Netanyahu Is Playing Games With Trump, But It Might Backfire

Analysis by Jotam Confino.

Since Donald Trump was elected President of the US, several countries have tested him to figure out how far they can go. Iran literally tested Trump by conducting a ballistic missile test in defiance of United Nations resolution 2231. The UN resolution was put in place only days after the nuclear deal was signed, which didn’t include restrictions on ballistic missiles. The test was a clear sign to the new President that Iran will not be intimidated by Trump, and at the same time it tested his temper.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is playing the same games as Iran by testing how far he can go with Trump. Netanyahu is currently under extreme pressure domestically, with several ongoing criminal investigations and a cabinet which undermines him every chance they get. Naftali Bennett is among Netanyahu’s biggest rivals, and the minister of education is using his support among the settlers to pressure Netanyahu on the settlements in the West Bank. Bennett very well knows that Netanyahu has many enemies, both in his own party and in the media.

When it was revealed that Netanyahu had tried to bribe one of the biggest newspapers in Israel, the media quickly declared the end of Bibi. Nevertheless, the king of politics in Israel has once again shown his ability to stay in power. Domestically he conceded to the right wing parties regarding expansion of settlements, and foreign policy wise Netanyahu showed why he has been successful in politics for decades.

Maneuvering between Trump and Bennett

Netanyahu and the right wing politicians in Israel rejoiced when Donald Trump was elected President. Not only did they get rid of Obama and his stubbornness regarding settlement construction, they got a new President whom Netanyahu has had good relations with in the past. Moreover, the choice of US ambassador to Israel fell on David Friedman, an orthodox Jew with deep ties to settlers in the West Bank. It didn’t take long, however, before the Israeli right wing started getting less enthusiastic day by day. During his visit to the White House, Netanyahu couldn’t hide his excitement over Trump, until he was told to slow down the settlement construction. The warning was given casually yet unequivocally, and Netanyahu seemed to understand the message.

Then came Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who took the region by storm during his four-day visit to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Mr. Greenblatt surprised many by visiting the Palestinian refugee camp, Jalazun, near Ramallah. Both the media and the politicians quickly got the message that the Middle East envoy came to deliver; Trump is serious about a making an ultimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

A week later Netanyahu announced his plan to build the first new settlement in more than 20 years. The announcement was followed by condemnations from Germany, France, EU and Britain, but the White House chose to issue a softer message, in which the official policy regarding the settlements was reiterated. It seems as if Netanyahu was worried after Mr. Greenblatt illustrated the true intentions of the Trump administration, and therefore decided to create further facts on the ground in the West Bank. The decision to build a new settlement would both test Trump and at the same time ease the pressure on him from the right wing parties.

The test didn’t last for long. In the wake of the announcement, Netanyahu made a U-turn by announcing a policy of restrained settlement construction, in order to please Trump. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu stressed the importance of acting wisely and meeting the requests of Trump, which includes showing goodwill towards the Palestinians, by easing the pressure on the economy in Gaza and the West Bank.

The request by the Trump administration is yet another sign of how serious Trump is when it comes to striking a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump is not the only actor who is eager to restart peace negotiations. Several Arab states are standing in line to mediate an accept Israel in accordance with the 2002 Saudi initiative. Netanyahu has tried to play games with Trump by going against his warnings on expanding the settlements. He now finds himself in a cautious position, balancing between an unpredictable Trump that can make his life much harder, and a number of politicians such as Naftali Bennett, who are waiting for the right moment to replace him as Prime Minister.

If Netanyahu keeps playing games with Trump it could very well turn out to be a disaster for him. For now, he has convinced his cabinet of giving in to Trump’s request, but he can’t be sure that he can continue to do so. Naftali Bennett slammed Netanyahu a couple of days after the new settlement policy was announced, by claiming that Netanyahu missed an opportunity to convince Trump of an alternative to the two state solution. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, responded to Bennett’s accusation, by calling him “the last person who can preach pressure-resistance”. The latest moves by the Trump administration illustrate the difference between what the Israeli right wing expected from Trump and what they got. If Trump continues to push Netanyahu into following orders from Trump, the Prime Minister will end up with two choices;

1: Netanyahu will try to play more games with Trump and stay in power by giving the right wing parties what they want.

2: Giving in to Trump and turning his back on a large part of his coalition, likely facing a new election where he can try to form a new coalition with Isaac Herzog.

Netanyahu might be maneuvering brilliantly between Trump who is hungry for a peace deal, and Naftali Bennett who wishes to annex the West Bank and bury the two state solution. The question is for how long he can continue to play his games.

Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy. 

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