Opinion |

Israel, Beware the Wrath of Trump

Israel's right-wingers and religious nationalists are hurrying to change West Bank facts on the ground because they're betting Trump is distracted by coronavirus now and loses in the fall. They're playing with fire

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, April 6, 2020, in Washington
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, April 6, 2020, in WashingtonCredit: Alex Brandon,AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters have made it clear what their priority is for the new government whose terms are still yet to be finalized. 

The right-wing/religious bloc has given way on a number of issues in the negotiations with Benny Gantz and the rump of the Blue and White Party he brought with him to the new coalition. But the one point on which they will not yield is annexation of part of the West Bank. And now they’ve pushed Gantz to buy into to it too.

Though annexation has always been a long-term goal of the Israeli right, the current sense of urgency they are demonstrating is a function not so much of Israeli politics but of the American election cycle.

No one, not even its authors, think the plan for the Middle East put forward earlier this year by the Trump administration will bring peace to the region. But unlike past U.S. peace plans, the Trump proposal envisioned Israel keeping 30 percent of the territory of the West Bank.

The right fears a golden chance to gain U.S. recognition of sovereignty over West Bank settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley, will be lost forever, if Trump is not re-elected this fall before Israel can act to take advantage of that provision. They know that a victory by former vice president Joe Biden, the likely Democratic Party nominee, will mean a return to the policies of President Barack Obama that will make annexation difficult if not impossible.

Election campaign billboard for the Kachol Lavan party led by Benny Gantz in Ramat Gan, Israel, Feb. 20, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

But the one thing that doesn’t seem to have occurred to right-wingers who are demanding annexation in exchange for the patronage given to Gantz and his cronies is whether Trump’s administration will actually favor unilateral Israeli implementation of that aspect of the scheme crafted by presidential advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner

What many on the right seem to have missed, in their frenzy to annex before next January, is that there have been clear signals from the Trump administration that they were not interested in Netanyahu jumping the gun on the issue.

It’s true that, as sources within the Likud camp insist, the two governments have fully consulted on the issue and that maps detailing where the new lines are to be drawn may already have been drawn up. Americans involved in the negotiations including Kushner, former peace process coordinator Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman all largely share the attitudes toward the conflict held by Netanyahu and his supporters. 

However, some in Netanyahu’s bloc may have misinterpreted the administration’s signals about annexation in the weeks following the announcement of the plan in January. At the time, the right was forced to accept Washington’s excuse that it was pumping the brakes on annexation until an Israeli government was formed. Now that a government is in place, they see no reason to continue putting their dreams on hold.

Netanyahu listens to Bennett at a meeting of his right-wing bloc at the Knesset, March 4, 2020Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Though many in the administration are largely sympathetic to the Israeli right, they still viewed their plan as part of an "outside-in" strategy that involved Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states influencing the Palestinians to accept a state alongside Israel. That the terms offered were far less generous than previous schemes that the Palestinians had already rejected as insufficient rendered the proposal a theoretical exercise. 

But as much as America’s Arab allies have lost interest in the Palestinian cause, they are still reluctant to be associated with support for Israeli claims to the West Bank.

Trump has proven he is not to be deterred from pro-Israel moves on Jerusalem or the Golan Heights by fears of Arab protests that were largely exaggerated. Yet swift implementation of only the parts of the plan that were to Israel’s liking while no progress is made toward the elements the Israeli right disliked, such as the creation of an independent, though truncated Palestinian state, may not be what he envisioned.

But even if Trump were willing to accede to some Israeli annexation, there is no reason to believe he would favor it under the present circumstances. 

Though he may have been slow to recognize the deadly nature of the coronavirus threat, the pandemic now has the administration’s full attention. The best sign of that is that Kushner is now leading the White House efforts to deal with the crisis in tandem with the task force led by Vice President Mike Pence. 

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner looks on as President Trump leads the daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House. April 2, 2020Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS

In a different time, the White House might have been willing to devote the time and energy to running interference for Israel in international forums or in smoothing ruffled feathers in Arab capitals. But neither Trump nor Kushner, nor any other senior administration figure will wish to deal with the blowback annexation would cause in the middle of an unprecedented international public health catastrophe.

The message the Israelis are likely to get from Washington if they choose to move toward annexation in the coming weeks and months is: Slow down. Trump isn’t going to be happy about anything that would make it appear as if Israel is using his preoccupation with the virus to satisfy the demands of the prime minister’s political allies.

What the Israeli right also seems to forget is that the more they talk about the urgency of annexing before U.S. presidential inauguration day, the less Trump will like it. 

Some in both countries take it as a given that Trump’s unpopularity and pandemic performance dooms him to defeat.  Yet his polling has actually gone up during the crisis. Even if that bump subsides, the electorate remains deeply divided along the same lines that produced Trump’s 2016 Electoral College victory. A victory over what appears to be a lackluster opponent in Biden is far from certain - but still quite possible. 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the coronavirus at the White House on April 3, 2020Credit: AFP

Trump not unreasonably believes Netanyahu and the Israeli right are beholden to him for a number of reasons, including his rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. Any noises from Jerusalem that seek to justify annexation on the grounds that he is a lame duck are bound to infuriate the president.

While it is possible that Trump would not strongly object to annexation during the heat of the campaign this fall when he would be loathe to alienate pro-Israel evangelical voters, Netanyahu would be wise not to do anything that smacks of anticipation of a Trump loss or an unwelcome distraction.

All that adds up to a likelihood that any move toward annexation until the pandemic subsides will generate the kind of negative response from the president that Israel has never experienced under Trump and which could potentially sour relations during second term, should he get one. 

While the sort of pushback routine under Obama is not in the cards, any act that the thin-skinned Trump perceives as ingratitude or double-dealing on the part of Netanyahu will have consequences that could damage the right’s long-term goals as well as a vital relationship that no one in Israel should take for granted.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin