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How Netanyahu may benefit from Trump's shift to traditional US stance on Mideast

models of thought

The Israeli prime minister meets President Trump in Washington Wednesday. The Trump administration had early indicated it might relax US constraints on Israel, but has since changed its tone.

In this file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to then-Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, Sept. 25, 2016.
Handout/Reuters/File | Caption
  • Joel Greenberg
    Correspondent

As he prepares to meet President Trump Wednesday to reset US-​Israeli relations after years of rancor with the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is treading a cautious path.

Pressed by the right flank of his government to drop his declared commitment to the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and even annex parts of the territory, the prime minister has warned that not all restraints imposed during the Obama years can be thrown off.

Strengthening the alliance with the United States "requires a responsible and considered policy," Mr. Netanyahu said before leaving Israel for Washington. "I have navigated Israeli-US relations in a prudent manner and I will continue to do so now."

The note of caution coincided with a recalibration of statements from the Trump administration on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing them more in line with traditional American positions after earlier indications from the Trump campaign that there would be a relaxing of US constraints on Israel.

Departing from campaign statements that he would move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that Israeli settlements did not constitute an obstacle to peace, Mr. Trump told an Israeli newspaper, Israel Hayom, last week that he did not believe further settlement construction was "a good thing for peace,” and that "every time you take land for settlements there is less land left" for a Palestinian state in a future peace deal. He urged Israel to "be reasonable with respect to peace."

An earlier White House statement said that while settlements were not an impediment to peace, building new settlements or expansion of existing settlements "may not be helpful in achieving that goal."

Analysts say the revised signals from the Trump administration are not necessarily unwelcome to Mr. Netanyahu, who is reluctant to embark on policies that could cause a strong international backlash or test relations with a new president who has expressed his desire to broker the "ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians.

In comments leaked to Israeli media from a cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu told ministers that every effort should be made to avoid confrontation with Trump over the Palestinian issue, and that he planned to affirm his commitment to the two-state solution.

"Netanyahu is basically someone who is extremely risk-averse and wants to preserve stability at all costs," says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "For Trump to hold the traditional American view that Israel ought to exhibit restraint is useful to him."

Such positions could help Netanyau push back against rightist rivals like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, who warned before Netanyahu's departure that the words "Palestinian state" should not be uttered at the Washington meeting, and that if they were, "the earth will shake."

Preserving the status quo

To appease his right flank, Netanyahu has recently announced approval of the construction of some 6,000 homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and even said he would build a new settlement to compensate dozens of families evicted from an unauthorized settlement outpost, Amona, earlier this month.

But despite those moves, Netanyahu prefers a policy of "not rocking the boat and basically preserving the status quo," Mr. Thrall says, "neither pursuing the policies urged by the right or a making a grand deal for a two-state solution."

Netanyahu has so far resisted calls from rightist ministers to annex Ma'aleh Adumim, a large West Bank settlement near Jerusalem, as a first step to annexation of other swaths of territory where large settlements are located.

Trump's campaign promise of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem has also drawn a tepid response from Netanyahu. After avoiding public comment on the subject for months, Netanyahu said recently that the embassy ought to be in Jerusalem, but he did not urge Trump to promptly follow through on his pledge.

Israeli security officials have warned that violent Palestinian unrest could be triggered by an embassy move, and Arab leaders have also expressed concern, prompting Trump to delay action on the issue.

Netanyahu's worry about increased violence on his watch is compounded by his vulnerability in public opinion following a deepening Israeli police probe into his suspected receipt of illicit gifts from wealthy benefactors.

Reviving a Bush commitment

Analysts said Netanyahu could try to reach a middle-of-the-road understanding with Trump that would sanction building inside large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank while halting construction outside them.

"If there will be an understanding in principle that building can go on in areas that are more or less accepted as a future part of Israel, but no wild settlement spree that could foreclose any possibility for a solution – for Netanyahu that would be a pretty good result," says Yehuda Ben Meir, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Dennis Ross, a former US peace mediator, says one formula could be the resurrection of a 2004 commitment given by former president George W. Bush to the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon that any future border would take into account the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

An agreement on building only inside those blocs would "help the prime minister with the pressure that he is under from Jewish Home and from some of the right-wing ministers in his own party," Ross says.