After a combined 10 years leading the government, he finally had a Republican president in the White House, with a Republican House and Senate to boot. It should have been the perfect match for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.
The prime minister would be free of the condemnation of construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements that became routine under former President Barack Obama, the right wing believed. President Donald Trump would allow Israel to build and build freely.
Within 10 days of Trump’s inauguration, Israel approved plans for more than 6,000 housing units in settlements as well as the first brand-new settlement municipality in the West Bank in nearly two decades.
Heaping praise upon Trump at their first news conference together in Washington, Netanyahu said: “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Vice President Mike Pence is expected to also receive a warm reception when he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) at its large annual conference in Washington, which begins on Sunday.
And the settlement movement rejoiced at the new White House leadership.
“I think (Trump) loves Israel,” said Chaim Silberstein, spokesman for the Beit El settlement outside of Ramallah. “I think he loves the biblical heartland of Israel, which is here.” Some even spoke in messianic terms.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party and one of the most outspoken Israeli opponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, declared after the elections, “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
But for Netanyahu, the honeymoon period lasted less than two months.
Trump quickly walked back his oft-repeated campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and he criticized Israeli settlements as “not good” for peace.
At their joint White House appearance, Trump told Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a bit.” Trump wanted a chance to conclude what he called “the ultimate deal”: peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
On Thursday, after two rounds of talks spanning the US and the Middle East, the White House put out a statement saying that the American delegation “reiterated President Trump’s concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement,” adding, “The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel’s intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration.”
Netanyahu now finds himself walking a tight-rope between a new president interested in a peace deal and an empowered right-wing determined to sink the two-state solution once and for all. In the face of this political pressure and a corruption investigation, it is increasingly possible that the Israeli leader may soon have to face elections.
Ever the cautious politician, Netanyahu had previously warned his governing coalition — which includes Jewish Home and Netanyahu’s own Likud Party — not to celebrate too much over Trump’s victory. He even forbade his ministers, Bennett included, from speaking to Washington officials without his approval, especially about settlements and annexation.
But after Trump’s inauguration, Israel’s right-wing felt there was no reason to hold back. The pressure on Netanyahu from Jewish Home and even those within Likud kept growing.
For Netanyahu, building in the settlements isn’t just a promise he’s made to the approximately 420,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank; it is also about long-term political survival, as Netanyahu and Bennett battle for the same right-wing constituency.
Netanyahu has boasted that there is no government that will be more pro-settlement than the current one, and he can’t afford to be outflanked on the right by his own coalition partners. At the same time, no Israeli leader — on the right or left — would risk angering Israel’s primary international ally.
“I think we can say now what is clear is that if the right in Israel thought that Mr. Trump is going to join Mr. Bennett’s party, it made a very grave mistake,” Yehuda Ben Meir, a principal research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies told CNN. “As I think any intelligent person can realize, Donald Trump is President of the United States. The United States has interests throughout the world.”
Ben Meir continued, “To a certain degree, Mr. Netanyahu has really locked himself into this dilemma, and we will have to see how he maneuvers through it. … It depends on what is the position of President Trump. It’s not clear yet.”
The tension was evident in mid-March in Netanyahu’s first meeting with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations.
Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s business attorney before becoming an adviser on Israel, may have seemed likely to be in sync with the Israeli Prime Minister. Before the elections, he wrote an op-ed for CNN insisting that Trump would recognize Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel and would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those moves, warned the Palestinian leadership that sees East Jerusalem as its capital in any future Palestinian state, would essentially sink the process of forging a two-state solution.
In a meeting that lasted more than five hours, Greenblatt and Netanyahu reaffirmed the strong bond between the United States and Israel, with the former emphasizing Trump’s commitment to Israel’s security. But the statement addressing the settlements issued Thursday made clear that the US is looking for Israel to rein in construction.
So far, the parties have not found a framework for settlement construction acceptable to Trump and Netanyahu. After marathon meetings between Greenblatt, Netanyahu Chief of Staff Yoav Horowitz and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, the two sides still had not finalized an agreement. Trump’s “concerns regarding settlement activity” remained. So did Netanyahu’s desire to keep building.
One day after Netanyahu’s first meeting with Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. According to a readout of that meeting, Abbas stressed the Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution, while Greenblatt emphasized Trump’s desire for peace through direct negotiations.
The statement mentioned the possibility of a meeting in Washington between Abbas and Trump — which would only ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions if Abbas presents himself as a partner for peace, willing to compromise for the sake of an agreement.
Israel’s right, however, wants to move in the other direction. During Greenblatt’s visit earlier in the month, politicians from Jewish Home and Likud had planned to introduce a bill to annex Ma’ale Adumim, a West Bank settlement just outside Jerusalem.
Israel has never annexed any part of the West Bank it captured in the 1967 war outside of East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements there are illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this on historical and religious grounds.
“Trump is genuinely interested in making peace. He’s been very consistent about that. I think he sees it as a personal challenge,” said Chemi Shalev, a senior columnist with Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper. “And he had to get over bad relations with Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and part of that is that the Saudis have made it clear to him that if he’s thinking of creating (a regional) anti-Iranian bloc, at least part of that has to be a semblance of a peace process with the Palestinians.”
To some degree, President Barack Obama’s deep opposition to settlements helped Netanyahu navigate the thorny politics of the issue. It gave him the political cover to satisfy the right wing with only small steps on settlements — making the case that he could do not more — so that he didn’t face major blowback from the US, international community and Israeli center and left.
Trump is making some signs that he’s no fan of settlements either, but the right doesn’t see his opposition as stiff enough to warrant Netanyahu caving in and therefore is unlikely to be satisfied with small steps. (For one thing, both the President and his pick for ambassador to Israel have given money to the Beit El settlement’s schools.)
The current term of Israel’s government runs until late 2019. Few think it will last that long.
In addition to the political pressure Netanyahu faces, he is under criminal investigation in a corruption probe, suspected of receiving gifts from overseas businessmen. So far, he has been questioned by police four times, though police and the attorney general’s office have been guarded with information about the investigation.
Netanyahu has sworn the investigations will lead to nothing, as they did when he was investigated in his first term as prime minister in the late ’90s. But an indictment would put political and public pressure on him to step down despite his promise not to do so. Under Israeli law, he has to step down only if he is convicted and if that conviction is upheld through the appeals process.
As the investigation inches along, election fever is in the air. Three parties have called for early primaries.
Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, announced he has split off from the Likud to form his own party. Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid centrist party and one of Netanyahu’s primary rivals, has been running even with Netanyahu’s party in recent polls. Right-wing Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel has promised to leave Netanyahu’s coalition if the premier agrees to any limitation on settlement construction.
“Even though (the coalition) doesn’t want elections, there’s a growing sense that elections may be around the corner in any case, and in that case the Jewish Home will press on with the annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and will attack whatever arrangements Netanyahu has with Trump,” said Shalev. “It’ll go from bad to worse from the point of view of the stability of the coalition.”
Netanyahu himself threatened elections one week ago, despite strenuous objections from his coalition and his own party. Critics have pointed out that calling an election would also, under Israeli law, freeze the criminal investigation of Netanyahu. It may also be a way of keeping the smaller parties in the coalition in line.
It is a sign of the instability in a government that was supposed to be reinforced by Trump’s victory, not undermined. Netanyahu finds himself trying to balance the demands of his own coalition with the unpredictable expectations of a president who is not the partner Israel’s right wing thought it was getting.