Skip to main content

Trump's poisonous gift to Netanyahu

The Israeli right hailed the American president's indifference to the two-state solution as a victory. The celebration may prove premature

The body language of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu during his press conference with President Donald Trump on Wednesday was a clear indication as to how at ease he felt with the new tenant in the White House.

After a series of tense photo opportunities with President Barack Obama – after one of their meeting in March 2010 the ceremonial photo opportunity itself didn't even take place – Netanyahu was evidently glowing with content.

Strangely enough, with the most pro-Zionist president the US has ever known, Netanyahu may find himself even more isolated than before

When Trump surprisingly asked the audience to show their respect to Netanyahu's wife, Sara, under constant attack in the Israeli media, Netanyahu must have felt grateful.

Netanyahu returned a favour when he guaranteed, in response to a question posed to Trump by an Israeli journalist concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in the US, that the Jewish people could not find a better friend than Trump. Not all American Jewish organisations would sign up to such a statement. 

READ: Trump throws down the gauntlet to the Palestinian Authority

But these were not only gestures. Trump condemned the "unfair" treatment which Israel receives from international bodies, a clear reference to the most recent UN Security Council resolution concerning the settlements which the Obama administration did not veto, much to Israel's chagrin. Netanyahu couldn't have phrased it better.

'The one both parties like'

Yet most attention was rightly given to Trump's response to a question concerning his commitment to the two-state solution. "Two states, one state, I'm happy with the one that both parties like," said Trump.

The Israeli right-wing, above all Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party whose is leading a political campaign in favour of "burying" the idea of a Palestinian state, hailed victory. These were the words they had waited to hear from an American president for many years. 

Netanyahu, repeatedly asked by Israeli journalists whether he had given up the two-state idea - which he himself adopted in his speech at Bar Ilan university in June 2009 - was less jubilant than Bennett and refrained from mentioning either the two-state or the one-state solution.

"You are asking me about labels, I deal with substance," he scolded the journalists.

Problems back home

But putting aside the extremely cordial atmosphere between Netanyahu and Trump, the American president's remarks may prove problematic for the Israeli prime minister. On the home front, Netanyahu may face mounting demands to annex Area C in the West Bank - or at least Maale Adumim, a large settlement east of Jerusalem.

So far, Netanyahu has shown very little appetite towards such a move, but as Trump's statements are interpreted in Israel's right-wing as a green light for annexation, Netanyahu might find it more difficult to resist the pressure coming from Bennett and even from within his own Likud party.

READ: Trump and Netanyahu: It wasn't supposed to be like this

In a briefing to Israeli journalists after his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu already stated that he has no intention of annexing two million Palestinians into Israel. But that is not the end of the story. Netanyahu had opposed the land confiscation "normalisation" law, only to see it voted in by a large majority. The same thing could happen with the proposed annexation of Maale Adumim now put before the Israeli parliament.

Netanyahu may face even tougher problems concerning construction in the settlements. Contrary to his opposition to annexation, Netanyahu definitely supports their expansion, and even promised to build a new one for the settlers evicted from the illegal outpost of Amona two weeks ago. 

'Hold back on settlements a bit,' Trump told Netanyahu during Wednesday's news conference (Reuters)

Yet it seems that Trump, despite his warm feelings towards Netanyahu, is asking him to put the brakes on settlement expansion. "Hold back on settlements a little bit," the president told him during the same news conference. To Netanyahu's dismay, these words ominously resemble, albeit in a different tone, the settlements' freeze forced on Israel by Obama right after he took office in 2009. 

Back then, Netanyahu had a coalition composed of Tzipi Livni's Kadima and the Labor party. Now he has the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history. If Trump indeed pushes for even a limited freeze as a "favour" from his Israeli friend, it will be a nightmare for Netanyahu. With the criminal investigations against him gaining ground, his leverage regarding his coalition partners will be limited. 

Tibi for PM?

Whether Trump really meant to reconsider the two-state solution or whether these remarks were just another whim, the international community is certainly not behind him.

If the Palestinians feel that the international community's commitment to the two-state solution is wavering, they may return to their old ideas of supporting a secular democratic state all over historic Palestine

Both Netanyahu and Trump stressed the importance of a regional agreement, comprising of unnamed "moderate" Arab states. Yet Egypt and the Arab League have already restated their commitment to the two-state solution. If Trump and Netanyahu opt to abandon the two-state model, they will have to take this road alone. 

Worse yet, the one-state solution - in its democratic form, not in the apartheidist model envisaged by Israel's right-wing - has always enjoyed popular support among the Palestinian people. The two-state solution was conceived as a compromise, justified mostly, if not only, by the claim that it’s the swiftest and most efficient way to end Israeli occupation. 

If the Palestinians feel that the international community's commitment to the two-state solution is wavering, they may return to their old ideas of supporting a secular democratic state all over historic Palestine.

Ahmed Tibi (C) with fellow Israeli-Arab MPs Ayman Odeh (L) and Masud Ghanayem (R) ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015 in which their party hoped to win 15 seats (AFP)

Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament who likes to provoke Jewish public opinion, has stated that in such a case, he will run for prime minister and would probably defeat Netanyahu. "All Palestinians and some Jews will support me," he predicted. This option is, of course, Netanyahu's worst dream.   

The problem for Netanyahu is that he does not have any real leverage regarding Trump. When Netanyahu confronted Obama, remarked a leading Israeli commentator, he knew in advance that he had the support the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. 

With both sides of Congress now in Republican hands and behind Trump, Netanyahu will have little room for manoeuvre if he tries to fight the new president. He will have to take whatever Trump offers him. He took the "two states, one state" statement without protest, all the while understanding its negative potential. He may even have to take a partial freeze on settlements.

Strangely enough, with the most pro-Zionist president the US has ever known, Netanyahu may find himself even more isolated than before. 

- 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: US President Donald Trump escorts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the White House on 15 February 2017 (Reuters)