Analysis |

Netanyahu Banks on Trump, but History Is Not on His Side

Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners bad-mouth President Obama and John Kerry by trying to portray their policies as deviations from the Washington mainstream. But the opposite is true.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower, September 25, 2016.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower, September 25, 2016.Credit: GPO
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

In one of his many tweets this past week, President-elect Donald Trump mocked Hillary Clinton, who had been defeated but didn’t know how to lose, he wrote. In another tweet, he declared that Israel had been defeated in the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The only conclusion (which Trump doesn’t draw) is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no less than Clinton, is a bad and sour loser.

Ever since his loss at the United Nations, Netanyahu has taken refuge in the Western Wall. He found it to be an emotional brand, turning on the right and turning off the left. The Kotel came to him, becoming another wall in the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. All that is missing is a photograph of Netanyahu, helmet in hand and with wife Sara and son Yair on either side, liberating the wall during the Six-Day War in 1967

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In Trump’s world – a world of winners and losers – life is simple. But in Netanyahu’s world, which is mired in internal problems that could cause him to call early an Knesset election just so he can demand the postponement of the criminal investigation into him until the time of the vote, it’s possible to fool the people and tell them that everything will change when Trump enters the White House next month.

Trump is certainly different from all his predecessors. Maybe he’ll break the bipartisan consensus and the people running the country’s diplomacy, once the Senate has approved his nominations – including Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. It’s not certain.

Read more: Kerry's speech was superbly Zionist, pro-Israel, and three years late / Analysis | Kerry’s eulogy for peace marks transition to Twilight Zone Trump / Analysis | Top Obama aide: U.S. will veto any attempt to put Kerry's speech to vote at UN

George W. Bush stumbled in the Senate over his appointment of a secretary of state, and Bill Clinton did likewise over the appointment of the head of the CIA. With or without them, Trump will attempt to change the policies of his predecessor, as all previous presidents have done. They all aspire to leave their own personal mark on things – besides which, the failed policies of the ruling president were criticized during the election campaign.

But the rules of history determine that everyone eventually returns to the fold with regards to the Middle East. A vow to do the opposite to what the previous administration did dissolves in precisely the same way, though updated.

In its dispute with Washington (dialing code 202), Jerusalem (02) has no option but to call on Resolution 242 – territories for peace. That’s how it’s been since 1967 and that’s how it will continue to be. The boorish and crude tycoon from the tower in area dialing code 212 will find that out quickly – especially if he wants to deepen his partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Resolution 242 reflected two understandings: Of the Eshkol-Dayan-Begin government, that peace with Egypt and Syria would require withdrawal from Sinai and the Golan Heights; and of the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, that it was preferable to aim for a solution under the joint auspices of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hence the five-point plan that Johnson attempted to sell, unsuccessfully, to Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, almost three weeks after the Six-Day War.

It included everything – recognition, peace, withdrawal, freedom of the seas (which was the excuse for the outbreak of war) – in addition to an American proposal of an arms embargo on the sides doing the fighting in the Middle East. That November, the draft attributed to Ambassador Arthur Goldberg and adapted by the two superpowers was approved: Give peace/land to get peace/land.

At the time, and for the next two decades, the Palestinians were not an official diplomatic player, appearing only as refugees. The negotiations were held with Egypt and Jordan, even though both had conquered territory in 1948 that was destined for a Palestinian state and held them in terms of the armistice agreements.

Until King Hussein repudiated his responsibility for the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization was involved in the diplomatic process in practice, but not officially. However, except for the question regarding the relationship between Jordan and the Palestinians, it would have taken a microscope to find the differences between the different American administrations and their approach to the conflict.

Netanyahu and his partners bad-mouth President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry by trying to portray their policies as deviations from the Washington mainstream. But the opposite is true.

It has no connection to party affiliation. Since 1967, Republicans have held the presidency for about 30 years and Democrats for a little over 20. The Republicans – Netanyahu’s favorites – have been stricter in their demands on Israel. Then-prime ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon suffered bitterly from them.

After Johnson and Rusk came the Republicans Richard Nixon and William Rogers, Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. What were seen in those days as serious clashes between senior administration officials appear today to be little more than infighting over subtleties and priorities. Battles over glory were, and remain, secondary. In times of crisis, as in the Yom Kippur War, Resolution 242 was ratified – at the cost of thousands of lives – and reinstated as Resolution 338.

Hairsplitting over partial or full agreement, bilateral contacts or international convention, also characterized the transfer of power from Ford and Kissinger to Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Carter, the Democrat, wanted to open a new channel to that ploughed by Kissinger, but soon found himself confronted by the Sadat initiative and Begin’s positive response. The result was Camp David, which was based on Resolution 242.

Ronald Reagan, a Republican, was the anti-Carter. Anything but Camp David. The result was the war in Lebanon, the overthrow of Al Haig, the appointment of George Schultz (an outspoken friend of Israel) and publication of the Reagan Plan – Camp David by another name. When George H.W. Bush succeeded Reagan, with James Baker as his secretary of state, their representatives institutionalized the contacts with Yasser Arafat, which had been ongoing since the time of Nixon via the CIA.

The points tabled by Baker broke up Shamir’s unity government with the Labor Party, though Shamir was nevertheless compelled to attend the Madrid Peace Conference, itself a reincarnation of 242.

In the Oslo Accords, an Israeli prime minister (Rabin) and an Arab leader (Arafat, playing the role of Sadat) again confronted an American president (Bill Clinton playing Carter) with an established fact.

From Oslo onward, all administrations have opposed settlements – whether as being unlawful or as obstacles to peace. Israel withdrew from Sinai as a condition for peace with Egypt, after which the settlements moved from the periphery to the center. The idea of Oslo was gradual improvement in relations, dependent on growing public support on both sides.

For that reason, both sides needed to contribute to improving the situation: a disavowal of violence by the Palestinians; Israeli abstinence when it came to settlements. Arafat was quick to abrogate his commitments, both directly (via his associates) and indirectly (via Hamas and others). Israel did so directly, continuing to build and legitimize settlements, but it mainly waited for Netanyahu, after Rabin.

Taking office after Clinton, George W. Bush also tried something new, but he soon discovered that there is no magic formula for ending the conflict. Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank propelled Bush, a Likud favorite, into becoming the first president to express support for a Palestinian state. A few weeks later, Netanyahu returned to politics as foreign minister in Sharon’s government, with the task of implementing Bush’s plan toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

On his return to the premiership, Netanyahu buried the Annapolis Conference agreement between Bush and Ehud Olmert. In return he received – and complied with – Obama’s settlement freeze. Hillary Clinton was a loyal, if doubtful, contributor to the freeze. Kerry discovered that the settlements weren’t the heart of the dispute, but there was nothing like them to stymie any solution.

Even if a land swap is agreed in the context of a peace agreement, such that the size of the future Palestinian state would not be affected by the growth in population of existing settlements, the location of the settlements is important. If they are distributed in such a way that the West Bank state is squeezed between them, it will not be viable. Without withdrawal, there will not be peace. Without a freeze on new settlement, the veteran settlements will not be evacuated.

Whoever is eager to continue settlement-building wants a never-ending war of attrition and a clash with the entire world – with the possible exception of a single Trump, who himself will be limited in what he can do by Congress, by the Supreme Court, by Putin and by the precedents set by previous administrations.

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