) budget and most of which is allocated to organizations and initiatives supported by the US Agency for International Development — brings Netanyahu’s greatest nightmare closer to becoming the reality.

The cuts could lead to the PA shutting down, meaning the responsibility of funding and maintaining the occupation would fall squarely on Israel. Netanyahu also realizes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would never accept the idea of American aid to the Palestinians focused solely on security cooperation with Israel and therefore would be forced to throw away the keys.

The Trump administration’s Sept. 8 decision to stop funding hospitals in East Jerusalem was certainly not inspired by Netanyahu. It is hard to tell whether Trump distinguishes between Jerusalem and the West Bank or whether he is aware that according to Israeli law, East Jerusalem, including its hospitals, is under Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is fully aware that if the United States stops funding Palestinian hospitals in the city, the task will immediately land on Israel’s shoulders.

Trump's bear hug is starting to get suffocating. Every time the Americans decide on one punitive action or another, Netanyahu praises it publicly, but it is hard to believe that he is not then concerned about the next wave of punishments. As it turns out, the United States and Israel do not share identical diplomatic positions.

Trump apparently feels an affinity toward Israel, and even toward Netanyahu, but his peace negotiating team is closer in its worldview to the pro-settler, national-religious HaBayit HaYehudi than to Netanyahu's. Nevertheless, the stated intention of the administration, and the position to which Trump repeatedly returns, is that it wants to resolve the conflict. It wants to prove that only Trump or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are capable of achieving what all their predecessors have failed to achieve for the past 70 years — peace in the Middle East.

Netanyahu has walked back his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, in which he supported a two-state solution (despite having many reservations), when he said on the eve of the 2015 election that such a solution would not be implemented on his watch. When it appeared that Trump wanted to present his plan to the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting, Netanyahu was quick to respond with surprising candor that there was no need to rush in revealing the plan.

At this point, Trump poses a threat to Netanyahu’s plans to continue using the Oslo Accords as a permanent-status solution, rather than an interim agreement, to make the rest of the world pay for the occupation and to continue building settlements. In this story, the prime minister plays the role of the elderly lawyer who transfers all of his firm’s cases to his son, in this example, Trump. The next day, his son has a huge smile on his face when he comes to see his father and tells the old man that he just settled a case that had been open for decades. His father scolds him, saying, “That unresolved case funded your schooling, your apartment, and your car, and it could have continued funding you for years, if you hadn’t ‘resolved’ it.”

If strangling the Palestinians brings down the PA, Netanyahu will really start to miss Obama.

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