Trump and the Virtues of Israeli Caution
The Israeli right has embraced Donald Trump’s election as if the country has been granted a new lease on life. Naftali Bennett has declared the end of the era of the Palestinian state and shared his view that Trump’s election is an opportunity to restructure the entire region. Ofir Akunis has called for a new round of settlement construction. Yoav Kish has said that it is time to stop talking about two states. In general, there is a mood of exhilaration on the right driven by a sense that come January 20, President Trump will give Israel leeway to anything it pleases.
For a government that has been frustrated by President Obama for eight years, it is easy to understand the temptation to throw caution to the wind and move full steam ahead on settlement building and creating a new paradigm vis-à-vis the Palestinians. If yesterday’s preliminary approval of the bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land is an indication of what’s to come, Israel is about to embark on a path that eliminates any ambiguity about its intentions. The government of Israel has every right to do what it pleases, of course. But doing so would be an enormous mistake. Taking a myopic approach and racking up as many short term wins as possible before the winds shift will only harm Israel in the long term, and would be a continuation of allowing tactics to win out over strategy.
For starters, assuming that Trump does indeed give Israel an unencumbered hand to deal with the West Bank and the Palestinians (more on this assumption in a moment), the United States is not the only relevant actor in this drama. Israel has spent years fending off sanctions from Europe over settlement activity, and the labeling controversy of earlier this year will seem like child’s play compared to what will come if Israel does indeed annex part of the West Bank. Israel has touted its improving ties with Sunni Arab states, but as tenuous as these relationships already are, they will disappear completely if Israel is viewed as destroying any chances of Palestinian sovereignty once and for all.
Russia, which has enormous leverage over Israel at the moment given its role in Syria and its willingness to look the other way when Israel targets Hizbollah weapons shipments, is also unlikely to respond well to Israel formally ending a two-state policy. In short, while any American administration will always be Israel’s top concern, it is never the only one.
And even if it were, the fact is that nobody – neither in Israel nor here – actually has any concrete idea what a Trump administration’s Israel policy will be. The panoply of conflicting signals and statements from Trump and his advisers on topics such as the wisdom of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, whether the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, or if Israel is at fault for the current impasse or if it is only the Palestinians, means that predictions about what Trump will support or tolerate are speculative at best. While I’d say that he will take more rightwing positions on Israel were I forced to bet, I also think it is safe to say that he does not have deeply held ideological beliefs on the subject. If, for instance, Trump wants to get Sunni buy-in on a Syria policy that effectively strengthens Iran and the price in return is cracking down on Israeli building over the Green Line (an unlikely but not impossible scenario), is anyone confident that he won’t sacrifice his Israel policy for a more pressing regional priority? If Israel commits itself to a policy in the West Bank that is even more encouraging of building anywhere and everywhere – or moves toward outright annexation – on the assumption that Trump will not pose an obstacle, it may find itself in a deep hole with no way out. Avigdor Lieberman seems to recognize the potential danger, urging his government to strike a deal with Trump that allows building inside the blocs while freezing it everywhere else rather than build everywhere with abandon, but there is no indication that any other coalition members have the same presence of mind.
Just as there is no way of knowing what comes with Trump, there is no way of knowing what comes after Trump. Given the radical departure that President Obama represented from the Bush era, and the radical departure that President-elect Trump represents from the Obama era, and the seemingly permanent hunger of the American electorate for change from whatever currently reigns in Washington, it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will have very different views from the 45th. If Israel builds so much in the West Bank over the next four – or possibly eight – years to destroy any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, it might find itself under fire from the next president from day one. Shutting off the possibility of changing course when there is a new administration is foolhardy.
Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the majority of American Jews are rigidly opposed to Trump, and it creates an awkward situation if the Israeli government treats Trump as its long-awaited savior when most American Jews view him with extreme distaste. This is not to say that Israel should exhibit any disdain for Trump; it must have the best relationship with any U.S. president that it can. But there is a difference between staying on Trump’s good side and anointing him as the second coming of Cyrus the Great. If Israel cares a lick about the opinions of the 76% of American Jews who did not vote for Trump and views American Jews as an important national security asset for Israel, it will not embrace Trump in a bear hug.
Were I the Israeli prime minister, I would use Trump’s ascent to the presidency as an opportunity to reset the foundation of the relationship with my most important and only irreplaceable ally. The Netanyahu government should make the most out of the fact that there will certainly be less public conflict and disagreement with Trump than there has been with Obama to reinforce how valuable Israel is as an intelligence and military partner, and to reinforce to American Jews that the U.S.-Israel alliance rests on democratic values and ideological affinity above all else. Seizing on Trump’s willingness to look the other way on settlements and thus plowing ahead with a narrow domestic political agenda will be squandering a larger space to think strategically about Israel’s geostrategic position, and will inevitably lead to negative consequences down the road.
Nobody should be naïve about what is likely to happen next. Talking about two states, the peace process, and a resumption of negotiations as remotely imminent given the two governments about to be in place borders on delusion. It is also important to note that this is not solely a Trump-related phenomenon; measures such as the Amona-related settlement legalization bill, despite the Washington Post’s strange framing of it as being spurred directly by the election, have been in the works for months. This does not mean giving up making the case again and again for why two states are necessary, but expectations have to be properly calibrated. Nevertheless, the Israeli government should think long and hard before taking the plunge toward using a Trump presidency to kill two states for good. Things that seem too good to be true almost always are.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.