Trump's Election Prods Netanyahu to Make a Choice

Benjamin Netanyahu with Donald Trump in New York on September 25. Robert M. Danin writes that Netanyahu fears drawing attention to the settlements while Barack Obama remains in office. Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office (GPO)/Handout via REUTERS

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The election of Donald Trump has fueled an intense struggle within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government over the future disposition of the West Bank that Israel has occupied for nearly 50 years.

At one end of the debate is coalition partner and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the pro-settler Jewish Home party. Bennett declared Israel effectively unshackled by American constraints on settlement activity the day after Trump's victory, saying the "era of a Palestinian state is over."

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Bennett has also called for Israel to take immediate steps to annex parts of the West Bank. On Sunday, Bennett reportedly met in New York with three members of President-elect Trump's team and urged the new administration to consider alternatives to the land-for-peace approach pursued by previous American presidents.

At the other end of the debate is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler and someone not normally associated with Israel's peace camp. Lieberman has reacted to Trump's victory by calling for an Israeli settlement freeze in the vast majority of the West Bank.

Lieberman seeks to reach an arrangement with the next American administration that, in return for such a freeze, the U.S. would agree to certain Israeli settlement activity in the main settlement blocs that constitute less than 10 percent of West Bank land, consistent with the understanding reached between former President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Sharon in April 2004.

"If I can concentrate construction where 80 percent of the settler population lives and not build outside of the blocs—that is a good thing," Lieberman was quoted as saying.

Conspicuously absent from this settlement debate so far has been the prime minister himself.

One reason that Netanyahu has avoided the heated settlements discussion is immediate and practical: The Israeli prime minister is worried about what President Barack Obama may do before leaving the White House.

Foremost amongst Netanyahu's fears is that the Obama administration will take an unprecedented step and not extend an American veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activities.

Against that backdrop, Netanyahu fears exacerbating or in any way drawing attention to the settlements issue while Obama remains in office.

Yet with pressures from within his own government to take a stand on settlements, the prospect of a Trump administration taking office in early 2017 is likely to Netanyahu's hand.

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Throughout the 10 years that Netanyahu has served as prime minister, he has had to balance the interests of his pro-settler base with the preferences of American leaders concerned about Israeli settlement activities and committed to the formula of land for peace.

Through diplomatic maneuvering, he has been somewhat enigmatic. At times he professes a desire to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and ensure that Israel not become a binational state. At other times, Netanyahu has winked at the settlers and derided the Palestinians, accusing them of not being a genuine partner. Throughout, he has fueled a parlor game that can but guess at the Israeli leader's ultimate objectives.

To date, Prime Minister Netanyahu has avoided initiating any real path forward or in articulating his vision for the West Bank's final disposition. The election of Donald Trump—and the impulses it has fueled in Israel —may require Netanyahu to take some fateful decisions for his country's future.

Robert M. Danin is senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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