Israel Doesn't Need Trump. We'll Always Have Bibi

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with U.S. President Donald Trump after signing a normalization agreement between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, Washington D.C., September 15, 2020.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It doesn’t matter who was elected U.S. president on Tuesday. The illusion that the American president can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already been empirically disproven.

No American president – whether Jimmy Carter, who managed to make peace between Israel and Egypt, or Bill Clinton, who oversaw the Oslo Accords with the PLO and the peace agreement with Jordan – could have “made peace” had they not been working with an Israeli prime minister who agreed to cede territory, had the requisite vision for these moves and understood the historic implications of the opportunities they were given.

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Exactly 30 years ago, at the end of the Madrid peace talks, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker coined the phrase that has served all American governments trying to work a miracle: We can’t want peace more than you do. He was referring to both Palestinians and Israelis, but especially to Israel’s prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir.

U.S. President Donald Trump broke this rule consistently and decisively. He wanted peace much more than Israel did. His “deal of the century” became a personal obsession, a supreme test of the theory of doing business of which he boasted, to the point where his raison d’etre as president seemed to hang in the balance if he failed to succeed in achieving it.

Trump, who is always original, tried to solve the conflict through a method that Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi terms “reverse geometry” – in other words, reorganizing an urban landscape through a series of micro-tactical maneuvers. But instead of an urban landscape, Trump’s canvas was the entire Middle East.

He thoroughly destroyed the basic formula of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy – land for peace – as well as the formula that had united Arab states around the principle “first the territories and afterward normalization.” Both these paradigms were overturned.

Instead, Trump created a new category of asymmetric negotiations and abolished the façade of the honest American broker, a false image that the U.S. had always tried hard to maintain. Trump’s rule was Israel first, and only after that, if he had any time and energy left, the Palestinians.

He disengaged from the Palestinians with a resounding economic slap in the face. He bestowed gifts upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that included recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and consenting to Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, “subject to negotiations.”

He midwifed Israel’s normalization with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and a deal with Sudan as well. And above all, the cherry on top was that he withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now let’s see the Palestinians agreeing to come to the table.

The results are well known. Israel achieved peace with three Arab states in addition to Egypt and Jordan, a huge and important achievement in its own right. But as is his wont in the Middle East, in this case too, Trump didn’t manage to solve the real conflict. His reverse geometry failed. His policies didn’t manage to break through the Palestinian wall and overturn the world order.

Trump left Israel and the Palestinians with no diplomatic horizon. He left Israel with no chance to separate from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And he left it with the occupation, which has dictated and continues to dictate the country’s character, laws and culture.

Nevertheless, his legacy will remain. Even if Joe Biden is the next U.S. president, Trumpism will survive in Israel for as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister.

It’s true that policies are perishable goods and there are no irreversible decisions; Trump has shown that. But in Israel’s case, honesty compels us to admit, Trump isn’t the person responsible for the mutation that turned it from a more or less normal democratic country occassionally embarrassed and sensitive to its international reputation into a racist, arrogant country that’s full of itself and as tyrannical toward its own citizens as it is toward the Palestinians.

This is a local invention that Trump admired and in which Israel took pleasure. Consequently, Israel won’t be orphaned if Trump departs. It still has Bibi, the original model, which hasn’t broken down at all.

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