Israel gets friend in White House, but beware Donald Trump's unpredictability
Even as Trump backed away on a 2-state solution with Palestinians, he discouraged more West Bank settlements
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally has the U.S. president he's always wanted. But Donald Trump's famous unpredictability may prove him to be not the leader that Israel's right wing has been longing for.
Netanyahu, now in his second term leading Israel, has always had to deal with presidents hailing from the Democratic party when visiting the White House — until Trump was sworn in last month. The common thinking is that a Republican in Washington would find more common ground with the Likud leader in Israel.
"There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump," Netanyahu glowed from the podium in the East Wing of the White House yesterday, with the president standing next to him. (Some Israelis may not buy that because of the president's proximity to Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist whose Breitbart website has been accused of anti-Semitism.)
And indeed, Netanyahu got exactly what he wanted on this trip to the United States: the chance to bury eight years of testy relations with Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.
As a bonus, Trump gave Netanyahu some cover to allow the prime minister to back away from his 2009 declaration that he supports the two-state solution to end the conflict.
"I'm looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like," Trump said Wednesday.
That statement walks back U.S. policy that began under former president Bill Clinton, who said in 2001, "There is no choice but to create two states and make the best of it."
This is a very important day for everyone who loves the Land of Israel.- Likud member Ofir Akunis
Trump's shift gives Netanyahu a boost domestically, as he's under pressure from the right flank in his coalition government, which opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and argues instead for the annexation of parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"The flag of Palestine was removed today from the flagpole and has been replaced with the Israeli flag," said Naftali Bennett, Israel's education minister and the leader of the Jewish Home party. "The Palestinians already have two states: in Gaza and in Jordan. There isn't any need for a third."
"At long last, the end of that misguided and dangerous idea: the establishment of a Palestinian terrorist state in the heart of the Land of Israel," said Israel's science minister Ofir Akunis, a member of the prime minister's Likud party.
"This is a very important day for everyone who loves the Land of Israel."
But with the one-state option now something the Trump administration is considering, it could force Netanyahu to spell out where he stands.
He refused to voice his support for the two-state solution in Washington yesterday, saying, "Rather than deal with labels, I want to deal with substance."
In Netanyahu's court
Netanyahu said the idea of two states means different things to different people, while repeating his two prerequisites for supporting the creating of a Palestinian state: Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and continued Israeli security over the West Bank.
There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.- President Donald Trump
"Now the ball is in … Netanyahu's court," wrote Shlomo Pyoterkovsy in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. He noted that this brings a challenge for the prime minister as well: "Now he is going to have to shift into a proactive stance. He is going to have to chart a course and set out on it."
The one-state, two-state discussion largely overshadowed the item at the top of Netanyahu's agenda Wednesday: Iran and the prime minister's continued opposition to the 2015 international agreement to limit its nuclear program.
Trump once again called it "one of the worst deals I've ever seen," but there is little indication that he has any plans to scuttle it.
Instead, the president chose to rebuke Netanyahu on an issue many Israelis had expected full support from Trump: settlements.
"I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit," Trump said, as he turned to face Netanyahu.
Emboldened by Trump's election, the Israeli government has approved the construction of 6,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank in recent weeks.
"The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump's arrival as president," said Jerusalem deputy mayor Meir Turgeman last month. "We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama. Now we can finally build."
But Trump hasn't given Israel's right the green light it had expected.
"[Settlements] don't help the process. I can say that," Trump told the newspaper Israel Hayom. "There is so much land left. And every time you take 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."