How Trump’s Defeat Could Mean More Policy Favors for Israel

Netanyahu has a wish list for the lame-duck president while Trump has a score to settle with Biden.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017. AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—For nearly four years, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy—from axing the Iran nuclear deal to marginalizing Palestinians to brokering normalization deals between Israel and Gulf Arab states—has been the gift that keeps on giving for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The policies have helped endear Trump to his evangelical base and allowed Netanyahu to advance his hard-line agenda.

Now, with Trump raging over baseless claims that the U.S. election was “stolen,” some officials and analysts are worried that he’ll use the last 10 weeks of his term to grant more favors to Netanyahu—on Iran and on Jewish settlements in the West Bank—that could complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s approach to the region or, worse, tip it further into chaos.

“Netanyahu hopes to get other things from the Trump administration in the weeks that remain,” said Moav Vardi, an international affairs reporter for Israel’s public broadcaster. “There are a number of issues on the agenda.”

The two sides are already discussing a new round of sanctions on Iran, an issue that reportedly came up during a stop in Jerusalem this week by the U.S. special representative for Iran, Elliott Abrams. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will follow up with a visit to Israel on Nov. 18.

But sanctions might not be the only thing Trump is planning. His recent dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper has spurred speculation that the president might be considering a military attack on Iran.

Netanyahu, long concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, has been agitating for war against the Islamic republic for years.

In addition to pressuring Iran, the Trump administration could still help the Israeli leader by brokering a new diplomatic opening in the Arab world or by looking the other way while Israel takes steps to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

That slate of potential unfinished business might help explain Netanyahu’s silence for more than 12 hours after U.S. news organizations over the weekend projected Biden as the winner in the election, Vardi said.

Netanyahu was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Trump in 2016. When he finally broke his silence on Sunday morning Israel time, he refrained from referring to Biden as the president-elect. And he paired his congratulations with gratitude to Trump for “the friendship you have shown the state of Israel and me personally … and for bringing the American-Israeli alliance to unprecedented heights.”

The deference to the president, who has refused to concede the race, reflects Netanyahu’s debt to Trump for the diplomatic windfall bequeathed to Israel—like normalization with the United Arab Emirates or the controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—political presents no previous U.S. president would have dared to bestow.

“You don’t want to be the first world leader to send congratulations,” Vardi said. “To congratulate Biden, it would have been like turning his back or insulting him. Then Trump won’t want to involve himself” on the issues that matter to the Israeli prime minister.

The pause wasn’t lost on alumni of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.

“I wondered whether @netanyahu’s 12 hour delayed, half-hearted congrats to @joebiden was because he was expecting Trump to do something for him in his last days,” tweeted Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “Turns out he was cooking up more sanctions on Iran w Pompeo. Wonder what else is in the pipeline.”

Yet analysts noted that Netanyahu is likely to tread carefully for fear of getting off on the wrong foot with the new administration. Despite personal ties with the president-elect, Netanyahu is seen as having thrown in his lot with the Republican Party. Memories linger of the vice presidential visit to Israel in 2010, when Netanyahu’s government famously snubbed Biden by announcing settlement-building in East Jerusalem.

The current talks between Israel and the United States reportedly involve sanctions targeting individuals and entities associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program—measures that could potentially hamper an effort by the Biden administration to reengage diplomatically with Iran on its nuclear program. Trump in 2018 abandoned the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by members of the Obama administration. Netanyahu, long critical of the deal, applauded the decision.

“It’s very clear that Trump and Israel would do anything in their power to make going back to a deal with Iran impossible,” said Shira Efron, a policy fellow at the Israel Policy Forum. “They are going to sanction things that would be difficult for Biden to unravel.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. president embarked on a lame-duck policy move that ruffled feathers in the region. In January 2001, weeks before his term expired, President Bill Clinton published his parameters for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In December 2016, the Obama administration abstained on a seminal United Nations Security Council resolution calling Israeli settlements in the West Bank a “flagrant violation” of international law, outraging both Netanyahu and Trump.

There’s also speculation that Netanyahu and Trump administration officials might be working toward normalization deals with other Arab countries, after security agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen told Israel Radio recently that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, and Oman could come next and expressed hope that the next administration would continue the policy.

Trump’s lame-duck period comes at a sensitive political juncture in Israel. The government could unravel in the coming weeks over the passage of a new budget, forcing Israel into yet another election—the fourth since early 2019. Parting gifts from the Trump administration could provide Netanyahu with political momentum ahead of a vote. At the same time, the prospect of conflicts with the incoming Biden administration—over a new Iran deal or West Bank settlements—could help Netanyahu argue to voters that he alone is capable of standing up to international pressure.

“Bibi is going to be more domestically vulnerable with a Biden administration. This interim period might affect our political stability,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor focusing on Israel-U.S. ties at Bar-Ilan University, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. He said political favors from Trump could help Netanyahu in a coming Israeli election.

They could also help Trump cement his foreign-policy legacy while having the added benefit of complicating Biden’s job.

For Palestinians, the concern is mainly focused on settlement expansion. Relations between the United States and the Palestinians reached a low point over the past four years, with Trump cutting funds to the Palestinian Authority, closing the Palestinian diplomatic mission in the United States, and issuing a peace proposal that envisioned Israeli annexation of wide swaths of the West Bank.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, called Trump’s defeat a “momentous occasion” but expressed worry about the lame-duck period.

“It’s very scary. Because these guys have no restraints,” she said in an interview. “They are hellbent on giving everything to Israel and creating the facts on the ground.”

Indeed, right-wing politicians have called on Netanyahu to persuade the Trump administration to greenlight annexation of parts of the West Bank.

While that’s seen as unlikely because it could jeopardize ties between Israel and the UAE, Trump could give his consent to more subtle moves, including settlement construction in areas that foreclose on any possibility of a Palestinian state or U.S. recognition of hilltop outposts that are disputed even under Israeli law.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a Trump associate and patron of the settlers, may also push for U.S. steps aimed at further normalizing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, like an agreement signed in October allowing U.S. research money to go to Ariel University in the West Bank.

“I would be watching David Friedman because he was the architect of this relationship. He would be looking for last-minute achievements,” said Tal Shalev, a political reporter for Walla! News, an Israeli online website. “One can assume that Bibi and David Friedman will try to get as much done to mark changes on the ground.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Israel did not respond to queries on the issue.

One dovish former Israeli diplomat urged caution when it comes to parting gifts from Trump.

“Even if there are no Israeli fingerprints, it can be costly,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the foreign ministry. “If you try to fool the new administration, it will hurt you. There are prices to be paid for a blitz.”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick