Why you should care
Because everybody loves blaming America.
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It may look as though Donald Trump is waving a giant green light toward Jerusalem. Standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, he jettisoned a cornerstone of the U.S. approach to peace: the so-called “two-state solution,” with a separate Palestinian state.
But this might not be so good for Bibi, it turns out. For years, American administrations — from Bill Clinton’s to George W. Bush’s and especially Barack Obama’s — have tied the Israeli prime minister’s hands when it came to approving more Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. But Obama’s hard-line policy gave Bibi a valuable bargaining chip. It let him get away with playing a two-level game — blaming the White House for reining him in while enjoying the fact that his strained relationship with the U.S. commander in chief kept the Israeli far right from sinking in their teeth. “I already have this terrible relationship with the U.S.; I can’t make it worse,” you could almost hear him reasoning to the right-wing members of his coalition.
They think that, with Trump in office, this is the time they can finally move forward with their agenda.
Dov Waxman, Northeastern University
“Appeasing the U.S. made sense to the public and the rest of [Netanyahu’s] coalition,” says Miriam Elman, professor of political science and a Middle East expert at Syracuse University. “That’s been useful,” says Dov Waxman, professor of political science and Israeli studies at Northeastern University. “Without that, Netanyahu’s in a much weaker position against the more radical elements within Israeli politics.”
Even before yesterday’s bombshell, Israel’s leaders seemed emboldened. Its parliament voted to retrospectively legalize the settling of private Palestinian land in the West Bank. And while that move is likely to be deemed unconstitutional by the high court, the Israeli far right is speaking more boldly these days about annexing the West Bank. With no White House to rein him in, the Israeli right “will demand he do these things,” says Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, referring annexation.
Netanyahu won’t want to do so, Lustick explains, because “he’ll know that he’ll get in so much trouble with the world community and other Israelis” if he does. His preference? To keep things ambiguous and keep blaming the United States.
Within his party, the Likud, Netanyahu is one of the more moderate members, and not terribly popular at that — despite his Teflon reputation, “There are elements in the Likud who would like to challenge him,” Waxman says. Even further to the right? Folks like Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, who want Israel to annex all of the West Bank. “They think that, with Trump in office, this is the time they can finally move forward with their agenda,” Waxman says.
Even more disheartening for Netanyahu are corruption allegations that don’t appear to be going away. He’s accused, among other things, of accepting pricey gifts and colluding with a media mogul.
So has Bibi’s time to bow out come at last? Not necessarily. “If nothing else, he is the great survivor of Israeli politics,” says Waxman. Lustick, however, thinks it’s just a matter of time. He believes Bibi is more likely to be driven out of office by the corruption investigations than by being outflanked on the right by a popular politician. The one thing working in Bibi’s favor? The fact that the Likud has nobody who can replace him. “If he was forced out, Likud would face the possibility that they’d lose control of the government to some centrist,” Lustick says.
So Bibi might hang on with his high-wire balancing act a bit longer. If only he could get Trump to behave like former U.S. presidents and clamp down on Jewish settlements …