When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that a push toward annexation of Judea and Samaria would result in “an immediate crisis” with the Trump administration, he provoked a firestorm of criticism from many within the Netanyahu government. Members of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties decried what they felt was a timid approach that would squander a presumed historic opportunity to create new facts on the ground with the approval or indifference of the new American president.
But while that point of view may echo some of the more extravagant hopes of U.S. President Donald Trump’s American Jewish supporters, Lieberman isn’t wrong. Israelis may well celebrate the marked shift in tone from former President Barack Obama’s attitude, but they would be foolish to think Trump has any intention of handing them a blank check. The reasons need to be understood in the context not only of the chaos that is the Trump administration’s early days but also Israel’s strategic needs.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump has no personal agenda vis-a-vis Israel and is inclined to reverse any stand of Obama’s. That makes him favorably disposed toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that Obama so despised. Yet Israelis should not mistake that sympathy for any real ideological affinity for the nationalist camp’s worldview. Trump is deeply influenced by his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s ardent pro-Zionist point of view but his views are not going to be the only factor shaping U.S. foreign policy.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is also going to have a lot to say about the direction of the administration. Mattis, who was unknown to Trump before last November but since seems to have won his trust and admiration as a military hero, has already gone on record as subscribing to traditional establishment views about settlements being an obstacle to peace and the U.S. alliance with Israel being a liability in America’s dealings in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Mattis also asked for — and got — Trump’s approval for the appointment of State Department veteran Ann Patterson as undersecretary of defense for policy. Patterson’s unsavory record includes fostering good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood during her time as Obama’s ambassador to Egypt and she has also defended the Palestinian Authority’s policy of paying salaries to convicted terrorists and their families. Meanwhile, Trump vetoed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s request to appoint Elliott Abrams, an able veteran of both the State Department and the National Security Council and a staunch friend of Israel, because Abrams criticized the president during last year’s campaign.
But no matter who has the president’s ear at any given moment, the notion that Trump is likely to grant approval to Israel annexing any part of the West Bank is a fantasy.
It remains to be seen how committed Trump will be to reviving the peace talks that he has tasked Kushner with conducting. The idea of achieving something all his predecessors have failed to do appeals to the president’s considerable hubris. But even if he understands that Kushner’s assignment will remain a fool’s errand so long as the Palestinians are uninterested in recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state, Trump is not going to stand for anything that could stand in the way of what he sees as the real estate deal of the century.
That’s why, even during his love fest with Netanyahu last month, Trump made it clear that he didn’t want Israel to do anything provocative, like expanding settlements. Trump may be amenable to shifting U.S. policy back to what it was under George W. Bush, whose 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made clear that the U.S. wasn’t opposed to growth in the major settlement blocs or the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, but he has yet to say so. Much like the dashed hopes of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the longer he waits, the less likely it is to happen. Regardless, after making his views clear to Netanyahu, someone as touchy as Trump would be likely to regard annexation as a personal insult.
There is also the fact that, as Lieberman reportedly made clear in his talks with Mattis this week, Israel has other objectives. Israel doesn’t want Trump to punt responsibility for the war against ISIS. It needs America to be actively engaged in the Middle East if the growing threat from Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries is to be countered. If that does happen, the U.S. will want quiet on the Israel-Palestinian front even if America’s woes in the Muslim world have nothing do with settlements.
Netanyahu understands that while Trump is sympathetic to Israel and a significant improvement over Obama, he won’t spend his political capital defending the agenda of the Israeli far Right. Trump is likely to allow Israel more freedom of action to defend itself and strengthen the settlement blocs, even if the embassy never moves. And unlike Obama, Trump is not obsessed with imposing a two-state solution in order to “save Israel from itself.” But to think that the American president has any desire to watch Israel scuttle peace talks even before they begin is to badly misunderstand a relationship that still requires a delicate balancing act on Israel’s part.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter @jonathans_tobin.