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Israeli hard-liners jubilant over Trump. Is that premature?

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Members of Israel's hard right voiced elation at Trump's election and the end of the 'era of the Palestinian state.' But the president-elect has also indicated he might want to cut a deal 'for humanity's sake.'

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    People walk past signs bearing the name of US President-elect Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Nov. 14, 2016.
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As soon as Donald Trump was declared the winner in the US presidential election, Naftali Bennett – Israel’s education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party – took to Twitter.

“Trump’s victory is a great opportunity for Israel to announce posthaste that it is retreating from the idea of the Palestinian state,” he wrote. “Clear and simple, the era of the Palestinian state is over.”

The next day Mr. Trump’s adviser on Israeli matters, lawyer Jason Greenblatt, gave an interview to Israeli Army Radio that seemed to warrant Mr. Bennett’s optimism.

“Mr. Trump does not view the settlements as an obstacle for peace,” he said, and added that the president-elect does not intend to dictate the terms of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Every Israeli should be happy today,” said Likud minister Ofir Akunis, responding to Mr. Greenblatt’s remarks. Likud Knesset member Ayoub Kara wrote on his Facebook page, in a not-so-subtle jab at President Obama’s foreign policy: “Finally, there’s a new leader to the free world, and not to the world of the naïve.”

In short, for the Israeli right, the prospect of a Trump presidency has brought on nothing short of euphoria.

“The right is convinced that anything is possible now,” says Shlomi Eldar, columnist for Al Monitor Israeli Pulse. “The two-state solution can be erased, there will be no problem building in the settlements – the Messiah has come.

“Their congratulations of Trump go beyond a symbolic gesture toward an elected president,” he says. “There’s a feeling that, ‘Here, we made it, and the sky’s the limit.’ ”

Trump's 'ultimate deal'

However, Trump being Trump, there is still uncertainty over what he might do. After his win he said to The Wall Street Journal that he’d like to craft “the ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, “for humanity’s sake.”

“I find it hard to believe that Trump’s ‘ultimate deal’ will not include the two state solution,” says Knesset member Merav Michaeli, of the liberal Labor party. “Of course, no one knows what Trump’s agenda will be: As long as we’re dealing with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian leader] Mahmoud Abbas, it’s hard to foresee any negotiations moving ahead, with or without Trump. But the truth is that we just don’t know.”

The Israeli right’s reaction, Ms. Michaeli says, “borders on wishful thinking and exposes the childish irresponsibility at the heart of the right’s agenda, with no consideration for Israel’s best interests. If you declare that we’re done with the two-state solution, you need to offer an alternative. We’re asking for the millionth time: What better solution do you have?”

Omer Bar-Lev, another Labor MK, also thinks the joy was premature. “For the US, it’s better if the Middle East stays quiet – if we and the Palestinians reach some kind of understanding,” he says. “I don’t think Trump will want to see the region exploding. And a business-like end to the conflict is the worst nightmare for extremists on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side: a rational negotiation that benefits everyone.”

However, Mr. Bar-Lev also warns against the Israeli left’s tendency to “wish that the US will save us from ourselves, force us to sit down with the Palestinians and end this. It is unrealistic. The Americans believe in Israel’s right to determine its own future.”

Balancing act

Tellingly, Mr. Netanyahu himself has tried to put a damper on the Israeli right’s enthusiasm.

Netanyahu – who was accused of meddling in American politics after his outspoken support for Mitt Romney in 2012 and his address to Congress three years later – was very careful this time not to appear partisan.

After the election he admonished his ministers to let the two governments communicate “in the usual discreet channels and not through interviews and declarations.” His minister of defense, hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, said, “I hope we will have enough sense to stop with the public rejoicing, which is definitely harmful,” and hinted that guidelines for building in the occupied West Bank will not change significantly.

The passing week has meanwhile illustrated a way that Netanyahu is stuck between the State Department and his far-right coalition. The Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill, sponsored by members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, which retroactively legalizes settlements built on private Palestinian land. The bill was specifically designed to prevent the demolition of a small, illegal West Bank outpost – an evacuation ordered by Israel’s Supreme Court.

A State Department spokesperson condemned the bill, saying it represented an “unprecedented and troubling step that is inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion.” According to the Israeli press, Netanyahu himself opposed the bill and called to uphold the court’s ruling – but when attacked by his own ministers, caved in and supported it.

What does Netanyahu want?

So what if, with Trump, the Israeli right gets exactly the non-interventionist president it wants? According to Nathan Sachs, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, that might put Netanyahu in a new bind.

“So far, Netanyahu has played a two-level game: blaming Obama for the halt in settlement construction when talking to settlers, and blaming the settlers for the defunct [peace] negotiations when talking to the Americans,” Mr. Sachs says.

“I’m not sure that Netanyahu himself is interested in unfettered settlement expansion, and without international pressure to blame he will have to provide some answers to the question – what does he really want? What is his solution to the conflict? Right now, it doesn’t seem like he can provide those positive, long-term answers.”

Although Netanyahu supported the two-state solution in 2009 – under US pressure – he has not done much to pursue it since, and the Obama administration has long given up on trying to revive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, as Israelis continue to establish “facts on the ground” in the West Bank.

While it is too early to know what a President Trump will do and whether Mr. Bennett’s joy is premature, it is hard to imagine Trump will be the one to invest the energy to bring the two-state solution back to life.

Animosity toward Obama

In other ways, the Israeli right’s elation was supported by several of Trump’s declarations during the campaign, including a speech at AIPAC in March during which he promised to dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran and veto any resolution by the UN Security Council in support of a Palestinian state.

“There’s a sense that Trump himself and those around him are committed to Israel not only on par with US interests, but are also great lovers and supporters of Israel,” says Likud Knesset member Yehuda Glick, mentioning Vice President-elect Mike Pence, whose evangelist base has long been an ardent supporter of the Israeli right.

The ardor for Trump is fed In part by the Israeli right’s animosity toward Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of State. During Obama’s term US foreign aid to Israel reached a new high – up to $3.8 billion a year – but Obama and Secretary Clinton often protested building in the settlements and the president’s relations with Netanyahu were strained, culminating in a public disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal.

As the Likud’s Mr. Glick admits, the Israeli right’s main demand from an American president is: Let us be, and don’t force us to do anything we don’t want. Trump, who has demonstrated isolationist tendencies, may very well grant them their wish.

“Trump seems to have a transactional attitude toward foreign affairs – very different from Obama, who saw America as having a role in a global order, guided by values of democracy and justice,” says Sachs. “Trump isn’t so sure that the US should be a global cop, and therefore might not be so interested in the rights of Palestinians.”

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