Analysis: The right US leader at the wrong time for Netanyahu

For Netanyahu to score political points with his voter base, the best he can hope to gain from Trump is to agree to disagree on the conflict.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to be a hero for the Israeli right, he’s about eight years too late – had Donald Trump only strolled into the White House instead of former US President Barack Obama back then, things would have turned out very differently for the prime minister.
The two men would have then sat down to discuss how to redefine the parameters of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
They would have walked back former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s statements about a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines.
And they would have reaffirmed a commitment made under former US President George Bush to allow Israel to retain the settlement blocs.
These are Jewish communities in the West Bank with high-density populations.
Netanyahu would have spoken about his support for two-states for two peoples, but would have secured from Trump an understanding that Israel could continue to build in those blocs.
He would have explained to the right-wing that he had saved them from the perils of an Olmert-style peace deal, in favor of one that would allow them to continue to develop Judea and Samaria, albeit within a more confined map than what they might have hoped for.
But in reality, Netanyahu entered the Prime Minister’s Office at the same time as former US president Barack Obama, who from the start touted a no-tolerance policy with regard to settlements.
He rejected the idea of the settlements blocs, which was first set forward under US president Bill Clinton. Upon entering office, former US president George Bush initially appeared to walk away from that understanding. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon then scored a significant diplomatic victory with an exchange of letters in which Bush reconfirmed his support of the blocs.
But Netanyahu cannot score a Sharon-like win here. The ease with which Obama was able to dismiss the Bush assurances makes it difficult for the Israeli Right to trust such a pledge again.
Even more significantly, the eight years of the Obama presidency brought about a number of significant changes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians upgraded their status at the United Nations to that of a non-member state, a move that allowed them turn to the International Criminal Court over Israeli settlement activity. The international community, particularly Europe, took a number of diplomatic steps to underscore the message that no settlement activity is acceptable.
This included allowing for the labeling of settlement goods on all Israeli products made over the pre-1967 lines.
The US issued relentless condemnations of any settlement activity big or small and allowed for the passage of a Security Council resolution that said the placement of the Western Wall within Israel’s sovereign boundaries is illegal.
There is a Hebrew saying that when everything is forbidden, then everything is permissible.
One thing the Israeli Right and the settlement movement has learned in the past eight years is the futility of half-measures.
They would rather move forward with measures that stand true to their principles. For them, Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump is a chance to redefine the parameters of the conflict with two very simple principles they hold to be true: It is the idea of a Palestinian state that is a stumbling block to peace and the time has come to annex Area C of the West Bank.
In the weeks leading put to Wednesday’s meeting between Trump and Netanyahu, these groups have held conferences, press events and issued hundreds of statements making these two demands very clear.
A Netanyahu return to Israel with anything less would be seen by them as a defeat.
Shoring up this stance are pre-election promises they believe were made to them by the Trump administration and the Republican Party, including the removal of the idea of a Palestinian state from the Republican platform.
Since taking office, however, Trump has made cautious statements with regard to the conflict. Although he has stated that he does not believe the settlements are a stumbling block to peace, he has also come to see how they are not helpful to a renewed peace process.
And it is very likely that he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors, by pushing to be the US president who finally ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is already a warm chemistry between Netanyahu and Trump, who have known each other since the 1980s.
Netanyahu has confidently said that they see eye to eye, and after years of a crisis- filled relationship with Washington, the prime minister’s return to Israel after a warm White House meeting would certainly be deemed a success.
For Netanyahu to score political points with his voter base, the best he can hope to gain from Trump is to agree to disagree on the conflict. But it’s a stance that could create a fissure with the Trump administration that would surely grow over time.
What Netanyahu hopes is that Trump would accept a settlement bloc plan as an option that would still allow him to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Netanyahu could then tout his leadership skills, particularly in handling Israel’s most important ally, particularly if it came with US assurances to be tough on Iran. But back in Israel, where his voter base is dreaming of annexation, anything less than rejection of Palestinian statehood would be seen as a loss.