US-Israel relations: Is Trump backing down?

Netanyahu hopes for achievements relating to both the Palestinians and Iran, say analysts.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are to meet face-to-face for the first time since Trump's inauguration in January [Reuters]

Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet US President Donald Trump on Wednesday with the aim of winning major concessions on the two issues highest on his agenda, Iran and the Palestinians, say analysts.

It will be the two men’s first face-to-face meeting since Trump’s inauguration as president last month. The discussions are expected to set the tone of the US administration’s policy towards Israel and the Middle East over the next four years.

Trump’s unequivocal backing for Israel during his presidential run generated great excitement on the Israeli right, and was seen as promising a decisive break from the clashes that marked relations with his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Hopes were heightened further by Trump’s choice of David Friedman, an outspoken supporter of the settlements, as US ambassador to Israel.

But in recent days, Trump has appeared to backtrack on key campaign promises. That was especially evident in an interview published at the weekend in the Israel Hayom newspaper, widely seen as a cheerleader for Netanyahu.

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Trump described settlement construction as “unhelpful” and urged Israel to “act reasonably”. He added: “Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains.”

In recent weeks, Israel has announced thousands of new homes in the occupied territories, as well as a decision to build the first new settlement in more than two decades. The parliament, meanwhile, has passed the Regulation Law, which retroactively sanctions a massive land grab by the settlers.

There is no way the Palestinians can accept what is really a no-state option, packaged to cover up a system of bantustans in the occupied territories.

by Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian politician

In the interview, Trump appeared to pour cold water on his pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which it is widely feared could inflame the region.

Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, said Trump’s newfound caution was the result of recent talks with Arab leaders.

“Trump has finally banged up against reality in the Middle East,” he told Al Jazeera. “He understands that there is a wider picture he has to take account of.”

In response, Netanyahu has tried to lower expectation among his more extreme ministers. Settler leader Naftali Bennett, the education minister, has demanded that Netanyahu refuse to discuss Palestinian statehood with Trump. He has also pushed for Israel to start annexing the biggest settlements.

But at a meeting of the security cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu reportedly warned that Trump was determined to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. In comments that were leaked in Haaretz, he said: “Trump believes in a deal … We have to make every effort to avoid a confrontation with him.”

Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Netanyahu would play a shell game on the Palestinian issue to buy time.

“He will say one thing to Trump about being willing to make concessions for peace and something else to his domestic base and his government coalition partners, for whom talk of peace is anathema,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ezrahi added that it was a risky strategy, given Trump’s personality. “He has the capacity to be aggressive and vengeful if he feels crossed – much more so than Obama.”

Klein said it was nonetheless vital for Netanyahu to return with a policy “prize” from Trump. That would help the Israeli prime minister ward off potential challengers from within the governing coalition as he struggles against a mounting corruption scandal. He is under investigation for accepting gifts from billionaires, including cigars and champagne.

“The mantra from Netanyahu’s office is that he alone enjoys a special relationship with Trump that can benefit Israel, and that it would be ridiculous to oust him at this crucial moment over a few cigars,” said Klein.

Analysts believe Netanyahu is hoping for achievements relating to both the Palestinians and Iran.

His most important task will be to constrain Trump’s room to advance a peace deal with the Palestinians. The US president has indicated that his son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, will be in charge of any renewed talks.

Netanyahu’s approach, according to analysts, will be to appear to accommodate Trump with what the Israeli prime minister has termed a “state-minus”. The idea, on which Netanyahu has so far not elaborated, was unveiled shortly before the two leaders spoke by phone after Trump’s inauguration.

According to the leaks, Netanyahu will follow the pattern he used with Obama: declare support for limited Palestinian statehood, reiterate that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, and require the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu is also likely to demand Israeli “security supervision” over the Palestinians for many years, claiming it is necessary to prevent the emergence of violent Islamic groups in the West Bank.

But he will hope for more from Trump, said Klein. “Netanyahu wants to come back with an announcement that he has reached a strategic understanding – a grand design – for the West Bank,” he said.

That would include a green light from Trump to build in the “settlement blocs”, the largest in the West Bank, as a prelude to their formal annexation.

Highest on his agenda will be the strategic settlements of Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim. They would complete the severing of occupied East Jerusalem from the West Bank, while also dividing the West Bank in two – destroying any hope of Palestinian statehood.

Indications that Trump might agree to something less than a Palestinian state were confirmed by an unnamed official in Washington on Tuesday. According to the daily, Haaretz, Trump told reporters that the goal of any talks would be peace, but that did not necessarily entail a two-state solution. “If that’s what the parties want, we’re going to help them,” he said. “We’re not going to dictate what the terms of peace will be.”

Morton Klein, head of the World Zionist Organisation and close to key figures in the new administration, said separately that Trump would cut $600m annual aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it severed ties with the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Menachem Klein added that, with Trump’s backing, Netanyahu would hope to silence European opposition.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu hopes to recruit Trump to win over the Arab states. They would then use their influence to lean on the Palestinians to accept his state-minus plan. The New York Times reported last week that Trump might offer in exchange a promise to help in their regional struggle against Iran.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician in the West Bank, said Netanyahu’s state-minus plan was “camouflage for apartheid”. He told Al Jazeera: “There is no way the Palestinians can accept what is really a no-state option, packaged to cover up a system of bantustans in the occupied territories.”

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Barghouti also dismissed the idea that Kushner, whose family foundation has made large donations to the settlements and the Israeli military, could serve as an honest broker in negotiations.

However, Mouin Rabbani, a Jordanian-based fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies, said the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas would be unlikely to risk alienating Trump by rejecting a peace drive, even on such poor terms.

“The PA is eager for more contacts with the new administration,” he told Al Jazeera. “It is focusing on that rather than how best to confront and contain the new policies that may emerge from this meeting.”

The other prize Netanyahu is expected to seek from Trump is a tough line on Iran. On that score, he may find an open door. During the presidential campaign, Trump echoed Netanyahu in calling to tear up the nuclear deal Obama signed with Iran in July 2015.

Trump’s new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has in the past strongly backed Israel’s stance, tweeting in November that he looked forward to “rolling back” the agreement.

According to CBS News, in December, Netanyahu announced that he had “five things in mind” to tell Trump about how they could work to undo the nuclear agreement, though he did not disclose details.

However, Ezrahi warned that even an achievement on this front might rebound on Netanyahu. “The Israeli security services believe aggression towards Iran would increase, not diminish, the regional dangers for Israel,” he said.

Israeli intelligence assessments reportedly show that Iran is adhering closely to the agreement. According to Israeli analyst Ben Caspit, Netanyahu has been warned that overturning the accord would unite Iranians behind the regime and encourage Tehran to consider a “nuclear breakout” to fend off a possible attack.

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence, told the Haaretz newspaper last month that renewed hostilities with Iran would also anger the accord’s other signatories, especially China and Russia. They would “blame us for dragging Trump into doing this. They will not come to our aid,” he said.

And then, noted Klein, Netanyahu would have to circumnavigate Trump’s wish to forge closer ties with Russia. President Vladimir Putin has a long-standing strategic alliance with Iran that may force Trump to choose between Moscow and Israel.

Klein said: “There are complex global interests on this issue. Netanyahu will have to tread more lightly than he is used to doing.”

Source: Al Jazeera