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Israel Navigates the Trump Era

Binyamin Rose

New administration an opportunity, not a wishing well

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

 Mishpacha image

LOOKING FORWARD Perhaps a bit premature, but the sign on a downtown Jerusalem building expresses hope for the future (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

T he first e-mail that accredited members of the foreign press in Israel receive on Motzaei Shabbos is the prime minister’s schedule for the coming week.

Normally, it’s a routine memo, with a reminder of the Sunday morning cabinet meeting and the PM’s travel schedule.

This past week’s e-mail was unusual.

It contained a video and statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu, extending an olive branch to the Iranian people.

“It struck me recently that I’ve spoken a lot about the Iranian regime and not enough about the Iranian people,” Netanyahu said. “We are your friend, not your enemy.”

Given that Binyamin Netanyahu is one of the most calculating politicians on the planet, one can assume his message was aimed at a wider audience than just disaffected Tehran youth. Indeed, it was designed to put him on the same geopolitical page as America’s new president.

“Donald Trump is not pleased with the Iranian nuclear agreement and their quest for hegemony in the Middle East,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, addressing the foreign press in Jerusalem the day before Trump took office. “He will look for Iranian violations and Israel will help him find them.”

Staking out Iran as his opening position was in keeping with Netanyahu’s long-held belief that Tehran is Israel’s leading, and perhaps only, existential threat. However, Netanyahu’s decision at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting to postpone a scheduled vote to annex Maaleh Adumim — Judea and Samaria’s largest city — until next month’s Trump-Netanyahu face-to-face meeting was seen as a show of clay feet.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of the Jewish Home party, told Army Radio: “This is a sympathetic administration. There is no reason why we can’t take unilateral steps that are right for us.”

Maaleh Adumim’s mayor Benny Kashriel didn’t address the annexation issues in an Inauguration Day interview with Mishpacha, but he did urge Netanyahu to press forward to end the settlement freeze. “I hope the prime minister will take advantage of this opportunity and allow us to build,” Kashriel said. “I am sure that this is a new era for the State of Israel.”

During the election campaign, President Trump clearly indicated that he didn’t feel Israel was treated with the proper respect by the Obama administration, and he vowed an attitude adjustment once he took office.

“Trump sees Israel as an ally. To him, we’re the good guys,” Professor Inbar says. “Trump is surrounded by right-wing Orthodox Jews. All of them share the same view on Iran and the UN, and are positively inclined toward Israel.”

However, this doesn’t mean that Trump has handed Netanyahu an Aladdin’s lamp for him to rub and make three wishes. “Trump’s Middle East policy will be dictated by deals made with Russia,” says Professor Inbar. “Netanyahu is a realist who understands what he can get from an American administration.”

Palestinian demonstrators may have misspelled Jerusalem but they say any embassy move there spells trouble

In that respect, the map of the Middle East under Trump will not fully reflect the Israeli right’s wish list. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has already signaled the contours of an understanding with the Trump administration will be similar to those contained in the April 14, 2004 exchange of letters between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush.

In those letters — which the Obama administration did not honor — Bush conceded that any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians had to take into account “new realities on the ground,” which were understood both then and now to refer to Israeli settlement blocs in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem, and an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River Valley.

This is a letter that Obama ignored, and Trump can easily explain that this was America’s policy before the historic accident of Obama the last eight years,” says Professor Inbar, who added that Trump will set US foreign policy through the prism of what’s good for America economically. “He is a businessman, after all, and he has said it quite openly. He wants a better deal. It doesn’t matter if he already has a good deal. He wants a better one.”

And Israel will benefit under Trump, because the less outside interference, the better. “Regional forces are dictating the main developments in the Middle East, and the US has proven it is not able to fix it especially with its type of impatient political culture,” he says. “These kinds of conflicts don’t end when John Kerry brings a plan for peace, but when the sides get tired of fighting.”

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