On the face of it, it would seem that Benjamin Netanyahu’s troubles—if he had any, by the end of Barack Obama’s second term—are over. The Israeli prime minister has done more than any of his predecessors to make support for Israel into a partisan issue in the United States, campaigning hard for Obama’s Republican challenger in 2012. He stayed out of the 2016 campaign, but this was because it was almost a win-win: Hillary Clinton was to the right of Obama on Israel, while the support of any Republican nominee for Israel was almost preordained. What’s more, the ultimately triumphant nominee and Netanyahu see eye to eye on at least two crucial topics: the legitimacy of Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the risks of the nuclear deal with Tehran. Nevertheless, Netanyahu does have reasons for concern, on almost every front.
It is difficult to imagine Trump displaying more determination than his Oval Office predecessor or his erstwhile Democratic opponent in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he will probably stop short of declaring the two-state solution dead and buried, he is unlikely to attempt anything like a moratorium on settlement construction or apply any pressure on Israel to comply with international law. Although Trump made vague promises to solve the conflict for “humanity’s sake,” he does not seem to have a plan. Nor, it would seem, does anyone else around him, and he has yet to mend bridges with the Republican establishment sufficiently to attract any reasonably experienced and knowledgeable diplomats to his service. It’s highly unlikely, therefore, that we’ll see a substantial diplomatic initiative coming from Washington any time soon.
As with many other aspects of Trump’s ascendance, the threat comes not so much from concrete policy yet to be declared as from a normative shift already under way: The two-state solution and international law seem fated to rapidly lose luster as standards to which Israel is expected to adhere, even in lip service. Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s education minister and chief critic on the right, has raucously cheered this prospect, and he urged the prime minister to make use of Trump’s rise to declare the two-state solution dead and annex areas of the West Bank to Israel. This is also where Netanyahu’s headache begins. As a lifelong Greater Israel nationalist who built his entire political career on opposing partition of Israel-Palestine, Netanyahu has precious few ideological differences with Bennett. However, as a cautious, pragmatic nationalist, Netanyahu’s approach has always been to achieve the same ends through osmosis, steadily deepening Israel’s hold on the West Bank through settlement and infrastructure construction, incrementally easing the movement of goods and people across the West Bank, and keeping large-scale conflagrations contained to the Gaza Strip.
Rubbing this process in the face of Palestinians and the world by formally annexing even the less populated areas of the West Bank makes no practical sense to Netanyahu—if anything, it invites huge political risk in exchange for very little: Even if Palestinians don’t rise up and the world does not impose on Israel sanctions comparable to those imposed on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, this opens the door for Palestinians in annexed territories and beyond to demand voting rights, which in the long run would spell the end of the Jewish State. This is a big risk to run in exchange for a legal formality that will give Israel few privileges it doesn’t already enjoy as the occupier, while loading it with a host of responsibilities as sovereign.