Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flies on Monday to Washington for a summit at the White House with the new United States president, Donald Trump, from a doubly weakened position: He has lost his main source of leverage in Washington, and his coalition in Jerusalem is cracking.
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More than ever before during his term in power, Netanyahu is dependent on the goodwill of his host. Trump could give him his backing and assure him of quiet on the political front – or whip up a squall that shatters the calm and truncates his time on the throne.
That is why Netanyahu explained to his cabinet members on Sunday that there will be no fights with Trump. The prime minister’s demonstrations of aggression and arrogance for the benefit of the previous president, Barack Obama, have been shelved; his bag of tricks, shticks and leaks has been locked away.
From now on, Netanyahu will be gauged on the basis of his good behavior and flattery vis-à-vis the president. He will have to practice this new relationship, in which America is the omnipotent superpower and Israel is a tiny, fragile satellite state. Meanwhile, he passed the surprise quiz, keeping his mouth shut when the White House ignored the particular suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust.
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The crushing Republican victory in the elections for the presidency and the two houses of Congress cost Netanyahu the tool that served him in the last six years – namely, the conflict between Capitol Hill and the White House – which may have paralyzed the U.S., but gave the prime minister a right-wing shield against its left-wing president.
The Republican victory in the House in 2010 portended the end of the Obama administration’s pressures on Israel to freeze settlements and to make other concessions to the Palestinians. As long as Israel avoided provocations like annexation, or construction in especially sensitive areas of the territories – the Americans left Netanyahu alone, settling for feeble condemnation of the settlements and empty words about the diplomatic process. With the strong backing of Congressional leaders, Netanyahu allowed himself to spar publicly with the president and also to deliver his speech against the nuclear agreement with Iran, without paying a political price, at home or abroad.
That period of grace is over. It's true that Trump trampled the Republican establishment on his way to the presidency, but the party has lined up behind him. That’s how it is with winners. If Trump fights with Netanyahu, Congressional leaders will support him – not the Israeli premier. They will not be inviting Netanyahu to deliver an address in the Capitol against the president’s policies.
Even if there is a revolution in the Senate and the Democrats win a majority, it is hard to imagine that they would use the leader of the Israeli right as a pawn against the president, as the Republicans did when they were in the opposition during Obama's tenure. Netanyahu understands this, and is treading carefully. To make sure, his supporter and patron Sheldon Adelson went to the White House ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s visit. Trump must be thinking already about his reelection campaign in 2020: Adelson’s money could be useful, as it was in the first round. For now, however, it is difficult to detect the tycoon’s influence in the messages emanating from the White House.
Nor is Netanyahu’s situation at home a thing of wonder. The investigations against him are nowhere near reaching the stage of indictment, if that is ever to happen, but they have tarnished his image. Most Likud ministers are on the fence, keeping a safe distance from their leader and not offering him any backing – apparently based on the anticipation and hope that he will move on already and open the ranks to contesting the leadership.
Naftali Bennett is perceived as the ideological leader of the government, seeking any way possible to needle and embarrass Netanyahu. One time it might be by means of the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge; another time by making some humiliating comment about the prime minister’s cigars; or perhaps by enacting the land-expropriation law in the Knesset despite the premier’s initial opposition to it.
Bennett is also in a trap, though: He can threaten to bring down the government till the cows come home, but he can’t actually topple it just because of honor and power games with Netanyahu. Right-wing voters would never forgive him if he jumped the coalition without a good ideological reason.
Netanyahu loathes Bennett, but to survive, he acts within the boundaries of the arena set by his partner-rival: The premier announces that thousands of housing units will be built in the territories, though they probably won’t be; he has lent support to the land-grab law, hoping and assuming it will be killed by the High Court of Justice; he feebly announces that he is sticking to the two-state solution, albeit with tough restrictions (a “state-minus” for the Palestinians, an idea that was resurrected ahead of the summit with Trump).
Above all, Netanyahu clarified to the cabinet ministers Sunday that he is the one who ultimately decides on diplomacy and security, and on managing Israel’s relations with the United States. At that firmness, Bennett blinked and settled for meaningless comments for the record about “an opportunity to shake off the two-state solution”.
For the nonce, Trump is siding with Netanyahu. The president's statements and deeds since his election – and the fact that he has shelved campaign promises to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – serve the conservative line taken by the prime minister, who prefers the status quo in the territories and in the region as a whole to radical changes.
Netanyahu doesn’t really want the Americans to move their embassy to Jerusalem, if only because that could trigger another intifada. The compensation the Americans would give the Arabs after making a dramatic move like that – freezing settlement activity, upgrading Palestine’s diplomatic status, a peace conference convened on the basis of the Arab Initiative – could destroy Netanyahu’s coalition. By the same token, the prime minister has no interest in building more housing in the territories, or imposing Israeli law over parts of the West Bank, because the credit for the construction and the annexation would go to Bennett, not himself.
That is why it seems that Trump’s and Netanyahu’s messages ahead of their meeting have been coordinated. Trump is supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace “and maybe beyond that” without getting into details, aside from deciding to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as special envoy; Netanyahu supports a Palestinian state, based on conditions that the Palestinians have refused to accept so far; Washington will oppose expanding the settlements and will protect Netanyahu from Bennett’s pressures; the discussion about moving the embassy will be intense and thorough, but won’t end any time soon; Israel will eschew provocations and the White House will forgo condemnations.
If necessary, each side will field its “bad cop” to signal a dispute – Netanyahu has Bennett, and Trump has his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Netanyahu will be tiptoeing in Washington this week, and unless he steps on an unexpected mine, he should weather the visit successfully. But like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said, the visit is just a matter of sending out feelers. The real discourse between the prime minister and president will begin when America finalizes its plans for a new order in the Middle East, perhaps in collaboration with the Russians. Then the prime minister’s diplomatic abilities and acrobatics will face their real test.