Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
You know we’re in trouble when Avigdor Liberman suddenly becomes the responsible adult in the room. In the absence of a full-time foreign minister (one more example of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scandalous disregard for good government), the defense minister last week outlined a clear and rational vision for Israeli settlement policy vis-à-vis the incoming Trump administration.
Unlike the delusional Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who impetuously crowed that Donald Trump’s victory means “the era of a Palestinian state is over,” and that it presents an opportunity to “rest and rethink everything,” during a briefing with diplomatic reporters Defense Minister Liberman suggested a more restrained approach.
Correctly noting that the right approach to Trump’s victory was not to make declarations, but rather to sit tight and “wait to see who is in the administration, who is in the key jobs, and then coordinate positions,” Liberman also set down an interesting marker for Israel’s settlement activities.
While the Likud and Bayit Yehudi are expending the entire government’s energy on endangering the rule of law and whitewashing the criminality of 2,000 Israeli families living in houses built illegally on privately-owned Palestinian land (a figure that represents some 0.3 percent of the Israeli population living over the Green Line), Liberman took a wider view.
Going back to the last Republican to sit in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, Liberman enthusiastically endorsed the understanding reached between Bush and then prime minister Ariel Sharon, under which Israel could continue to build in the settlement blocs, but would freeze construction in isolated settlements outside of the blocs.
Given that for most of the Obama years there has either been an official or unofficial construction freeze throughout the West Bank and east Jerusalem, one would have thought that reverting to the Bush-Sharon understanding would be seen as a positive development by those for whom settlement expansion is their sole raison d’etre. But no, for these die-hard Land of Israel fanatics, any sign of compromise verges on treachery and left-wing defeatism.
Netanyahu’s office was quick off the mark to issue a statement denying Liberman’s remarks represented Israel’s official policy. So what is Israel’s official policy? Well, according to that same statement, “the prime minister will formulate Israel’s position to bring to the new administration after hearing the positions of the cabinet ministers.” Right. We all know how deeply Netanyahu values the opinions of his cabinet colleagues.
Or, more worryingly, if we take this statement at face value, despite now holding the record for the longest consecutive period spent in the Prime Minister’s Office, beating out Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu does not have a policy concerning the central issue determining Israel’s future. If that’s the case, just what exactly has he been doing in Balfour Street since 2009? Destroying Yediot Aharanot’s print monopoly doesn’t really count.
For the record, Netanyahu has committed, several times, to a two-state solution as a final settlement of the Israel- Palestinian conflict, a solution which would necessarily demand the division of the Land of Israel into two separate countries, with the settlement blocs more or less defining Israel’s new borders. If this is Netanyahu’s end goal, then the Bush-Sharon understanding perfectly suits his needs and should be Israel’s pitch to the new Trump administration.
But just as no one has a real clue as to how Trump will act once he takes over as president, no one knows what drives Netanyahu, except for his determination to dominate each day’s news cycle and survive another day in office. When you compare his lack of actual achievements compared to Ben-Gurion, whose record he’s eclipsed, it’s embarrassing.
Heavens, he’s even achieved less in his years in office than Ehud Barak during his ridiculously short term. Barak, at least, made good on his campaign promise to bring the IDF out of Lebanon.
A new Republican administration, in theory, is exactly what Netanyahu has been dreaming of ever since he first became prime minister in 1996 and had to deal with a skeptical Bill Clinton in the White House, followed, in his present stint, by two terms of the Obama administration, who also viewed him with some distaste. Now the prime minister has the chance to chart Israel’s future with what he believes will be a friendly US administration, perhaps we will finally get a glimpse of Netanyahu’s vision for the country.
But on the basis of Netanyahu’s 3,900 empty days in office so far, I wouldn’t hold your breath.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.