President-elect Donald Trump encourages ally to hang on until he takes office. Erica Nochlin reports.
When he was on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump painted himself as an uncritical champion of Israel — meaning he was willing to endorse pretty much anything Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government did, no matter how destructive it might be to the peace process. But with Mr. Netanyahu's first visit to Washington since Mr. Trump's inauguration looming on Wednesday, the new president has moderated his position on some key issues, leaving open at least the possibility that he could be a constructive player in the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Mr. Netanyahu is serious about peace, that is.
The Israeli prime minister has made stringing American presidents along into something of an art form. He has consistently preached the need for peace while taking steps that make the possibility of its realization narrower and narrower. He and his supporters blame Palestinians for rejecting chances for peace when they had them and for continuing to support terrorist activities. There's truth to that. But Mr. Netanyahu has also played a critical role in driving the two sides apart, principally by indulging the more hard-line elements of his governing coalition by allowing continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, gradually taking up land that would eventually form the heart of a Palestinian state.
In December, the United Nations condemned Israeli settlement building as a violation of international law, and in January, scores of world leaders warned that a two-state solution was at risk because of it. This month, Israel complied with a November court order to remove an illegal West Bank settlement, a move that angered hard liners in his coalition, and immediately thereafter, Mr. Netanyahu's government announced plans for thousands of additional settlements. He was evidently banking on a permissive reaction from the Trump government, rather than the pressure the Obama administration had placed on Israel to halt such activity.
But Mr. Trump, who had appointed as ambassador to Israel a staunch supporter of settlement building, made a surprise move by calling on Israel to halt such construction, at least until after his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. On Friday, he went further, telling an Israeli newspaper that he did not think "going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace." He has also backed away from a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that would surely have provoked the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world.
Settlement backers have long urged recognition of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in the West Bank as immutable "facts on the ground" that precluded a two-state solution. But Mr. Trump appears to be appreciating some other facts on the ground. In particular, if he wants to enlist Sunni Arab cooperation in the fight against ISIS, he can't afford to antagonize those nations by inflaming tensions over Israel. He's done enough damage already with his ban on travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations.
The president is reportedly considering using the often clandestine cooperation between Israel and those nations to contain Iranian influence in the region as the basis for multi-lateral talks on the Palestinian issue. It's not a new idea — at least the last two U.S. presidents have tried some variation of it. Whether it will work this time is anyone's guess, but it at least represents a realization by President Trump that acting like a far-right member of Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet was no recipe for peace.
But key questions remain. Will Mr. Netanyahu believe he can trust a president whose positions on fundamental issues in U.S.-Israeli relations have swung so wildly in a matter of weeks? Can he even have a candid conversation with someone who speaks (and tweets) with no apparent filter? And most of all, what matters more to Mr. Netanyahu, securing a lasting peace under a two-state solution, or keeping his government in power?