Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Spotlight on Netanyahu

Trump — positioning himself as the best ally to Israel in a US president, ever — has called on Binyamin Netanyahu to be reasonable. Has the message been received

President Donald Trump’s positions on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the presidential campaign of 2016 had been quite alarming from both an Egyptian and an Arab point of view. He had promised, for example, to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He nominated a pro-settlement American millionaire to the post of ambassador to Israel who said, after his nomination, that once confirmed by the United States Senate (the Senate hearings are due to begin this week), he would work from his office in Jerusalem. Furthermore, then-President-elect Donald Trump criticised the Obama administration for not exercising its right of veto in the Security Council the day it adopted Security Council Resolution 2334 against Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

These positions caused alarm in the Arab world while being interpreted by the Israeli settler movement and its extreme-right backers within the Knesset, and the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, as a signal that the Trump administration will not oppose the further annexation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank through a well-thought out settlement policy that has aimed from the outset to annex the West Bank and bring it under Israeli sovereignty. True to form, the number of settlements and housing blocs in East Jerusalem and existing settlements has increased spectacularly since Trump entered the White House 20 January.

Prior to the swearing-in ceremony, experts debated whether a Trump administration would honour the candidate’s promises or would honour traditional US policy towards peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, including, of course, the US position towards settlements. The big “if” was whether the new Republican administration would work with the international community and the Middle East Quartet on the implementation of a two-state solution in Palestine. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations had been committed to this vision of two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side, within internationally recognised borders. Sovereignty and independence for Palestine and security for Israel — that has been the credo in Washington from 2003 until today. So the big question was whether the new administration would work towards this goal, or whether the Israeli extreme right with its American supporters would succeed in thwarting international efforts to bring this two-state solution to life.

These question marks became more persistent when the White House announced that President Trump would receive the Israeli prime minister at the White House 15 February. It is an open secret that Netanyahu is not very enthusiastic, to say the least, about the establishment of an independent and a sovereign Palestine, nor is he interested in going back to the pre-5 June 1967 borders. It is the first official meeting between the two who met last September in New York. The two talked over the phone at the end of January, and according to a White House readout, the Netanyahu and Trump pledged to work together to meet the challenges in the Middle East and vowed to cooperate to contain Iran. They believe that Tehran must be checked and confronted across the region and beyond.

In his first interview with an Israeli newspaper, Israel Yahom, that was published on Thursday, 9 February, President Trump had several surprises for almost everyone. Between saying, “I understand Israel very well and I respect Israel,” and, “…I think we are going to have a better relationship,” and “I want Israel to act reasonably in the peace process,” there is, undoubtedly, deep changes shaping up within the White House.

The bombshell came in the following statement by President Trump concerning Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. He affirmed, for the first time, that, “I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace. But we are examining a number of options.”

Trump neglected to elaborate on the nature and scope of these options. Maybe a temporary freeze once peace negotiations are resumed between the Palestinians and the Israelis — negotiations that came to a complete halt in April 2014. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on the Knesset law that passed last week legalising the expropriation of Palestinian homes. The justification given for such a position is that this law would be sued before Israel’s Supreme Court and it is preferable to await its verdict, that some observers believe would overturn it. This has helped ahead of the Trump-Netanyahu White House meeting. Don’t embarrass the Israeli prime minister publicly or put him on the spot before the extreme right political parties in his homeland, some of which are his coalition partners.

Whether the Israeli prime minister understands and appreciates this gesture remains to be seen. I have my doubts. On the other hand, it was encouraging to note that the US president does not believe that settlements help the peace process, and especially the two-state solution. He said that, “every time you take the land for settlements, there is less land left… I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

If President Trump will forcefully stress such principles in his dealings with the Israeli prime minister, then peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis still has a chance before it is too late amid the frenzied pace of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

On peace prospects between the Palestinians and the Israelis, President Trump told the Israeli newspaper that peace “will finally happen after so many years. And maybe there will even be a possibility of a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians. I want both sides to act reasonably, and we have a chance at that.”

A promising starts less than a month after being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. However, the US president has a very rosy view of the Israeli prime minister, which I find perplexing. President Trump believes that Netanyahu “would like peace; I believe that he wants peace and wants to have it badly.” Good news for those of us who have been watching Netanyahu scuttle every peace chance with the Palestinians ever since he had come to power for the first time in 1996. We will see whether the Israeli prime minister will live up to this surprising depiction.

The larger peace that Trump talked about above is something that the Obama administration brought up its final days in the White House. Former secretary of state John Kerry, in his speech on 28 December 2016, to explain why the United States abstained during voting on Security Council Resolution 2334, said that once peace is established between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a grand security partnership in the Middle East could emerge that would bring together Israel, the United States, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The objective would be to contain Iran. For sure, that would be the main objective that the Israeli prime minister would seek to accomplish in the medium term through closer cooperation with Washington, without giving much in return on peace with the Palestinians, let alone an Arab-Israeli peace.

If President Trump, through his interview with Israel Yahom newspaper, meant to send certain coded messages to Netanyahu before their scheduled meeting, the Israeli prime minister, for his part, got the message. In remarks to his cabinet Sunday, 12 February, Netanyahu said that he understands “there is great excitement about this meeting. But my primary concern is Israel’s security [and] the strengthening of our solid alliance with the United States.” He added that this “requires responsible policies, policies that are given careful consideration, and that’s how I intend to act”.

Surely, he got the message from Trump’s White House. But will he follow-through?

 The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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