Netanyahu’s diplomatic dilemma

Embrace Trump on Israel without embracing the whole Trump package.

By
June 13, 2019 16:13
Netanyahu’s diplomatic dilemma

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House in March.. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

On March 25, just two weeks before the Israeli elections, US President Donald Trump – flanked in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room by his entire national security team and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“Rejoice now,” one colleague reporting on the event quipped. “Because we are going to have to pay for it big time.”
That, in short, has been the reflexive response uttered both by Trump and Netanyahu detractors – and even some supporters – following each high-profile move the US president has taken toward Israel.

You heard it when he substantially changed the tone toward Israel in Washington, when he backed out of the Iran deal, when he closed the PLO offices in Washington, when he clamped tough sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy there.

Be careful what you wish for, this school of thought counsels. Trump is a businessman, there are no free lunches, and he will extract a price from Israel somewhere down the line. The conventional thinking has been that this price will come as part of what he demands from Israel in his long-awaited “Deal of the Century.”

 A LIKUD CAMPAIGN poster in Jerusalem featuring the Trump- Netanyahu bond (Credit:  MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

But looking at the national security team gathered behind Trump for the Golan signing – Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Trump senior advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt – it was hard to imagine that they would ask Israel, as previous administrations have done, to make concessions the Israelis themselves don’t think they can make.

Which does not mean Trump will not ask for payback. He very likely will, but in different currency than what is expected.

In the run-up to the recent elections, Trump – especially with his Golan announcement so close to the polling – did what many an American president has done before, and got involved in the Israeli elections. The Golan recognition was a gift to the prime minister just before Israel went to the polls.

Nothing much is likely to change in that configuration as Israel heads to new elections this fall.

And if Netanyahu wins again and is ultimately able to form a government, what it seems likely Trump will ask from him is a similar embrace before his own reelection bid in 2020. Not because he thinks such a hug will help him with US Jews – Trump is obviously aware of the deep enmity that exists toward him among large swaths of the American Jewish community – but because this will help to enthuse his Evangelical and right-wing base which the president will need fired up and mobilized during the upcoming campaign.

Netanyahu has made no secret of how he feels about Trump, saying on numerous occasions that he is the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. As such, it will be difficult – if not impossible – for the prime minister to say no to a Trump ask, be it to his “Deal of the Century” or a request for support during the elections.

And these two issues – responding to the Trump plan and finessing the 2020 presidential elections – will be two of the main diplomatic challenges Netanyahu – or whomever eventually heads the Israeli government – will face as prime minister after the September elections.

OF THE two issues, the one that will be easier for Netanyahu or another PM is the Trump peace plan. While very little about what is actually in the plan has been made public – although the economic component is expected to be revealed in Bahrain at an “economic workshop” later this month – administration officials have said consistently that it will require concessions from both sides.

It’s unclear how the surprise Israeli elections will affect the rollout of the plan, and whether it may be delayed indefinitely as the US enters its election season.
But because of Palestinian rejectionism – the Palestinian Authority refuses to speak with the Trump administration, is not sending a delegation to Bahrain and has rejected the plan sight unseen – Netanyahu’s position is more comfortable.

Even if there are elements in the plan that he will find difficult to swallow, or that will not fly with his new coalition partners, he can say “yes, but” confident that the Palestinians will say “no, full stop.”

Over the last 25 years of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, which has not lead to peace, much energy has been expended to avoid being blamed for the failure of an initiative or round of negotiations. During each round of talks – the last taking place under US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014 – neither side wanted to be painted as the obstinate one. But this time the Palestinians have made it easier for Israel, since they have already said no to Trump. 

It will be a relatively easy diplomatic walk for Netanyahu to say in broad strokes that he accepts the Trump administration plan, though Israel has reservations about certain points, since the Palestinians have already said they are rejecting the whole framework.

The more difficult walk for Netanyahu will be how to finesse the 2020 elections by keeping on excellent terms with Trump, but at the same time not alienating the Democrats who may beat Trump this time around, and even if they don’t, will at some point return to the presidency.

With the political climate in Washington as toxic and divisive as it is, this is by no means an easy feat. Even before the campaign, Netanyahu and his ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, have been accused of playing only to the Republicans, and making Israel a partisan issue. But, as Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said recently in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, both sides – Israel and the US – are to blame for this state of affairs.

Sources close to Netanyahu dismiss as completely unrealistic the notion that Netanyahu should keep his distance from Trump. Every Israeli prime minister – every one – would embrace a US president who has backed Israel to the hilt in the UN, recognized Jerusalem as its capital, given unstinting support to the country’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks from Gaza, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

The Israeli prime minister’s first priority is to look after Israel’s interests, and every realistic candidate for Israel’s premiership would recognize those steps as furthering Israel’s interests. Netanyahu’s challenge going forward into an American election year is to fully embrace Trump’s policies on Israel, without being perceived as buying into the complete Trump package, a package that is dividing the US.

And even for a politician as capable and savvy as Netanyahu, that is not going to be an easy chore. An April Gallup Poll showed that while 65% of American Republicans have a favorable view of Netanyahu, only 18% of Democrats share the same feeling, results that reflect the ongoing and consistent trend of much greater support for Israel among Republicans than Democrats.

Those numbers indicate that Netanyahu has not succeeded in keeping Israel out of the domestic American fray. Following his election victory in April, trying to rectify that situation as the US enters the election primary season will likely be one of his top diplomatic objectives. Because as much as he appreciates the steps toward Israel that Trump has made, Netanyahu is well aware that this current golden era in Jerusalem-Washington ties will not last forever.


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