The Long Game of Benjamin Netanyahu

For two decades, Israel’s prime minister has sought to destroy the prospects for a Palestinian state. With a fifth term, he can finally do it.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy, and Colum Lynch
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after delivering a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

By winning a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is close to achieving the dream he has been pursuing for more than two decades—and he has U.S. President Donald Trump largely to thank for it.

Netanyahu’s Likud party tied for first place in Tuesday’s election in Israel, winning 35 seats in the 120-member Knesset and putting him in a strong position to form yet another government of right-wing and religious parties.

The mandate he received, despite facing indictments on corruption charges, will allow him to finally obliterate any hopes that the Palestinians will ever have a state of their own, making the much-anticipated peace plan of  Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, dead on arrival.

Decision by surprise decision, bit by stealthy bit, Netanyahu and Trump together have been creating what Israelis like to call “facts on the ground” that have put the Israeli leader in sight of dictating terms to the Palestinians that will leave them with no state or, at best,  a rump state that is little more than a squalid penal colony. And with Netanyahu continuing in power, “it will undoubtedly decrease to a minimum the chances that such an entity will ever be established,”  said Gilead Sher, the former chief of staff to Ehud Barak, the prime minister who came close to making a deal with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000.  

Trump and Kushner, who have spent more than a year developing a highly secretive peace plan, have already granted Netanyahu most of what he’s been seeking since he declared back in 2001—in remarks he didn’t know were being recorded—that he has been working to “put an end to the Oslo Accords” since his first premiership started in 1996.

Indeed Netanyahu and Trump have almost worked as a tag team in dashing Palestinian hopes for statehood. Less than two weeks after U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group—in what appeared to be a breach of confidentiality—that the forthcoming Trump peace plan would allow Israel to maintain security control of the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu sought to win votes just before the Israeli election by asserting that he would indeed annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The pledge delighted his right-wing base. That came two weeks after Trump—again apparently in response to a Netanyahu need or request—effectively legitimized the idea of annexation by tweeting that the United States was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967. “Thank you President Trump!” Netanyahu tweeted in response.

Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under former President Barack Obama, now sees little prospect of any advance toward negotiations with the Palestinians. That will be especially true if Netanyahu pieces together a new right-wing coalition even as he faces indictment for alleged corruption.

“He’s written a pretty big check [to the right wing], and they will try to cash it at maximum value,” Shapiro said. “They have a lot of leverage over him. … If he does follow through [annexing parts of the West Bank]—and he is going to be under real pressure to do so from coalition partners who will hold his political fate in their hands if he is indicted—that would accelerate the decline of any prospects of ever achieving a two-state solution.”

Netanyahu also thanked Trump for another election eve gift, a declaration that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a terrorist organization, which the Israeli leader said flatly in a tweet occurred because the president was “accepting another important request of mine.”

For Netanyahu, who despite his hard-line views on the Palestinians and Iran has always been cautious, the Trump administration has offered something close to carte blanche, which perhaps has emboldened the Israeli leader. Netanyahu “did not start that way. He is well aware of the devastating consequences of” annexation, said Nimrod Novik, a member of the steering committee of Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group of former Israeli security chiefs who favor a two-state solution. Novik noted that in the past, “when urged by his extreme right coalition partners and by some in his party to annex, he often used the ‘excuse’ of an American veto.” But that “vanished with Trump having replaced Obama. If there were still doubts about his stance, the president’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, and his justifying it by arguing that Israel won it in a war of defense, took care of that. The West Bank too was won in fighting Arab aggression. Indeed, our annexationist minority refer to the Trump tenure as a historic opportunity.”

Trump and his team appear to be playing the same facilitating role—only to a much greater degree—that Netanyahu described U.S. President Bill Clinton as doing in his unscripted remarks from 2001. Back then, he told Israeli settlers he was gaming the Oslo process, only pretending to go along with the idea of a two-state solution for the Palestinians. “I know what America is,” Netanyahu said then. “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

At the time, in a striking piece of evidence that his annexation announcement this week and Friedman’s earlier statement about security control of the West Bank were part of a long-term plan, Netanyahu described how he prodded Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, to agree to let Israel alone determine which parts of the West Bank were to be defined as military zones. That would give Israel a right to maintain its hold over large swaths of the territory in the long run. Only then, Netanyahu said, would he fulfill his pledge to withdraw from parts of occupied Hebron. But it was all a ploy, he indicated. Once he forced the Americans to accept Israeli security control, Netanyahu said, “from that moment on, I de facto put an end to the Oslo accords.”

After Netanyahu lost the premiership to Ehud Barak in 1999, Clinton came close to forging a Palestinian state at Camp David but failed in the end. And after Netanyahu won re-election in 2009, he set about completing the work he’d started in the 1990s, frustrating every effort by Obama to push for peace while continuing to create new facts on the ground in the form of West Bank settlements that ensured the Palestinians would get less and less territory in any final agreement.

In Trump, however, Netanyahu has apparently found his American political avatar—a president who appears ready to endorse and sign off on nearly every move he makes, against both the Palestinians and Iran. After Trump’s Golan tweet at the end of March, the Israeli leader said: “Mr. President, over the years Israel has been blessed to have many friends who have sat in the Oval Office. But Israel has never had a better friend than you. You have showed this time and again.”

In the more than two years since Trump was inaugurated, the administration and its negotiating team—Kushner, his aide Jason Greenblatt (a former real estate lawyer for the Trump Organization), and Friedman—have unilaterally withdrawn, one by one, various rights and recognitions from the Palestinians that both sides used to consider “final status” issues to be negotiated under Oslo. At Kushner’s urging, Trump announced he was moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and ended the formal U.S. relationship with the PLO by closing its office in Washington. The administration also denied a right of return for Palestinians to Israel and pulled funding to support Palestinian refugees.

And Friedman, another hard-liner, spoke plainly on March 26 at the AIPAC conference of using the forthcoming Kushner peace plan to allow Israel to maintain “overriding security control” of the West Bank. Friedman employed the same biblical terms that Israeli right-wingers use to describe the West Bank, “Judea and Samaria”—connoting what they believe to be their ancient right to that land—and said the Trump administration was addressing this issue because a future U.S. administration may not “understand the existential risk” to Israel if this control is not granted.

The Trump administration said Tuesday it had no comment on when the Kushner peace plan might be unveiled.

What remains unclear is how much of Netanyahu’s most recent moves have been mainly aimed at securing an election victory against a formidable centrist candidate, the former army chief Benny Gantz. Until recently, Netanyahu has resisted mounting pressure in his party to adopt laws authorizing the annexation of parts of the West Bank, favoring instead a kind of creeping annexation through the gradual acquisition of Israeli settlements. That changed as he saw the need to reach out to far-right voters.  

But Netanyahu may pay a price for backing a partial annexation of the West Bank. The Israeli leader risks undercutting a carefully managed effort to cultivate under-the-radar alliances with key regional Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia. Israeli coordination with Palestinian security forces in the West Bank will almost certainly come to an end, raising the prospect for Israel to send troops into the region to ensure its own security, Novik predicted.

“Once the Knesset votes to approve a partial annexation of the West Bank, the dominoes will start falling,” he said. “Israeli forces will have to move in to retake the areas where 2.6 million Palestinians live, because the alternative is opening the door to Hamas, or armed crime or terror groups.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch