Why Netanyahu Will Miss Obama

Even before President Obama’s decision last week to abstain on a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, it was safe to assume that the Israeli government was eagerly awaiting his departure. In the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Obama — who skipped Israel on his first trip to the Middle East and later undertook secret nuclear talks with Iran — seemed unable to appreciate the depth of Israel’s security needs or the difficulties of Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic politics.

Mr. Netanyahu was officially neutral during the United States election campaign, but it’s a good bet that he privately rejoiced over the election of Donald J. Trump and the prospect of an American administration ready to align itself across the board with Israeli government positions. Mr. Trump’s immediate condemnation of Wednesday’s scathing anti-settlement speech by the departing secretary of state, John Kerry, no doubt only reinforced the feeling in Jerusalem that better days lay ahead.

But any celebrations in Mr. Netanyahu’s office may prove premature. By giving the Israeli prime minister all he claims to want and more, Mr. Trump could make his life vastly more difficult.

Consider some of the possible changes to American policy on the Palestinian issue. After the Obama administration’s clashes with Israel over its settlement policy and lack of action on a two-state solution, the new administration appears ready to embrace the notion of “greater Israel,” breaking with decades of American policy.

Mr. Trump’s top Israel adviser and newly nominated ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, has said he does not see settlements as an “obstacle to peace” (a longstanding mantra of the American government), that Mr. Trump would most likely support Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, and that support for the two-state solution itself may no longer be American policy.

But as much as Mr. Netanyahu chafed at Mr. Obama’s stance, he benefited enormously from it. Knowing how badly Washington would react if he sided with the far-right elements of his cabinet on “legalizing” illegal outposts or West Bank annexation, Mr. Netanyahu had a good argument for rejecting such calls, and he won domestic support for doing so.

Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency
Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Jim Hollander/European Pressphoto Agency

If Mr. Trump now ends up himself embracing these moves, Mr. Netanyahu may not be able to resist them — setting him on a course that he knows will have unpredictable consequences, from European boycotts to prosecutions by the International Criminal Court to the loss of support from American Jews uncomfortable with the prospect of perpetual Israeli rule over millions of disenfranchised Arabs.

Or take Mr. Trump’s campaign commitment to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, satisfying longstanding Israeli calls to recognize an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state — but also angering Palestinians and Muslims around the world. Like the visit by Ariel Sharon to what Jews call the Temple Mount (and which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary) in 2000, which prompted the second intifada, moving the embassy is a symbolic step that could have substantial repercussions.

It has the potential to provoke protests that could imperil the lives of Israelis and Americans, interfere with Israel’s critical and growing strategic and economic cooperation with its Arab neighbors, destabilize Jordan and undermine Israeli-Palestinian security ties. It is a move that Mr. Netanyahu can hardly oppose — he recently called the idea “great” — but may soon come to regret.

Perhaps the most important — and counterintuitive — area where Mr. Netanyahu may come to miss Mr. Obama is the Iran nuclear deal. I have no doubt that Mr. Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal was sincere. But it is also true that the accord had real advantages for him. By vigorously opposing the deal, he was able to strengthen the negotiating position of the American administration and its partners and present himself to the Israeli public as the candidate of toughness and strength — while at the same time reaping the benefits of an agreement that his top military advisers acknowledge has effectively halted Iran’s nuclear program and most likely staved off a military conflict.

With Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu now has an American partner who agrees with him that the deal is “disastrous” and threatens to blow it up. But if they kill an agreement the rest of the world believes is working, the United States and Israel will be blamed and isolated, other countries will refuse to reimpose the international sanctions that were necessary to secure the deal, and Iran will kick out inspectors and resume its frozen nuclear program. It would be supremely ironic, but not entirely surprising, if Mr. Trump started to take steps that recklessly threatened the nuclear deal, and Mr. Netanyahu ended up quietly urging him to keep it in place.

I’m sure that Mr. Netanyahu will be more comfortable with many of Mr. Trump’s policies and advisers than he was with Mr. Obama’s. At least initially — who knows how long Mr. Trump’s approach will remain consistent — Mr. Netanyahu will relish a partner in the White House who gives him apparently unconditional support.

But it is also worth remembering that in his long political career, there is little that Mr. Netanyahu has valued more than the predictability offered by the preservation of a secure status quo. Whatever he may have gained from Mr. Trump’s election, that is one thing he has almost certainly lost.

Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf region from 2013 to 2015.

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