Comment: Netanyahu on hold, awaiting new US administration

Before getting too giddy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers should pause to see how Donald Trump tackles the problems of the Middle East.

December 26, 2016 08:11
Donald Trump

Donald Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS)

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu can pride himself – together with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – on being the mother of invention.

He and Berlusconi began the 21st century process of populist leaders taking over their countries in free democratic elections and changing their course. Netanyahu was followed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and now Donald Trump in America. Who’s next? One candidate is Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front, who is running to become the new president of France in 2017. There are also other ambitious politicians across Europe, in Trump’s mold, with similar aspirations.

It can also happen in Italy, where Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called a referendum asking voters to approve proposed changes to the constitution. There is a growing likelihood that Renzi will lose. One lawmaker called him a “dead man walking.”

In Holland, the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic Geert Wilders is on the rise, and popular and political forces looking to follow the British example and exit the EU are growing in Holland, Poland and other European countries.

With all their differences, what these leaders and trends have in common are the frustrations of large groups of voters in western and central European democracies from traditional, established political parties of the Left, Center and moderate Right – as well as inflammatory rhetoric, nationalism combined with doses of clericalism, hatred of the other, incitement against foreigners, politics of divisions, and the creation of real and fictitious enemies from within and without.
Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at Trump Tower in New York to meet with Donald Trump in September 2016 (credit: REUTERS)

In that sense, Netanyahu is a wizard. He was the first leader – already in 1996 when he was first elected to office – to identify and use as political tools the loathing of many in society against the old elites, the establishment, the traditional media, and to exploit the fears of the deprived and underprivileged.

Never mind that Netanyahu himself, exactly like Trump, is the product of the same elites who grew up in wealthy and privileged families.

There is another common trait for the new class of national-populist leaders ‒ they sympathize, if not admire, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as does Trump.

Immediately after Trump’s victory, Netanyahu and government ministers rushed not only to congratulate Trump, but also to rejoice. They saw President Barack Obama as the enemy of Israel, despite his diplomatic and military support for the Jewish State. They have since calmed down after Netanyahu told his ministers to refrain from commenting about the new US administration-in-the-making.

But it’s not only the Trump victory that is making Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet feel so elated; the Republican Party also maintained its control of both houses of Congress. It’s no secret that Netanyahu is, by heart and soul, an Israeli Republican, feeling at home with the party’s politics and its right-wing conservative ideology.

Over the years – since the late 1980s, when he served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN – Netanyahu has developed very cozy relations with Republican senators, congressmen and their major donors ‒ first with Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and in the last decade with casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Within hours after the US election, Israeli right-wing politicians reminded Trump of the promises and statements he made during the election campaign, that if elected, he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, he would not be the first presidential candidate to make such a promise, only to discover upon entering the Oval Office that it is easier said than done.

The Arab world, the UN and most of the international community are opposed to such a step.

Right-wing cabinet ministers such as Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who represent the settler movement, cited Trump’s statements that he would turn his back on the two-state solution and not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, and that he doesn’t see settlements as an obstacle to peace. Bennett and his colleagues are now calling for the rapid advancement of the construction of more settlements in the West Bank, with the purpose of scrapping whatever tiny chance still remains of establishing a Palestinian state.

To the delight of Netanyahu and his ministers, Trump also threatened to cancel the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Israeli leaders know well that Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s in-laws – the Kushners – are Orthodox Jews, and that she converted to Judaism. No wonder so many US Orthodox Jews and expatriate Israelis voted for him, despite the traditional trend of the majority of Jewish Americans voting Democratic.

But it is too early for Netanyahu and the Israeli Right to celebrate. Trump is unpredictable, and that may turn against Jerusalem’s favor. As a businessman who believes there are no free meals, he may question why Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, and whether the annual $3.8 billion showered on Israel is a wise investment that assures a good return on US interests.

TRUMP ALREADY said during his campaign that Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia will have to pay for the protection services they are getting from the US military. If Trump indeed insists on that, he will be asked why them and not Israel.

But above all, Trump lacks any experience in foreign policy in general, and the Middle East in particular. The leading candidates for CIA director and head of the National Security Council are Congressman Mike Pompeo and General Michael Flynn, respectively. Both are very pro-Israel and anti-Iran, but it will take the president-elect more than a while to select his Middle East team, understand the complexities of the region, and formulate his policy.

There are already signs that Trump is withdrawing, or at least pausing, from his election rhetoric. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said that with his experience as a deal maker, he would try to clinch a pact between Israel and the Palestinians. “That’s the ultimate deal,” said Trump. “As a deal maker, I’d like to do… the deal that can’t be made. And to do it for humanity’s sake.” He referred to the conflict as the “war that never ends.”

Early in the campaign, Trump said he would remain “neutral” in regard to the conflict, a statement that was interpreted as not being interested in dealing with the problem, but also as wanting to be an honest broker between the two sides.

Moving on to Egypt, Trump said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a “fantastic guy.” This is a good sign for Sisi, who had very sour relations with Obama, and who needs huge sums of financial aid to try to stop the deterioration of his economy. Good relations between Egypt and the US are also a vital interest of Israel, whose security cooperation with Cairo under Sisi reached new heights.

Even more complicated for Trump would be fulfilling his promise to cancel the Iran nuclear deal. Days before the election, Pompeo called for scrapping it. Theoretically, the next US administration could pull out of the arrangement unilaterally. But the agreement reached after a decade of onand- off negotiations is a product of collective bargaining by the international community, on one hand, and Iran, on the other. It wasn’t a solo US flight. Six world powers – US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany – worked hard in concert to achieve it.

If Trumps tries to derail the accord, he will find himself on a confrontational course not only with Iran, but with his EU allies, and Russia and China, as well.

It will also signal to the world that the US is not respecting its own international commitments. The Trump administration will have to find a good excuse – a major violation – by Iran to opt out of the deal.

Iranian leaders know that very well, and it is unlikely that they will be dumb enough to serve up such an excuse on a silver platter.

On the contrary, they will probably be even more cautious. And, so far, with a few minor insignificant exceptions, they are adhering to the agreement.

No less difficult for Trump is the situation in Syria. He practically praised Russia and the Assad regime for fighting ISIS, but by doing so he has annoyed Saudi Arabia. The Kurds are also an important force in the war against ISIS, fighting to defend their homes, but also looking to emerge from the war as an independent state. If Trump supports their dream, he will find himself on a collision course with Turkey.

All in all, the Middle East confronts the president-elect with tough challenges and decisions.

If – and it is a big if – Trump tries to follow through on his election promises and execute them as a coherent policy, including unequivocal support for Netanyahu’s government, the US may find itself on a dangerous collision course with the entire Arab world, including oil rich Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on top of Iran.

From the outset, it seems very unlikely.

But that’s exactly what was said about his chances while running for president. When it comes to Donald Trump, everything seems to be possible.

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