Analysis

What Happens if Trump and Netanyahu Push the Palestinians to the Wall

Trump needs to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game. On Iran, Trump is dependent on the good will of Russia - Tehran's strategic partner.

Netanyahu and Trump embrace at the beginning of their White House meeting, Feb. 15, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

* The Palestinians. On the face of it, it appears that the rejoicing in the Israeli right wing after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting on Wednesday was totally justified. At the joint press conference the American president demonstrated the same mixture of enthusiastic support for Israel and scant familiarity with the Middle East conflicts that had characterized his campaign speeches.

One could also argue that Trump didn’t deviate sharply from the Obama administration policy, which also sought peace and objected to the construction in the settlements. But the tone is also important. At this stage Trump doesn’t intend to make Netanyahu’s life difficult. He sees Israel as the good side in the dispute with the Palestinians, and the settlement issue doesn’t seem to bother him much, if at all.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a zero-sum game in which all Israel has to do is to obtain the United States’ sympathy in order to deny it from the Palestinians. If Trump is serious in his ambition to make peace (which is doubtful), he will find that expanding the settlements isn’t the way to do it. More importantly, if the Palestinians think they’re being pushed to the wall as part of a conspiracy between the U.S. and Israel, they could reignite the violence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which was stymied with great effort only some six months ago.

The Palestinians might also move to disrupt the peace out of despair. This is what they did in 2000, after the Camp David summit failed, when they started the second intifada. A similar atmosphere of hopelessness, coupled with Mahmoud Abbas’ announcement that he was done with Israel at the UN Assembly in October 2015, triggered the outbreak of the last wave of violence a year and a half ago.

In such circumstances, especially if it affects his administration’s image, Trump’s support for Israel may weaken. Although the Palestinians’ plight is just about the last thing that interests the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, a new conflagration in the occupied territories would agitate public opinion in these states and threaten the good, mostly covert, relations they have built over the past years with Netanyahu.

* Flynn. The prime minister’s visit to Washington, which occupied the Israeli media’s main headlines, was nonetheless clouded by the host of entanglements burdening the new administration from the moment Trump was sworn in on January 20. The turmoil peaked, probably temporarily, with the resignation of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser. The White House parted with the retired general without sentiment, as though it were getting rid of surplus weight.

Senior Israeli officials who knew Flynn from his previous positions, such as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted that his problematic character wouldn’t enable him to remain in the adviser’s seat. But the speed with which Flynn was removed surprised even them. They had given him about a year, not three-and-a-half weeks.

It is doubtful whether Flynn was shown the way out only because he had deceived Vice President Mike Pence, or violated an act of Congress by talking to Russia’s ambassador in Washington before the new administration was sworn in. There seems to be something deeper here, which the American media hovered around in the last months of the presidential campaign without reaching sufficiently convincing findings. It’s to do with the extended, partly covert ties, which Trump, his family members and some of his confidants maintain with the Russian leadership and Russian businessmen.

If the deliberate leaks from the American intelligence community about this issue continue to amass against the president, his administration – which is already being run like an ongoing train wreck – will face more embarrassments. What did President Trump know of the ties, who else close to him was in touch with the Russians between the elections and the swearing-in ceremony and what was discussed in those talks? All these questions could potentially cause the administration serious damage.

* Iran. For the time being, the arrangement with Trump on the Palestinian issue leaves Netanyahu deep in his comfort zone. The American president expressed emotional support for Israel and isn’t eager to advance the two-state solution. On the other hand, Trump’s feeble reservation about the construction in the settlements was enough for Netanyahu to use to curb Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett’s demand for unilateral moves in the West Bank. But Netanyahu needs more than that, and more than Trump’s love declarations, to show a strategic achievement when he returns home.

Here the Iranian threat enters the picture. This was Netanyahu’s favorite threat until the year’s respite he took after his efforts to torpedo the Vienna agreement failed. In the past three months, since Trump’s election and the president’s sharp utterances against the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu has resorted to airing it in public again.

But none of Trump’s tough rhetoric, in this area as well, has been implemented from the moment the president was required to do something about it. Now neither Trump nor Netanyahu, despite their past announcements, appear to want to revoke the agreement. The option on the table pertains to declaring new sanctions on Iran through Congress, as punishment for continuing the ballistic missile experiments and for provoking Trump.

On the eve of his trip Netanyahu spoke several times about the need for a complementary move – blocking Tehran’s influence in Syria and preventing the Iranians from profiting from any power-sharing arrangement that would keep their partner, the tyrant Bashar Assad, in power. This is a worthy demand, both strategically and morally, but the chances of its implementation appear minimal.

In Syria, Iran and Russia are strategic partners and belong to the side that believes it is winning the war. Iran has no reason to give up its strategic gains in Syria, in view of its investment in blood and money (mostly in Shi’ite combatants from other states) in the survival of Assad’s regime.

Removing the Iranians from Syria, as Netanyahu wishes, depends on Russia’s good will. But at the moment the Russians don’t appear to have any interest in getting the Iranians out of Syria, especially in view of the large weapons deals and economic contracts in the offing between Moscow and Tehran.

As for Trump, the reports about the Flynn affair indicate that Moscow is more likely to influence Washington than the other way around. It is doubtful whether in these circumstances the American president can or is at all interested in persuading the Russians to give up their alliance with the Iranians in Syria.