Analysis

Trump Handed Netanyahu a Victory in the Battle to Crush Palestinian Nationalism

U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem was a gift for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his real fight - the one against Palestinian nationalism

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Thursday, December 7, 2017.
Sebastien Scheiner/AP

Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics like to say he has no strategy and no policy other than his political survival. But they’re wrong. The prime minister has a clear goal that he has pursued for many years now: dismantling the Palestinian national movement.

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Netanyahu sees this movement as an uncompromising enemy of Zionism, and he sees the relationship between the two national movements as a zero-sum game. When one gains, the other loses.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu racked up an important victory in his battle against the Palestinians, with President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and will begin preparations for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city.

Trump didn’t give the Palestinians anything in return, and even weakened America’s commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. His speech sounded as if it could have been written by Netanyahu and his ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, and it presumably was closely coordinated with them.

Netanyahu is a man of ideas and symbols far more than decisions and actions. In his view, it’s much more important to have Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital than to build thousands of additional homes in the settlements.

He has dominated Israel’s agenda for years now through catchy slogans that then become the basis of the media debate (“leftists have forgotten what it means to be Jews,” “the rock of our existence,” “they are AFRAID,” “the fat man and the thin man,” “life itself,” “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves,” “there will be nothing because there is nothing”). Even his ostensible rivals who want to replace him parrot his positions unquestioningly and march down the ideological trail he has laid.

Trump, a master marketer and sloganeer, fits Netanyahu like a glove. Like Netanyahu, he is productive and creative when attacked by the media or the public.

This time, Trump extricated his Israeli friend from great trouble. The clumsy battle to rein in the police (via a bill barring them from publishing their recommendations on whether to indict) made Netanyahu plummet in the polls, and the criminal suspicions against his political operator, David Bitan, for the first time sparked hints of rebellion against the prime minister in his Likud party, though at this stage, only off the record.

But then along came the headlines about the historic day and Trump’s speech, and the corruption suspect returned to his role as a statesman and strategist who waxes lyrical about Jewish history, the Bible and the Holocaust.

Netanyahu does have an excellent understanding of the international power game. He sees America reducing its involvement in the Middle East and refocusing its diplomatic and military efforts on Asia, just like in the 1950s and '60s.

This process can be explained by a glance at the chart of falling oil prices, and also by the last decade’s failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which brought the region not stability and quiet but bloody chaos. American public opinion has had enough, and the last two presidents – Barack Obama and Trump – have gradually folded the American flag in the region.

The Americans handed Syria over to Russian and Iranian control, at the expense of two long-standing American allies, Turkey and Israel. Both countries had benefited in recent years from the collapse of the Syrian army and the weakening of the Assad regime, but must now cope with Vladimir Putin’s air force and Iran’s Shi’ite militias.

Israel received double compensation: presidential recognition of Jerusalem as its capital and the promise that the West Bank will remain under Israeli control for the foreseeable future, as long as Israel shuns blatant steps like annexing territory or harming Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. Turkey didn’t get anything, which explains its furious reaction to Trump’s speech.

Netanyahu knows that Israel’s existence and security depend on U.S. support, so he fears an American withdrawal. But he also knows that Israel can’t stop this process or even delay it, so instead he’s trying to mine it for opportunities to improve Israel’s position in its uncompromising conflict with the dying Palestinian national movement. Trump’s speech on Wednesday was just such an opportunity.