As the world reacted in shock to Donald Trump’s surprise victory last Tuesday, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was one of the first to issue a congratulatory message. No one was surprised.
The election of Donald Trump appears to be the best thing Netanyahu could hope for. Netanyahu’s tenure has been served entirely with Democrats in the White House, from Bill Clinton in the late nineties to Barack Obama from 2008 to 2016. Many argue that Netanyahu has longed for a Republican in the White House, including accusations of meddling in the 2012 U.S. elections in efforts to elect Mitt Romney.
Now, for the first time, Netanyahu will have a Republican in the White House and a president who will seemingly apply no pressure on Israel vis-a-vis settlements or the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Many may think this fulfills Netanyahu’s dream- but in reality, it is his nightmare.
Netanyahu calls himself ‘Mr. Security’ but those who follow him closely know he is ‘Mr. Status-quo’: doing everything he can in a calculated manner not necessarily to advance his country’s interests, but to ensure his position of power.
In his government coalition of 67 Knesset members, 43 oppose a two-state solution, mostly from the Jewish Home and his Likud party. Netanyahu receives constant pressure from these 43 MKs to kill the two-state solution and begin annexing parts of West Bank.
Netanyahu may have had a difficult relationship with Barack Obama, but the current president in the White House allowed Netanyahu to suppress his right-wing coalition members. The pressure traditionally used by the State Department to prevent further settlement expansion is now gone.
The unraveling of the status quo has already begun, as Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett brought the Regulation Bill to vote Sunday. The bill would pave the way for legalizing dozens of outposts, allowing private Palestinian land to be built on by settlers, while making it increasingly difficult for the high court to rule against such legalizations. The State Department said the the Regulation Bill would be ‘an unprecedented and troubling step’ in Israeli settlement policy. Spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau added, “This legislation would be a dramatic advancement of the settlement enterprise, which is already gravely endangering the prospects for a two-state solution.”
The legalization initiative will only gain momentum when Trump assumes office. Mr. Status-quo, for the first time, will be forced to make difficult decisions that he has been able to avoid due to existing U.S. pressure. Under the Trump administration, Netanyahu will no longer blame the White House for not being able to approve outposts, expand settlements, and kill the two-state solution. Netanyahu can do it, and the majority of his government will support him.
But this is something Netanyahu doesn’t want to do. He has already reached out to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party to try to thwart the Regulation Bill, which is expected to be voted on this Wednesday. Netanyahu knows that annexing parts of the West Bank will have disastrous near and long-term consequences for both himself and for Israel.
His decision is straightforward: Netanyahu can either go along with Bennett and Shaked to keep his right wing coalition in place and effectively destroy the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or he can take Israel on a different course by halting settlement expansion and attempting to restart a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu banked on the fact he would have Hillary to lean on for the next four years. He now has no one. For the first time in recent memory, he will be forced to make important decisions. Remarkably he still has the opportunity to transform himself from Mr. Status-quo to Mr. Security and secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.