If he survives his mounting legal problems, next year Benjamin Netanyahu will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, surpassing the state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. Throughout his terms in power (which include a first term, from 1996 to 1999, preceding his current tenure, which began in 2009), Netanyahu has had to deal with Democratic US presidents who were committed, at least in theory, to the two-state framework. As a result, Netanyahu has been forced again and again to pay lip service to the very idea—a Palestinian state—he had made his name opposing. Last week, in the promised land of Trump, Netanyahu finally got to hear an American president walking back on the two-state solution. The Israeli prime minister didn’t even try to hide his sense of triumph and vindication.
But the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump did very little to shed light on the new administration’s Middle East policy or, specifically, on its approach to the Palestinian issue. Early in his presidential campaign Trump had promised to be a “sort of neutral” arbitrator between the parties, only to radically pivot to the Israeli side later on. Then came the promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which was quickly put on hold after his inauguration. Now the president has appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to pursue “the ultimate deal,” while depriving him of a clear end-goal or any realistic parameters for such a deal.
This incoherence is interpreted on the Israeli side as a major opportunity. The Trump administration’s desire to appear much closer to the Israeli government than the Obama administration was, along with the evident vacuum on the policy level, has led many Israeli politicians to believe that they now stand a chance of rearranging the entire context of the Palestinian problem—not just during the Trump presidency, but for decades to come. The only question is where to go: A regional arrangement involving Israel’s Arab neighbors? Major settlement expansion under continued occupation? Annexation of the West Bank, whether partial or total?
Since his return to the prime minister’s office in 2009, Netanyahu has pursued a status-quo-oriented policy. Israel has been expanding settlements slowly, focusing on the 60 percent of the West Bank that is still under its direct military control, along with key neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. But Netanyahu was careful not to initiate large-scale actions that could bring about a serious backlash, from damage to economic relations with the European Union to a case at the International Criminal Court. In the Gaza Strip, Israel carried out consecutive military operations that inflicted much suffering on the civilian population, but the idea of toppling Hamas, which has been in control of the Strip since 2006, was rejected again and again, on the understanding that retaking Gaza will bring about negative consequences for Israel, both on the ground and internationally.
The new reality in Washington encourages more pro-active thinking, from settlement expansion to the retaking of Gaza. While in opposition, Avigdor Lieberman had made toppling Hamas one of his landmark policies; as defense minister, Lieberman is now taking a more careful line, but he could be tempted to try to fulfill his promise in the event of another escalation, planned or unexpected. In the West Bank, the settler leadership isn’t satisfied merely with new housing projects; it would like to see changes in the legal status of strategic parts of the West Bank. In the north, Israel would like to have its share in a Syria bargain—primarily, international legitimization of its occupation of the Golan Heights—if and when such a deal emerges.