OPINION: Honeymoon Ending? How Israel Could Turn on President Trump, and Vice Versa
While the American leader has delighted Israel’s public and political establishment, his upcoming peace plan risks derailing all progress
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asserted during a recent visit to the White House that the Jewish state had “never had a better friend” than US President Donald Trump, most citizens back home nodded in agreement. In fact, the US leader’s approval rating in Israel is the highest in the world.
Trump has done what most Israelis never imagined possible, foremost by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and then moving the US Embassy to the holy city. During Netanyahu’s most recent trip to Washington, Trump officially recognized Israeli sovereignty over the parts of the Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
Equally critical is that, unlike the Obama Administration, Trump’s hardline approach to Iran dovetails with that of the government of Israel, and especially Netanyahu. To this end, the US president withdrew from the “disastrous” 2015 nuclear accord aimed at barring Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, and re-imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Trump has also implemented financial penalties on Hizbullah, the Iranian proxy in Lebanon that effectively paralyzes that country’s government, while now, the State Department reportedly is ready to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.
US-Israeli military relations, meanwhile, are at an all-time high, underpinned by a 10-year memorandum of understanding granting the Jewish state over $3.8 billion in yearly funds (although the lion’s share must be spent in the US). The two countries regularly conduct joint exercises, most notably Juniper Cobra, and last month, for the first time, the US military’s European Command brought with it the THAAD missile defense system.
In this vein, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close Trump ally, this week announced his intention to formalize a mutual defense agreement that he said would demonstrate to the international community that “an attack against Israel would be considered an attack against the United States.”
Perhaps most important to Israelis is that after 25 years of rejectionism by the Palestinians, most notably by turning down three comprehensive Israeli peace offers, Trump is holding Ramallah to account.
He cut hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas imposed a boycott on all US officials in the wake of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. He also shuttered the Washington mission of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which dominates the PA and still views itself as the official voice of the Palestinian people.
Similarly, the US president has little patience for UNWRA, the United Nations agency responsible for looking after Palestinian refugees. Many view the body as perpetuating, rather than solving, the refugee problem by financing generations of Palestinians from cradle to grave instead of integrating them into their resident countries. (The UN agency also happens to be stacked with employees of Hamas, the terror group that runs the Gaza Strip, something that amounts to tacit support for one of Israel’s most brutal enemies.)
In response to the financial cut-offs – coupled with the perception that Trump is biased toward Israel – Palestinian politicians and journalists have slammed the president’s point men on negotiations. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, international negotiator Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman have been referred to, respectively, as naïve and inexperienced; a “mongoloid”; and a shill for the “settler” movement.
While the vulgarity is mainly explained by Trump’s having done more than any other US leader to endear Israelis to him, the White House’s soon-to-be-released peace plan could end the honeymoon with Jerusalem by sparking a major government and public backlash – to which the US president might, characteristically, respond impulsively and with fury.
In reality, Israelis and Palestinian remain so far apart on the core issues of the conflict that it is almost inconceivable that peace talks can be jump-started.
First, Israel considers the division of Jerusalem – the eastern part of which the Palestinians claim for the capital of a future state – as an absolute non-starter. This is largely predicated on the political supremacy of the Israeli Right and a majority of the population that deems Jerusalem the Jewish people’s “eternal and undivided” capital (although rumors have circulated that Trump will offer the Palestinians control over various suburbs on the outskirts of the city).
So, too, there is exactly zero chance that some 5 million Palestinian refugees will be allowed the right to return. (Notably, only about 750,000 were displaced or left voluntarily from Israel during the 1948 war, meaning that the vast majority of these people are the offspring of those who actually fled.)
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 reportedly offered to absorb 10,000 of these people every year for a decade in return for peace, but the Palestinians never responded. His proposal also included Israel handing over about 95 percent of the West Bank and the formation of an international body to oversee holy sites in Jerusalem. (The Gaza Strip had been relinquished in 2005 by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.)
The thorniest issue may be the future status of the West Bank, where approximately half a million Israeli citizens live in scattered communities. On Saturday, Netanyahu added fuel to the fire by affirming that “all the settlements, without exception, regardless of the blocs, must remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
More specifically, the prime minister stressed that on his watch, not a single Israeli would be uprooted from the West Bank and that there would be no discussion about peace whatsoever if Trump even suggested this.
Then, on Sunday, Netanyahu went a step farther by saying that “a Palestinian state will not be created, not like the one people are talking about. It won’t happen.”
Normally, pundits would attribute such statements to election rhetoric, but Netanyahu claimed that he conveyed these non-negotiable conditions to Trump during their March meeting. The prime minister also told the US president that Israel demanded “continued control of all the territory to the west of the Jordan” River in order to secure the nation.
This revelation caused yet another uproar in Ramallah, with top-ranking PLO official and longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat suggesting that “Israel will continue to brazenly violate international law for as long as the [global] community… reward[s] it with impunity.” He added that the Palestinians would “pursue [their] rights through international forums, including the international criminal court, until we achieve our long overdue justice.”
Erekat was implying that the PA was committed to achieving statehood, although not through a US-mediated initiative, which they repeatedly have shot down out-of-hand.
Despite his reservations, Netanyahu will likely play ball with Trump, as he did on two separate occasions with a much less flexible president, Barack Obama, and his secretary of state, John Kerry. The premier has the hope of maintaining strong ties with the Trump Administration, a relationship viewed as vital to upholding Israel’s security, while Abbas is unlikely to accept any comprehensive formula put forward.
Netanyahu’s re-election is no done deal – although it is, based on the results of opinion polls (which should be taken with a grain of salt) the most realistic outcome of Tuesday’s vote. There are numerous mitigating variables, including the possibility that challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White list garners the most mandates, is invited by President Reuven Rivlin to assemble a coalition and then somehow manages to do so (although this would probably necessitate the support of Arab parties, one of which is vehemently anti-Israel and pro-Hamas).
While Gantz has espoused positions similar to those of Netanyahu, his desire to dethrone “King Bibi” might induce him to court Arab politicians who may indeed back him so long as their demands are met, mostly by making about-face concessions on the peace front.
Nevertheless, no amount of Israeli politicking is likely to moderate the PA’s intransigence, but there is still a chance that to get a better deal, Abbas could attempt to leverage an Israeli government that is full of supporters. That said, recent reports suggest that the most Trump would be willing to offer is minor interim steps focused on economic development, which in turn might improve Palestinian lives and thus make them more amenable to compromise.
Alternatively, the most unpredictable American president in history could drop a bombshell on Israel and follow his predecessors’ lead by endorsing the two-state formula with associated stipulations. This potentiality stems from an understanding that the PA, along with Arab nations, would never countenance an accord that offers fewer benefits than previous ones.
Therefore, if the White House is serious about presenting a proposal that will not be pronounced “dead on arrival,” it would have to contain various elements to entice the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Given that the plan has taken two-plus years to compile and that Trump’s peace team has traveled numerous times to Middle Eastern nations, it is doubtful that with all US administration has invested in the issue, it would roll out a dud.
Therefore, Trump’s “deal of the century” could put him on a collision course with what is liable to be a government headed by Netanyahu, and parliamentarians who are even more nationalistic. If so, their respective constituencies could force the coalition’s hand, prompting angry reactions that quickly overshadow – and possibly undo – much of the good will.
The possible demise of the “bromance” between Netanyahu and Trump that plays out in the media would definitely harm the interests of both countries while empowering their enemies.
In this respect, within a year after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian suicide bombers began targeting Israeli buses, malls and restaurants while terrorists started firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, where Yasser Arafat made his triumphant homecoming from Tunis. Following the failed Camp David summit of 2000, Arafat initiated the Second Intifada, a three-year period characterized by horrific Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians.
Likewise, shortly after Abbas refused to reply to Olmert’s 2008 peace offer, Israel fought its first battle in the Gaza Strip – Operation Cast Lead – to neuter Hamas, which had taken over the Palestinian enclave from the PA as part of an internecine war. Finally, within months of Obama giving up on the peace process in 2014, Palestinians launched the so-called “Stabbing Intifada” and knifed hundreds of Israelis on streets in broad daylight.
In other words, the repeated failure of major peace pushes has invariably resulted in violence even as optimists wax poetically that both sides are but one small stride from a breakthrough.
Should history repeat itself now, much of Israel’s ire will target Trump, someone who is well-versed in responding to criticism with great malice.