Netanyahu faces hurdles with drifting Trump

opinion February 15, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Israel’s land grabs are on the table for the next White House bilateral summit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today takes his turn in the stream of world leaders visiting the new president of the United States, but there are obstacles to his hope of seeing eye to eye with Donald Trump on key issues.

While both men are stern conservatives, readily play the “race card” when it comes to currying votes, and share the same hard-line view on Middle East security, Trump is currently withholding support for Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian land.

There is uncertainty as to whether Trump will endorse Israel’s controversial construction of homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. While campaigning, Trump had indicated support for the move even as the United Nations was condemning it, but at the moment he’s saying nothing one way or the other. The uncertainty has led to speculation that Trump wants to avoid further international criticism. But it’s more likely the man who boasts of being a gifted negotiator in business simply wants to sit down with Netanyahu and hammer out a deal that he can call his own.

Netanyahu is perhaps counting on this, in fact. On departing Israel he said he would deal with the US in a “prudent manner”. He declined to elaborate, but he must sense that Trump’s policy on the Middle East isn’t yet finalised and that Israel still has a chance to make its case.

Netanyahu was no admirer of Barack Obama, who made a point of not embracing Israel as warmly as previous presidents had done. And yet Obama and his Democratic Party consistently enjoyed the overwhelming support of Jewish-American voters. They preferred Hillary Clinton to Trump as well. And most Jewish Americans dislike Netanyahu’s all-or-nothing attitude on the perennial pushes to claim Palestinian territory. In contrast to widespread domestic support for the annexations, the policy is recognised in the US as undermining hopes for peace in the Middle East.

Netanyahu has to keep this in mind as he gets cosy with the new Republican president, because the support of American Jews is a tradition that has long benefited Israel.

On December 23 the UN Security Council reaffirmed its position that the housing settlements in the West Bank are illegal. Obama could have headed off that affront to Netanyahu with a veto, but did not, the US instead abstaining from the vote. The Israeli government was furious, but the ensuing war of words among world leaders ended in embarrassment for Netanyahu. Vengefully, he ordered the construction of 6,000 more homes and his parliament formally declared 4,000 existing homes “legal”, ignoring a landmark court ruling. Unless that legislation can be overturned by Israel’s proudly independent judiciary, this will be another line drawn in the sand, scuttling the dream of Palestinians to establish a state capital in East Jerusalem should a two-state solution to the crisis ever become reality.

Another potential barrier to cooperation with the US that Netanyahu must confront is the Trump administration’s hints that America’s embassy in Israel might be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city regarded as holy by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Other US allies in the region have warned Trump to tread carefully with this notion, and since reaching the White House he’s been non-committal about it, saying only that he’s mulling the merits.

Where Netanyahu and Trump do apparently see eye to eye is on security matters in the Middle East, and specifically the roles of Iran and the Hezbollah militia it backs in Syria and Lebanon. On the other hand, Trump has shown a mysterious affinity for Russian interests, and Russia backs Iran in Syria.

Netanyahu has his work cut out for him.