With President-elect Donald Trump declaring himself a steadfast ally of Israel, critics fear his stance could disrupt that nation’s political balance, emboldening Israeli conservatives, reigniting the Palestinian conflict and souring Israel’s improved relations in the region.
JERUSALEM — On the wall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is a giant floor-to-ceiling map with Israel at its center. Netanyahu likes staring at the map. He regales visitors with stories about how Israel has made friends with so many of the countries shown, some nearby, others far away.
His point is that Israel has moved beyond the days when its conflict with the Palestinians defined its relations with the world. But even as he celebrates the ascension of President-elect Donald Trump as a steadfast ally, Netanyahu may find it complicates management of his own conservative coalition and undercuts the diplomatic outreach that has been his central priority.
The 14-0 vote by the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlements, permitted Friday by President Obama, who ordered a U.S. abstention, served as a reminder that the Palestinian issue remains a powder keg. Instead of counting new friends, Netanyahu was left to tally up old enemies, and in a speech late Saturday he lashed out, vowing to exact a “diplomatic and economic price” from countries that in his view try to hurt Israel.
He said he was cutting off $8 million in contributions to the United Nations and reviewing whether to continue allowing its personnel to enter Israel, in addition to recalling ambassadors and canceling visits from some countries that supported the measure. He accused the departing Obama administration of carrying out a “disgraceful anti-Israel maneuver.”
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“The resolution that was passed by the U.N. yesterday is part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel,” Netanyahu said at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony honoring wounded soldiers and terrorism victims. “But, my friends, we are entering a new era and, as President-elect Trump said yesterday, that is going to happen a lot faster than people think.”
Indeed, in Trump, Netanyahu will have a far more supportive ally in the White House than Obama, who views the Israeli settlement policy as counterproductive. Yet Trump’s call supporting Israel on settlements and his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem could easily stir new antipathy among the Sunni Arab states Netanyahu has been courting most, analysts said.
“It doesn’t take a lot to imagine an American move that could provoke violence on the ground or just demonstrations on the ground with potential to become violent,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who is at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “And that would not only create an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it would create a broader Israeli-Arab crisis.”
Trump’s election and his choice of David Friedman, an ardent settlement supporter, as his ambassador to Israel have emboldened the Israeli right to push for more aggressive policies in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
Some have even declared the death of the two-state solution that for years was, according to an international consensus, thought to be the way to settle the conflict.
Since the U.S. election, pro-settlement leaders in Netanyahu’s Cabinet have pushed for legislation retroactively legalizing outposts on privately owned Palestinian land that had been declared illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court. Netanyahu has been reluctant, even warning colleagues that it could lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court, according to the newspaper Haaretz.
“Israeli leaders have used American pressure as an excuse to avoid doing something they really don’t want to do but are being pressured to do by coalition members,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is at Princeton University. If Trump advances views even to the right of Netanyahu, “this will put the prime minister in an awkward position with no excuses for not doing what right-wingers want him to do,” Kurtzer said.
Now in his fourth term, Netanyahu has focused lately on keeping the Palestinian conflict relatively contained while he forges new bonds around the world. He travels widely these days and has just returned from a trip to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two predominantly Muslim countries — a demonstration, he said, of Israel’s transformed global relations. He boasts that so many foreign delegations are coming to Israel that he barely has time to meet with them all.
He attributes this to what he calls TTP: terrorism, technology and peace. Other countries, he argues, see Israel as an ally in fighting Islamist terrorism, a source of technological innovation and not an obstacle to peace, as it was once viewed. If so, though, the unopposed U.N. resolution could chip away at that impression, and Netanyahu retaliated against two of its sponsors, New Zealand and Senegal, by recalling ambassadors and canceling visits.
Most important, in Netanyahu’s view and that of independent analysts, is the improvement of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, not just Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace treaties, but with Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.
While many of those states maintain a public reserve about Israel, they have quietly collaborated in important ways out of a shared belief that the greater threat in the region is the theocratic Shiite leadership in Iran.
“Our relations with the Arab world are rapidly changing,” Netanyahu said at a security conference sponsored by The Jerusalem Post last month. “More and more countries in our region, more and more people in this region, don’t see Israel as an enemy but as an ally — I’d say an indispensable ally — in the fight against radical extremism.”
But to the extent that is true, it could quickly change if the Palestinian issue returns to prominence. Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, said in a conference call sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last week that an embassy move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv would prompt the Palestine Liberation Organization to withdraw its recognition of Israel that was granted as part of the Oslo peace accords.
While many Arab leaders have tired of the Palestinian leadership, even cutting off financial support, they may have to respond if their citizens are stirred to outrage.
“If the street’s reactions get too heated, it will be easier for these Arabs to jettison the Israeli relationship than to stand in the way of their own people’s anger,” Kurtzer said.
That may explain why some conservatives in Israel are nervous that Trump may push provocative policies. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known as a hard-liner, said at a recent Brookings conference that there were other pressing issues aside from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital.
Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States from Netanyahu’s Likud party, doubted that an embassy move would set off a major backlash, but said an invigorated political right could press for more aggressive policies that would.
“If that were to happen, that would create a problem for Netanyahu,” Shoval said. “Netanyahu basically does not want to annex all of the West Bank, does not want to rule over the Palestinians. He realizes the risks of that from Israel’s point of view.”