Back at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency, I asked an Israeli in Washington at the time which democracy he thought was in greater danger – Israel or the United States. "Look around you," he replied, pointing to the imposing public buildings of the American capital. “The system of the regime here is stronger than any one individual. He will pass and it will endure.”
In the summer of 2020 the answers look increasingly less clear and reassuring on both sides of the ocean. The violence being wielded by American police forces against demonstrators and journalists is worrisome and acting as a deterrent. Under cover of the coronavirus, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close friend of his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, has taken measures to eradicate the remnants of democracy.
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In Israel, the prime minister’s residence is orchestrating choruses of incitement, journalists are being tarred as enemies of the people, and an effort is underway to collect embarrassing information on public figures to influence their decisions. Democracy, in Washington as in Jerusalem, seems to be treading on thin ice that could easily crack under the extraordinary circumstances.
Netanyahu, Trump’s good buddy, has put all Israel’s eggs in America in one basket. And to use another metaphor, it looks like he’s raising the stakes. People who have spoken with close Netanyahu associates in recent years have heard erudite explanations on the solid alliance with the president and his supporters, the evangelical Christians.
Netanyahu clashed head-on with Barack Obama over the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and hasn’t hidden his solidarity with Trump ever since. Joe Biden’s warning against a unilateral annexation by Israel in the West Bank signaled what relations with the White House will look like if the Democrats win in November.
But even before that, the domestic threat to Trump, and his weakness abroad, could have implications for Israel. If more polls during the summer show Biden leading Trump, the president might opt for brinkmanship
U.S. elections aren’t decided by foreign policy, but Trump is capable of escalating the confrontation with Iran or giving a green light for annexation based on his own capricious considerations. This could stem from a lack of attentiveness, or from a scorched earth policy, with the aim of inflaming certain fronts in the hope that something good will result from recasting the media’s agenda.
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In the meantime, different signals have been emanating from Washington in recent days. They suggest that the July 1 annexation announcement might be delayed because the White House is preoccupied with the domestic crisis.
Still, Netanyahu mentions the annexation plan in almost every public appearance. He’ll find it hard to retract it completely amid the expectations he has stirred on the right; the settler leaders will want even more sweeping achievements.
So far, the planned annexation hasn’t generated much attention among Israelis, who are more worried about the coronavirus and keeping their jobs. The two leaders of Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, are taking a passive approach.
Nor, for the time being, are defense officials making noises, despite their known reservations about the move. Annexation, they believe, could inflame the West Bank, complicate relations with the Gulf states and imperil the peace treaty with Jordan.
On Wednesday, the heads of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, Aviv Kochavi and Nadav Argaman, held a joint meeting with their staffs in preparation for a possible escalation in the West Bank. For now, despite the Palestinian Authority’s announcement of a cessation of security coordination, ties with the PA’s security forces are little changed.
The army is also preparing for a flare-up that would require the deployment of large forces in the West Bank, including reserves, whose training has been halted during the coronavirus crisis. Five months ago, the IDF marked 2020 as a year when the focus would be on confronting Iran and Hezbollah’s weapons upgrades. In the meantime, the IDF has been employed in the battle against the pandemic, faces a budget slash because of the economic crisis, and is preparing for possible months of friction in the West Bank.