On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”
It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do…the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”
Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.
But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games. The concept, championed by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, explains how interstate diplomacy and domestic politics interact: in negotiations, to navigate between the preferences of his constituency and those of international actors, a leader will often use the constraints imposed by each to influence the outcome. For example, when negotiating an international deal, a politician might point to the political pressures he or she faces back at home, and vice versa when appealing to his or her body politic.
Although all leaders play this two-level game, Netanyahu has been particularly adept at it over the eight years of the Obama administration. Netanyahu frequently points to the popular will, for example, in order to excuse his lack of cooperation on the settlements issue. And when it comes to domestic dealings, Netanyahu has used the White House as a bulwark against his own right flank. Although the perception of Netanyahu abroad is that he has barreled full steam ahead on settling the West Bank, the perception in Israel on the right is nearly the opposite.
Within his own Likud Party, Netanyahu occupies the left-wing flank and is viewed by Likud Knesset members as being too gradual and cautious in his settlement policies. To Likud’s right, Naftali Bennett and his camp believe Netanyahu is blatantly half-hearted in his commitment to a Greater Israel. Bennett and his supporters have advocated annexing Area C of the West Bank, which under the Oslo Accords was to be gradually transferred to the Palestinians, and have maintained constant pressure on Netanyahu to adopt more expansionist policies.
Throughout the fight with his own party, the ace up Netanyahu’s sleeve has been the Obama administration. He has used the pressure placed upon him by the White House and the State Department as a shield against his own coalition partners, arguing that he is limited in how extensive a settlement program he can institute in the West Bank because of what it would mean for Israel’s relationship with the United States and the diplomatic consequences that would ensue.
Although Netanyahu certainly isn’t the two-state solution’s biggest promoter, neither is he interested in creating a blatant one-state reality; he prefers to continue the status quo in which Israel controls the West Bank but does not officially annex it, gradually increasing the Israeli presence there while maintaining a veneer of openness to a two-state solution for some later date. The Obama administration has thus been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Netanyahu to carry out his preferred policy without suffering the full wrath of the Israeli right.
With Trump, Netanyahu will likely no longer be able to paint himself as a bold truth-teller who stands up fearlessly to the powerful and hostile leader of the free world. Indeed, Netanyahu’s posture has been, throughout his years in office, one of a goalkeeper: skillfully deflecting high-speed penalty shots from Washington. But if no one is trying to score against him, he will be forced to change his game. He may have to actually answer the existential question of what Israel’s desired borders are and what its future relationship with the Palestinians living in the West Bank should be.
Already, Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman, who himself lives in a remote settlement, has publicly spoken of reaching an understanding with the Trump administration in line with the George W. Bush–Ariel Sharon understandings of 2004, which limited settlement construction to major settlement blocs (although these were never properly defined). The Israeli government, in other words, is already looking for external constraints, even when none have been demanded.
Without the cover of international constraints, Netanyahu may be more vulnerable to attack from the likes of Bennett and other potential challengers, who have suspected and even publicly railed against him for being insufficiently nationalist. Many of Netanyahu’s rivals have been reluctant to take him on because he seemed invincible. But given his penchant for sending mixed signals during his time in power, those answers—whatever they are—could begin to crack what once seemed to be Netanyahu’s impenetrable political firewall.
By Michael Koplow & Natan Sachs