Opinion |

Trump Has Scared the Jewish Right. But the Left Shouldn't Celebrate

Trump's already send chills down right-wing spines with his settlements warnings and friendly outreach to Abbas. But the left can't bank on his 'negotiating skills' hubris - or on Abbas himself.

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, March 13, 2017.
Trump in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, March 13, 2017.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

We all know that you should be careful about what you wish for because you might just get it.

That’s the lesson the Jewish Right is recalling this week in the wake of the friendly phone call between President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. During the course of the reportedly cordial conversation, Trump told Abbas that “the time has come to make a deal” and invited him to visit the White House to discuss restarting peace negotiations.

The 10-minute conversation was enough to send chills down the spine of Jewish right-wingers who hadn’t merely celebrated President Obama’s departure but also thought Trump would hand Israel a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consolidate its hold on the West Bank.

The chat raised the possibility that Trump was serious about wanting to negotiate the real estate deal of the century and do what all of his predecessors have tried but failed to do: achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

As such, some on the Left, suggested Trump might yet prove to be the Right’s “worst nightmare” since such a deal would inevitably end the settlement enterprise.

But while Naftali Bennett and the rest of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners were over-optimistic about Trump writing them a blank check, neither should the Palestinians nor the Jewish Left be too quick to believe Trump’s hubris about his negotiating skills will give them what they want, either.

Trump is, like every other U.S. president, likely to be something of a disappointment to all sides to the conflict.

If the peace process proves, as it almost certainly will, as insoluble for him as it was for the others, then despite Netanyahu’s worries about a Trump-Abbas meeting, the president may ultimately still prove to be exactly what he needs: someone who will accept the status quo as the best of all possible options.

Despite Trump’s appointment of a pro-settlement ambassador to Israel in David Friedman and a Middle East envoy in Jason Greenblatt who appears to be cut from the same modern Orthodox mold, both of which seemed to portend a seismic shift in U.S. policy, Netanyahu’s instinctual caution appears to be serving him well.

That was apparent during his meeting with Trump in Washington last month when, despite the mutual admiration society dynamic, the president made it clear he expected Netanyahu to hold off on settlement building.

Trump may not be a true believer in the two state process or think, as his predecessor did, that Israel needs to be saved from itself. But neither is he willing to allow Bennett to complicate American diplomatic efforts in the region on other issues like terrorism.

Trump expects Netanyahu to do nothing that would not preserve at least the theoretical possibility of peace and the prime minister will likely comply. Right-wingers may have hoped Abbas would spend the next four years being ignored by the White House.

But even if Trump really thinks a deal can be struck with the help of the Saudis, Netanyahu and the settlement movement still have their ace in the hole working for them in Abbas.

Those predicting a new round of talks to succeed must ask how it is that Abbas, who could never meet a sympathetic U.S. president like Obama halfway in order to get a state, will do even more while risking the enmity of Hamas at the behest of Trump?

That is what Netanyahu is counting on. He is confident that when push comes to shove, Abbas will be as unable and/or unwilling to pull the trigger on any peace accord as he has been in the past, no matter what the Saudis or Trump want and thus save Netanyahu himself from being blamed for the failure. That’s why he’s concentrated on the ongoing threat from Iran and not wasted political capital pushing for a move of the U.S. embassy. In the end, he’ll probably happily settle for a revival of the 2004 George W. Bush letter to Ariel Sharon in which the U.S. acquiesced to growth in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem in exchange for no building elsewhere while continuing to use Trump’s desire for a deal as a check on the right.

Trump may raise the hopes of the peace camp now just as he did for the settlement movement. But if Netanyahu can manage to avoid antagonizing the president while letting Abbas frustrate Trump and incur his wrath, then he may still prove to be one of the big winners in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer to National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

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