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Israel Prepares for the Age of Trump

Israel Prepares for the Age of Trump

Israel’s political scene reacted with surprising enthusiasm to Donald Trump’s shocking election last week. While the celebration from the Israeli right wing was to be expected, even figures on the center left have praised the president-elect. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, a man whose recent record as leader of the opposition would make even Hillary Clinton look like a political winner, announced on Facebook that the United States “has elected a leader who taught the pundits and sceptics that we are now in an new era of change and of replacing the old governing elites!”

Other Israeli politicians were quick to follow. The most interesting of these, perhaps, was Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party, who called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take advantage of the rare opportunity to immediately declare that Israel is stepping back from its support of the two-state solution. “This is the president-elect’s vision, as it was declared during the campaign,” said Bennett, whose party represents the settlers’ interests in both the government and the Knesset. “This should be our policy — simple, direct, and clear. The era of the Palestinian state is over.’

Other right-wing politicians were in a state of near-ecstasy over Trump’s promise to finally move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a commitment made but never acted upon by many of his Republican predecessors. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said that Trump was in a position to “make history” by going forward with the move. Trump’s new Israeli enthusiasts conveniently ignored media reports of both his evident character flaws and deep anti-Semitic and racist support during the last months of the election.

Netanyahu reacted with much more caution. A longtime follower of U.S. politics with deep connections to the GOP hierarchy — he is sometimes described as the “Republican senator from Jerusalem” — the Israeli premier refused to predict who would win the election when asked to do so during the summer, when Clinton seemed to be enjoying a comfortable lead. Netanyahu was quick to call Trump after his victory — becoming one of the first foreign leaders to do so — but not much was published about their conversation. It’s true that some of Trump’s statements during the campaign seemed to be drawn from the Israeli government’s talking points — but Netanyahu, a four-time winner of Israeli elections, is experienced enough to know the difference between campaign commitments and the complicated reality of the Oval Office.

There are already signs that Trump may be adapting to that complicated reality. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, he expressed hope that he could mediate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, referring to it as “the ultimate deal.” While Bennett may be disappointed that Trump did not come out with a full-throated attack on the idea of a Palestinian state, it is unlikely that Netanyahu was surprised.

The Israeli premier is far more concerned with improving U.S.-Israeli coordination regarding Iran — both Netanyahu and Trump blasted the Obama administration over the nuclear deal — and winning Trump’s cooperation in blocking pro-Palestinian initiatives and resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.

But perhaps the most pressing strategic question for Israel has to do with Russia’s military presence in Syria. Moscow’s deployment of two air force squadrons and sophisticated anti-aircraft systems in northern Syria has significantly limited Israel’s offensive capabilities on its northern front. Israeli officials consider it crucial to be able to operate the air force over Syria in order to attack convoys smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and to deter potential attacks on the home front.

Netanyahu made a point of meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin four times in less than a year in order to prevent escalation. But if Trump spearheads a reconciliation with Putin, this would be a huge achievement for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and definitely not good news for Israel, considering Assad’s alliance with both Iran and Hezbollah.

The Middle East is now one giant minefield, where every American move will have great implications. Israeli officials have privately expressed disappointment with the lack of a serious U.S. response to Russia’s brutal air campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo, seeing any victory for the Iranian alliance as bad for Israel. They are hoping Trump will show a tougher stance toward Iranian actions in the region more broadly, and that he will improve Washington’s relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, which has become one of Israel’s key regional allies.

A different source of concern has to do with U.S. security aid to Israel. In September, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding promising Israel an unprecedented $38 billion of military assistance during the next decade. It is, again, hard to say where Trump stands on this matter. Despite his proclaimed support for Israel, the president-elect also said during his campaign that he thought Israel should pay for U.S. aid.

Trump’s foreign policy, of course, is still a mystery. It is safe to bet that analysts in the Israeli National Security Council and Foreign Ministry are scratching their heads trying to figure out his administration’s intentions. On Friday, Haaretz reported that the Foreign Ministry believed Trump would be less engaged in the Middle East than President Barack Obama. A few hours later, Trump gave the opposite impression in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Israel’s right-wing back-benchers are euphoric over the U.S. election results, but presumably its prime minister knows better. The road ahead is yet unclear.

Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images