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Israel and Trump: From euphoria to anxiety

Had Trump visited Israel directly after he was elected, he would have received a hero's welcome. Now he is viewed with suspicion and may well disrupt the status quo that Netanyahu so painstakingly built

On 8 November 2016, when the first results showed that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, contrary to all early expectations, the Israeli ruling coalition gave the impression that it was awakening from a nightmare.

Eight years of continuous quarrels with an American president who had not hidden his moral unease with the continuation of the Israeli occupation and its settlements' policy were over, replaced with a president who spoke openly about the danger of "Islamic extremism" and whose closest aides could fit into the more hawkish section of the already hawkish Jewish Home party.

Trump's election coincided with other internal, regional and international developments which all appeared positive to Israel. A weak Palestinian president and a tired and fragmented Palestinian society; a divided Arab world in which Israel found new allies more interested in fighting Iran than ending the Israeli occupation; and a Brexit vote that seemed to predict the beginning of the end of the European Union, always watched with suspicion in Israel.

Trump's positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem suddenly unclear or even unreliable

Had Trump visited Israel in January 2017, right after his inauguration as president, he would have been welcomed as a new messiah. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's jubilant visit to the White House on 15 February reflected that mood.

When Netanyahu stated during their joint news conference that "there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump," it was not perceived as an exaggeration.

Trump will be arriving to Israel on Monday in a quite different atmosphere. Not only because his troubled first 120 days in office, culminating with the nomination of a special counsel to inquire into his campaign's relations with Russia, make him seem weak, and not only because his international policy seems confused at best. But because his positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem suddenly unclear or even unreliable.

Suspicion reaching new levels

Israel's ruling coalition and Netanyahu himself showed confidence that Trump was and would be on their side. Now they are less sure as to whose side he is on. The very fact that he is beginning his Middle East visit in Saudi Arabia and not in Israel may be an ominous sign. With the latest statements by American officials, above all the one in which an American diplomat based in Jerusalem was quoted saying that the Western Wall is situated in the West Bank, the suspicion has reached new levels.

It is doubtful whether any American official in Barack Obama's administration would have dared to utter these words. No wonder that, while in January, just a few days before his inauguration, 79 percent of Israeli Jews thought of Trump as pro-Israeli, only 56 percent thought so in a poll held last week, a drop of 23 percentage points in four months. Four months in which Israel moved from euphoria to apprehension and anxiety regarding the Trump administration.

The initial euphoria came mainly from the settlement movement and its supporters in Israel. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, expressed the general view of the Israeli right wing when he said again and again that Trump's election meant the burial of the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank village of Bait Djan, near the city of Nablus, on 19 May 2017 (AFP)

Trump never expressed sympathy for the Palestinian suffering and failed to see any moral wrong in the occupation of the West Bank; David Friedman, his adviser for Israeli matters during his campaign who was later nominated as ambassador to Tel Aviv, raised money for a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement.

Bennett and other right-wing leaders hoped to draw practical results from Trump's election. Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was one of them, but more important was their belief that under Trump the American administration would not oppose, and might even tacitly support, the annexation of significant parts the West Bank to Israel.

Such an annexation was long on the charts for Bennett and his likes. With Trump in the White House, they saw an historic opportunity to implement these plans.

Euphoria dashed

This euphoria was quickly dashed after Netanyahu's visit to Washington, and not only because Trump himself backed away from his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem immediately after being elected or because in the same news conference with Netanyahu he asked Israel to "hold back on settlements for a little bit". It was also because Netanyahu himself was not so keen to see the embassy moving to Jerusalem and above all because he had no appetite for annexation.

Any interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a potential to slow down the "Israelization" process of the West Bank.

This does not mean that Netanyahu was not pleased with Trump's election. After his strained relations with Obama, seeing Trump in the White House was certainly a relief for him. But his desired end goal from Trump's presidency is different from the aims pushed by Bennett and his allies.

Netanyahu's strategic goal was and remains to continue the current state of affairs in the West Bank and Gaza, meaning continuing the slow but steady expansion of settlements on the one hand and the fragmentation of Palestinian society on the other.

This state of affairs is often mistakenly called the "status quo," but In Netanyahu's eyes it is a dynamic process that will eventually lead to the international community, and the Palestinians themselves, accepting Israeli rule over the whole of historic Palestine-Eretz Israel, allowing for the Palestinians to establish some kind of self-rule, "less than a state" as Netanyahu defines it.

Netanyahu saw in Trump as an ally in this political project. As Trump vehemently opposed Obama's decision not to veto the UN Security Council resolution on the illegality of settlements in October 2016, Netanyahu had every reason to believe that Trump would veto any similar resolutions in the future. While Trump's demand to "hold back" on settlements may have come as a surprise to Netanyahu, he thought that a formula could be found that would allow for settlements to expand while avoiding the constant American condemnations, as was the case during the Obama administration.

Two women take a picture of a poster welcoming US President Donald Trump in downtown Jerusalem ahead of his visit (AFP)

Netanyahu interpreted Trump's "America First" slogan at face value. "America First" was perceived as meaning that the Middle East is second or third or even further down the list of Trump's priorities. This approach suited Netanyahu very well. Any interference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a potential to slow down the "Israelisation" process of the West Bank.

Therefore it is understandable that Netanyahu looks with apprehension upon Trump's new-found willingness to reach a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. While it is evident that Trump does not feel a moral obligation to end Israeli occupation, as was the case with Obama, at least in words, it is also evident that he is not emotionally attached, as some Republicans - especially among the Christian fundamentalists - are to the idea of Greater Israel.

It is not clear what kind of deal Trump does have in mind. It is even less clear if he has any plan at all. But the fact that he begins his trip in Riyadh suggests that he sees a solution through Saudi eyes and that his top priority seems to forge a NATO-like Middle Eastern alliance against Iran.

Netanyahu is not opposed to such a coalition, but he knows that in order to get it going, the Saudis will ask Trump to at least make an effort to achieve a deal on the Israeli-Palestinians issue - not because they like the Palestinians too much, but because otherwise they will not have any legitimacy for forging this alliance.

Trump as peacemaker?

Palestinians are afraid that the Saudis and Trump will try to force them to resume negotiations with Israel without a freeze on settlements and without a clear commitment that these negotiations would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. They may be proved right, but as the weaker side, they have always the option to refuse.

Netanyahu is afraid that as a condition for the renewal of negotiations he may be under pressure to officially accept an independent Palestinian state and to draw the lines of this future state. These kind of conditions do not only run contrary to his own beliefs, they will almost certainly lead to the collapse of his government, as Bennett will not be able to stay in such a coalition.

Netanyahu seems to hope that Trump is not serious about his efforts to reach a deal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Netanyahu seems to hope that Trump is not serious about his efforts to reach a deal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he will settle for a nice speech in Jerusalem, allowing Netanyahu to go on with his previous plans.

Yet there is a possibility that Trump believes his own words that, as a businessman, he has the best chances to achieve peace. It is hard to see how Trump would achieve this peace, but it is not hard to see how Netanyahu and Israel's positions would be harmed in the process.

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point during a joint press conference with US President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, 15 February 2017 (AFP)

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