Opinion |

A Wounded Trump Hurts a Wounded Netanyahu. And the Israeli Right Smells Blood

Trump believes he's the one man in the world who could forge the 'ultimate deal,' a workable peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. In their gut of guts, many hardliners fear he may be right.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, AFP, Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

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On the drawing board, it was to have been nothing less than triumphal, a crowning moment in Benjamin Netanyahu's long but legacy-deficient career: A high-profile maiden visit to the Republican White House and the newly inaugurated King of the World. The prime minister of Israel as one of the very first of the world's leaders to be accorded the honor. From election night on, if only from the standpoints of prestige and optics, Netanyahu looked to the Oval Office visit to be a game-changer.

Then the game changed.

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On the eve of the Wednesday visit, with Netanyahu doing everything possible in social media to play up his primary goal of optics, Trump's domestic prestige took a huge hit. And if Donald Trump's domestic prestige suffers, Netanyahu's optics go dark.

Hours before the Oval Office meeting, the deepening scandal surrounding the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn radically altered the complexion of Israeli news reports on the Washington visit.

Television broadcasts suggested that Trump's primary hope for the meeting was to distract the U.S. public from what Yedioth Ahronoth called in a banner headline an "ADMINISTRATION IN CRISIS."

"Donald Trump is becoming increasingly embroiled and bogged down in that scandal involving Russia," reported Israel Channel Two correspondent Udi Segal, adding that Trump's predicament "is also casting dark clouds over the Netanyahu visit, following the Michael Flynn resignation."

Off screen, you could hear hardline settlement activists breathing a welcome if tentative sigh of relief. This has been an arduous, anxious, humiliating and painful period for the settlement enterprise, punctuated by abrupt disappointment in Trump and what his presidency might mean for what had just recently seemed to be their sky's-the-limit future.

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More than once, Donald Trump has let it be known that he believes himself to be the one man in the world who could forge the "ultimate deal" – the sum of all settler fears - a workable peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

In their gut of guts, there is a suspicion among many pro-settlement leaders that Trump may be right. Who else in the entire world can marry the enormous resources and might of his office, to what appears to be an unknowable, at times maniacal desire for and need of, the entirely unexpected.

After all, Trump is a man for whom there is no discernable difference between need and want. And he has made clear how much he wants to make that deal.

It has been just a few months since we watched settlement proponents expending unprecedented efforts to get out the vote for Trump. Now here we are in a whole new reality, in which a wounded Trump is great news for settlers.

A once-euphoric Trump administration has been brought crashing to earth by the Flynn affair, wider suspicions of Russian interference in the presidential campaign, and the bedlam sparked by rush-order, highly explosive policies like the Muslim travel ban.

For the hard right, a wounded Netanyahu is great news as well. Plagued by a crossfire of graft investigations and slipping polling numbers, the prime minister is in serious political trouble over the only issue which matters in contemporary Israeli politics: settlements.

Smelling blood, Netanyahu's Likud Monday marked Netanyahu's departure with an extraordinary, multi-front show of hardline force, if not implied mutiny.

In full page newspaper ads signed by hundreds of members of the party's hugely powerful Central Committee, and in a meeting attended by a dozen Likud cabinet ministers and lawmakers, the politicians made a list of demands under the cleverly implied threat: "Netanyahu, HaLikud L'yaminha." The slogan can be understood both as "Netanyahu, the Likud is with you," and "Netanyahu, the Likud has gone to the right of you."

Beginning by wishing him well, the party activists urged the prime minister to tell Trump that there must be no Palestinian state alongside Israel, that settlement construction must be accelerated, and that Israel must annex all areas of settlements across the West Bank.

The Israeli hard right knows better than anyone that Netanyahu's best armor against settlement pressure is a strong Trump.

It knows this as well: the weaker Trump grows, the more he needs the support of evangelical Christians, who comprise the largest single religious bloc in the United States – more than one out of every four Americans.

Little wonder, then, that the largely evangelical Christians United for Israel may be gearing up to challenge the primacy of AIPAC as the leading Israel lobby in Washington. CUFI's positions are generally well to right of AIPAC, close to the settlement movement in opposition to a two-state solution and in favor of settlement expansion.

Never a movement to err on the side of caution, the pro-settlement hard right is not about to take any chances with a Donald Trump who, interviewed last week by his Israeli courtesan-journalist in, of all places, a paper owned by his patron Sheldon Adelson, remarked of settlements: "They don't help the process. I can say that. There is [only] so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

This week, in a preemptive onslaught launched with Netanyahu safely gone to Washington, the settlement caucus hauled out its heavy legislative artillery, the self-propelled howitzer called, among other things, the Land Grab Law.

This is essentially the same law which was first defeated in 2012. At the time, Netanyahu was fearful of the possible international fallout from the law, which is aimed at retroactively legalizing thousands of settler homes which even Israel officially admits were illegally built on Palestinian-owned land. Back then, Netanyahu told his cabinet that any cabinet minister who voted for it would be fired.

Now, nearly five years later, Netanyahu's worst fear is the pro-settlement hard right, which has grown strong enough, if it should so choose, to fire him.

And that long-awaited Netanyahu bump from prestige and optics? Sometimes a mirage looks just like a mirage.

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