Ambush Alert

Netanyahu Fears Trump's Cooking Something Big

The U.S. president's envoy, Jason Greenblatt, is suddenly getting chummy with peacenik Tzipi Livni, Bibi's archrival

Illustration: The Israeli right fears Donald Trump will spring peace on Netanyahu as his Mideast envoy gets chummy with Tzipi Livni.
Illustration: The Israeli right fears Donald Trump will spring peace on Netanyahu as his Mideast envoy gets chummy with Tzipi Livni. Amos Biderman

The anxiety seeping into the Israeli right wing ahead of Donald Trump’s visit is comparable only to the euphoria that gripped it when the ostensible master deal maker was elected U.S. president. What Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and his political cohorts saw as the realization of a dream of generations turned into a potential nightmare.

A bevy of politicians from the right and left were in the United States this week, some in Washington, others in New York, for the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. They schmoozed with legislators and administration officials, and their impressions were similar − something big is about to happen in our region. Grampa Donald is cooking up something, but nobody knows what’s in the pot.

The prime minister’s aides were also lost in the fog this week. Benjamin Netanyahu is nervous, ministers say. He’s afraid Trump is laying an ambush for him, whose dimensions and impact will only be apparent when he’s here wandering between Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Masada. Netanyahu has no idea what the president is bringing. Last week he held three discussions on making significant economic gestures to the Palestinians, with which Netanyahu hopes to show Trump that his intentions are serious. It's doubtful whether Trump, not to mention our partners, will suffice with that.

Netanyahu is also freaked out by the critical role played by his sometime friend, who like many others has turned into a foe, Ronald Lauder. The New York billionaire, who was thrown under the bus by Bibi and Sara after he didn’t prevent the airing of the “Bibi Tours” exposé on Channel 10, which he owns, is today a major player in the Middle East. He briefed Mahmoud Abbas before the Palestinian leader's successful meeting with the president, which made the prime minister and his aides lose their temper. He told people this week that the Palestinians were willing to compromise and concede, and that Netanyahu was the target. And he's pleased that the U.S. president listens to him and not an old Jew from Las Vegas, whose fortune is much larger but his influence in the White House is negligible.

A senior right-wing official blames the prime minister for the change of atmosphere in Washington. Netanyahu’s inaction, underperformance and overdependence on our ambassador, Ron Dermer, who apparently isn’t delivering the goods even when he’s seemingly at home in the White House, are the reasons Trump changed his spots.

While Netanyahu was busy with the new broadcasting corporation and premeditated street brawls in his governing coalition, the Palestinians were studying the U.S. administration. “With a charm offensive they persuaded Trump that they’re interested in peace and are willing to pay the price for it, and that the main burden must fall on Israel,” the official said. This is the wind blowing in the administration's corridors, he said. This is the understanding with which Trump will visit the region on the 22nd of the month.

The official, who often speaks to the president’s envoy to the Middle East, attorney Jason Greenblatt, said this week he was surprised to hear the rightist, Orthodox Jew, Har Etzion yeshiva graduate's repeated references to former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s ideas on the peace process.

“Several times during my conversation with Greenblatt he said ‘Livni says,’ ‘Tzipi believes,’ ‘in Tzipi’s opinion.’ It’s like she’s become a quasi-mentor. It appears he appreciates her a lot and is very attentive to her views,” the official said with a note of dread in his voice.

This relationship isn’t helping reduce the worry level in the Prime Minister’s Office. At the end of March, before the AIPAC conference in Washington, when Greenblatt tweeted he was hosting Livni at home for a Sabbath meal, Netanyahu and his people took it hard.

An Israeli official said Livni was not only briefing Greenblatt about her long talks with the Palestinians, but also refuting Netanyahu’s argument about being unable to reach an agreement because of his government’s makeup. Livni told Greenblatt that the prime minister was assured of the opposition’s votes in the Knesset. As she recently said, if Netanyahu says he can’t, it should be clear to everyone that he won’t.

I called Washington to ask Livni is this was so. She didn’t want to expand on what seemed like the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Greenblatt. She stressed that her meetings with him, including one this week, aren't held underground but with the Israeli Embassy’s knowledge.

“We have a huge opportunity,” she said. “The president is talking about his determination to close a deal; that is, to end the conflict. We have a president who thinks big and addresses the hard core. He’s not beating around the bush. I certainly think something dramatic could happen.”

Livni isn't some delusional peacenik. Her feet are planted firmly on the ground. She’s a sober realist, familiar with the facts and with the players. I told her I didn’t remember such a burst of optimism from her since the culmination of her talks with the Palestinians in 2013-14 as Netanyahu’s envoy. Come to think of it, she didn’t sound like this even then.

“It’s true,” she said. “This time it looks different. The Palestinians’ demands have been reduced. They’re ready to make concessions. President Trump can now succeed with them as well as with the Israelis.”

Livni said Trump is the only one who can do it with Netanyahu. “Nobody will be able to say that he doesn’t like Israel, or that Israel’s security isn’t important to him, or that he has something against Bibi. Israel is important to him, he's thinking of its security, his relations with Netanyahu are known.”

As she put it about the childish, capricious president, "Trump is a serious person. He means what he says. The Arab world is also ripe. There’s an opportunity for an amazing regional initiative. It all depends on the president, Netanyahu and Abbas. To the same extent it might also not happen.”

This veteran politician, who is identified with the talks with the Palestinians during Ehud Olmert’s government and is an archrival of Netanyahu’s, has suddenly, unexpectedly, become connected. Netanyahu will regret not nominating her for the post she still aspires to, an undersecretary at the United Nations. Instead of wandering around Africa and dealing with humanitarian issues, she has all the time in the world to whisper in the American envoy’s ear.