American and Israeli media are reporting that US President-elect Donald Trump may invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his inauguration on January 20. That would be sweet revenge for the Israeli prime minister, who has been eviscerating President Barack Obama since the US abstained on a vote criticizing Netanyahu’s aggressive settlements policies, from a president elect whose administration promises to make revenge on political adversaries a national priority.
After nearly eight fractious years fending off Obama’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Netanyahu may finally have an American president who doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea and seems enamored of the Israeli leader. Both would likely enjoy poking their fingers in Obama’s eye to the playground chant of “na-na-na-na-na.”
The ultimate prize for Netanyahu would be if Trump announced he is ordering the US Embassy in Tel Aviv moved to Jerusalem. Trump has promised it frequently and his ambassador-designate and aides have said it inevitable and coming very soon. If Trump does go ahead with the move it would be a reward for Netanyahu having done nothing to advance the peace process over the past eight years – and for the prime minister’s incessant dissing of the outgoing president.
David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador-designate to Israel and an ultra-nationalist, said the move would “advance the cause of peace in the region.” That doesn’t make sense since the definition of peace throughout the region – including in much of Israel – is the two-state solution, which Friedman opposes.
Those who most loudly insist moving the embassy would promote peace, not impede it, tend to be those most opposed to Palestinian statehood and who would be happiest to see any peace process collapse.
Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer said the move now would be “a giant step toward peace,” but failed to explain how it would bring reluctant leaders on both sides to the table.
Netanyahu would be feeling confident that the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, wasn’t about to pressure him to get serious about making peace, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, 81, is weak, preoccupied with the fight over his succession and has seemingly endless excuses and demands for avoiding talks.
Another view came from Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist/religious Bayit Yehudi Party. He greeted Trump’s election as signaling that “the idea of a Palestinian state is over,” and this week he introduced legislation in the Knesset to begin annexing the rest of the West Bank not under Palestinian control. Instead of a state, his sees the Palestinians having scattered enclaves surrounded by Israel.
Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that moving the embassy could effectively “destroy the peace process” and send the region into a “path of chaos, lawlessness and extremism.”
Sultan Abu al-Einein, an Abbas aide and Fatah official, told Egyptian TV that if Trump moves the embassy there will be “bloodshed in the Palestinian territories,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime US peace negotiator, said, “There is simply no compelling American national interest that would justify the possible risks and downsides.”
That move might even upset some on the Israeli Right, for whom putting the embassy in west Jerusalem, which is certain to remain under Israel control following any peace deal, might be seen as challenging their claims to east Jerusalem, which was annexed following the 1967 war.
In fact, it could be seen as validating Palestinian claims to the part of the city they claim as their capital.
One Israeli diplomat told me the move would be “detrimental to any hope of restarting the peace process.”
Right-wing politicians predict a muted response from Palestinians and the Arab world, but that strains credulity.
Israeli security and intelligence officials warned that violence could erupt in east Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods and the West Bank.
It is irresponsible to say the Arab states would ignore it. Some might want to keep up their clandestine contacts with Israel but emotions on the street over such an emotional issue will make that very difficult. Arab leaders may have grown weary of the Palestinian cause but it still remains a hot-button issue on their streets and could easily be aroused by the Islamists.
Radical Muslims might welcome the embassy move “as a godsend and as a rallying cry that could potentially stir the masses and destabilize the [Western-backed Arab] regimes,” writes Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev.
Before deciding on the embassy location, Trump also has to consider the impact of the emotionally wrought move would have on his desire to build an anti-Islamic State coalition among moderate Arab states.
Miller said the embassy move would “likely kill US credibility as a mediator,” a role Trump has shown interest in playing. It is hard to take Trump’s interest in making peace very seriously in light of his choices for ambassador to Israel and chief negotiator, and his influential son-inlaw, all Orthodox Jews who strongly support the settler movement.
Trump has said he wants to move the embassy, but aides and friends have cautioned that the president-elect is someone to be taken seriously but not literally.
If he does go ahead with the move and it is gradual and low key it is less likely to create a crisis than if Trump announces it with his usual fanfare and then flies with his family to Jerusalem for a ribbon cutting ceremony like the one for his new hotel in Washington last year.
If Netanyahu is invited to the inauguration, perhaps Trump could comp him a suite at the Trump International Hotel. Netanyahu has become accustomed to the generosity of his wealthy friends. Maybe the luxurious Trump Townhouse suite at only $100,000 for a five-day inaugural stay. And the Netanyahus will get to take home a Trump family commemorative plate.