Analysis

For Netanyahu, Donald Trump’s Victory Is a Trip Into the Unknown

For the first time in Netanyahu's career as prime minister, there is a Republican in the White House, but Trump's victory will test his West Bank policy like never before.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves meeting with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Sept. 25, 2016, in New York.
Evan Vucci, AP

On U.S. election night four years ago, the lights stayed on until the crack of dawn at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Back then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was wholly invested in the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, and closely followed the returns as they came in. This year he went to bed before the polls closed and when he woke up at around 7 A.M. was told Donald Trump was expected to win.

This year, Netanyahu was very wary of anything that might look like meddling in the U.S. presidential race. First, he learned his lesson after rallying to Romney’s side in 2012 only to get Barack Obama for another four years. Second, until relatively late in the campaign, Netanyahu’s patron in the United States, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, kept his distance from Trump and supported down-ballot candidates.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during an election night rally in New York on November 9, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

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On the face of things, Netanyahu should be pleased with Trump’s victory. For the first time during his career as prime minister there will be a Republican in the White House. If that weren’t enough, the House of Representatives and the Senate are also Republican. Ostensibly, Netanyahu has no reason to complain – he’s going to have the whole world on his plate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Donald Trump, September 25, 2016.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Moreover, when you read the document sent out by Trumps’ advisers on Israel affairs, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, you find paragraphs that seem copied from Netanyahu’s talking points on the eve of Israel’s 2015 election, when he swerved right, further right and even more right.

According to the document, Trump believes the two-state solution isn’t possible as long as the Palestinians don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state and don’t stop the incitement. It says Trump doesn’t accept the claim that Israel is “occupying” the West Bank, and any withdrawal would only be to borders Israel defines as defensible.

Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The 1967 borders weren’t mentioned in Trump’s policy papers and the settlements weren’t defined as a problem. According to the advisers’ document, Trump will be happy to help the sides reach a peace agreement but won’t apply pressure. He’ll demand the holding of direct talks with no preconditions and will oppose any move imposed by the United Nations.

The icing on the cake was Trump’s promise to recognize Jerusalem as “the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state” and to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from its current location on the Tel Aviv beach. How did Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it? “Paradise plus plus.”

All the same, Netanyahu is ambivalent about Trump. A political source who spoke with Netanyahu in recent months said the prime minister sounded a bit concerned about the possibility of a Trump victory, especially as the real estate mogul was a total enigma and an unpredictable politician.

But Netanyahu has known Hillary Clinton, her family, her big donors and other people close to her for more than 20 years, for better and for worse. He knows how to work with them, how to influence them and how to reach deals and understandings with them. Trump, however, is a trip into the unknown for Netanyahu. It’s impossible to know what he’ll do when he takes office and what his policies will be on the Palestinians, Iran and Syria.

Another worry for Netanyahu is that victory strengthens the activist right in his government and Likud party. Trump’s advisers on Israel were people far to the right of Netanyahu – somewhere between Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.

This was immediately evident in the gleeful statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who expressed the hope that Trump would move the embassy to Jerusalem very soon, and by Habayit Hayehudi chiefs Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who declared that Trump’s victory was a good moment for the government to finally announce that the two-state solution was off the table for good.

In the face of all this, the prime minister’s cautious, minimalist and general congratulatory statement was clear. Conservative status-quo aficionado that he is, maybe Netanyahu doesn’t want to push for a Palestinian state, while at the same time being in no rush to implement Habayit Hayehudi’s platform of a tooth-and-nail fight to annex the West Bank.

Had Clinton won, Netanyahu could have continued telling the settlers and their Knesset backers that he blocks the threat of pressure by America’s heavy hand, as he has done in recent years with Obama in the White House. But the U.S. president-elect is Donald Trump, who has expressed support for construction in the settlements, is about to make Newt Gingrich his secretary of state, and has declared that there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. So Netanyahu has run out of excuses. With no brakes – real or imaginary – his real policy in the West Bank will be tested as never before.

At an event Wednesday at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told the audience that presidential candidates’ comments during a campaign often don’t make it into the Oval Office. He noted that – as they say in Hebrew – “The things you see from here you don’t see from there.”

History shows that Shapiro is right. Over the past 30 years, Republican and Democrats have followed more or less the same policy regarding the territories and the settlements. There’s a reasonable possibility that moving the embassy to Jerusalem and the green light to expand the settlements will turn out to be declarations without cover. They will vanish  along with the wall on the Mexican border. If that happens, who knows what will come instead.