JERUSALEM – From recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to cutting aid to Palestinians, President Donald Trump has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the unprecedented gift of strong U.S. alignment with a nationalist Israeli government.
With the two leaders in sync personally and politically, Israel has become one of Trump’s strongest supporters on the global stage. But this friendship also has unleashed forces that could harm Israel in the long run by damaging its traditional bipartisan support in Washington and propelling it onto a risky path toward a binational state with the Palestinians.
This week’s decision by Trump to suspend $65 million in funding to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants was the latest in a series of steps by the president that have embraced Israel’s positions toward the Palestinians.
For Netanyahu, it has been a welcome contrast to President Barack Obama, with whom he repeatedly clashed for eight years over West Bank settlement construction and Israel’s tough line toward the Palestinians.
Trump, while promising to pursue what he called the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, has promised to reverse virtually everything Obama stood for.
His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and his Middle East peace team, led by son-in-law Jared Kushner, is dominated by strong supporters of Israel, many of them Orthodox Jews with deep ties to the settlement movement.
Since taking office, Trump has distanced himself from the two-state solution embraced by the international community since Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo interim peace accords in the 1990s. He says he would support such a solution only if both sides agree, giving Netanyahu’s government, dominated by opponents of Palestinian statehood, an effective veto.
Trump has voiced little opposition to Israel’s continued settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their hoped-for state.
But the biggest game changer came last month when Trump, honouring a campaign promise, upended decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promising to relocate the U.S. Embassy to the city. The Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, as their capital.
Trump said his decision merely recognized reality and was not meant to prejudge the final borders of the contested city. But the groundbreaking announcement was perceived far differently by the sides.
Netanyahu said he was “profoundly grateful” for Trump’s “courageous” decision.
For the Palestinians, the announcement was seen as unfairly siding with Israel on the most sensitive issue in a decades-old conflict. It drew angry condemnations, sparked weeks of sometimes deadly unrest, and prompted the Palestinians to declare Trump unfit as a Mideast mediator.
Their frustration boiled over in an angry speech this week by President Mahmoud Abbas, who mocked Trump and his peace team, declared the Oslo peace accords dead and pre-emptively rejected any peace plan that Trump’s team may present. When Vice-President Mike Pence visits next week, Abbas will be out of town and the Palestinians will not meet with him.
“How can we trust this administration?” Abbas said in a speech this week. “The unjust American position on Jerusalem has enticed the occupying power to persist in its arrogance and aggression against our people, our land and our holy sites,” he said.
Trump has dug in his heels. In a Jan. 2 tweet, he described the Palestinians as ungrateful and threatened to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
He followed through this week by suspending a $65 million payment to the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The State Department said the U.S. wanted to see reforms in the organization, adding that the suspension was not a punishment.
Netanyahu welcomed the move, though critics in Israel, including many security experts, have said it will backfire by causing hardship and instability in the Palestinian territories. Trump’s long-awaited peace proposal, meanwhile, appears to be on hold.
Netanyahu’s nationalist partners have been emboldened by these developments. Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, has called on the government to annex the 60 per cent of the West Bank incorporating the Israeli settlements. Netanyahu’s own Likud Party approved a similar proposal in a nonbinding vote.
Ariel Kahane, the diplomatic correspondent for the pro-settler newspaper Makor Rishon, said now is the time for Israel to persuade the U.S. “to abandon the bilateral route” with the Palestinians and step up settlement construction.
“Israel needs to establish irreversible facts on the ground while it concomitantly tries to reach agreements with the Arab countries over the Palestinians’ heads,” he wrote. “To the right-wing government: This is your opportunity.”
Indeed, Israel’s right, after years of clashes with U.S. administrations over the settlements, may have an opportunity to barrel ahead with expanded construction. With over 600,000 Israelis living in the settlements spread throughout the occupied areas, it already would be difficult to carve out a Palestinian state that includes the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Stepped-up construction could stamp out that possibility for good.
But Israel’s right wing has struggled to offer a viable long-term solution for the more than 2.5 million Palestinians living in these areas and 2 million others in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Combined with the Arab population in Israel, the number of Palestinians is near parity with Israel’s Jewish population.
Without the establishment of a Palestinian state, the thinking goes, Israel will become a binational state that would no longer be able to remain a democracy with a decisive Jewish majority. Israel would then have to choose between giving Palestinians citizenship — threatening Israel’s Jewish character — or creating an apartheid-like situation in which Jews have rights that Palestinians don’t get.
Israeli nationalists have called for pressure-easing steps like developing the Palestinian economy, “building bridges” at the grassroots level or giving expanded autonomy to Palestinians. But this would not resolve the deeper issue of the Palestinians’ final status.
“Those in Israel (or Washington) celebrating the demise of Abbas as a partner and any chance for a Trump peace plan should think again,” Dan Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, warned in the Haaretz daily. He said it is vital for the U.S. to keep pushing for a two-state solution.
Israel’s alliance with Trump could also have deep long-term repercussions in the U.S., where Israel has long prided itself on bipartisan support in Washington and support from American Jews.
Throughout Obama’s term, Netanyahu signalled his preference for the Republicans. His close ties with Trump risk worsening that perception. Surveys show that most American Jews support the Democrats and tend to hold moderate to liberal political views.
“By allying himself with Trump, Netanyahu sets the stage for a backlash that will hurt both Israel and Jews throughout the world,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization based in the U.S.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, said Netanyahu must be wary of getting “too friendly” with Trump.
“It’s a little bit tricky, how to maintain a good relationship with Trump while at the same time not to alienate American Jewry and the Democrats. That’s the bottom line.”
Federman, the AP’s bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories, has covered the region since 2003.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.