The Biggest Loser in Trump’s High-stakes Jerusalem Embassy Decision–Netanyahu
It was a trap all along, and Netanyahu could not help but fall in. In the end, the blood that will surely be spilled will not be on Trump’s hands, but on Netanyahu’s, and just the way Trump wanted it all along
It was a trap all along, and Benjamin Netanyahu could not help but fall in.
The fact that it was a snare partly of his own making – the trap inherent in any White House decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – only makes Netanyahu’s predicament that much worse:
Whatever decision Donald Trump makes this week, Benjamin Netanyahu stands to be the big loser.
If Trump had gone ahead and actually made good on repeated campaign promises to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Netanyahu knew better than anyone that what might have seemed the attainment of a dream for Israel, could very quickly have become the prime minister’s worst nightmare.
In fact, there are indications that Netanyahu, taking into account the advice of his own security and military establishment, actually wanted to see the president waive the embassy move and let the matter slide for the next six months. This, despite the fact that the prime minister, goaded by hard-right domestic and foreign-donor considerations, is firmly on record as urging the move.
It was clear to Netanyahu that if Trump green-lighted the embassy move, the consequences could be disastrous, ranging from igniting a new Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem and the territories, to full out regional war. Were that to have happened, Netanyahu, as vocal lobbyist for the move, would surely be blamed.
Moreover, Trump himself has given indications, most recently last June, that although as a candidate he promised to move the embassy, as a president he would dearly prefer to do nothing about it. Especially because the move could have far-reaching downstream effects across the Islamic world. Trump, having staked much of his foreign policy to good relations with Saudi Arabia, can ill-afford a worsening of ties, already frayed by the president’s perceived Islamophobia as expressed by his travel ban and virulently anti-Muslim tweets. All of this could play into the hands of Iran, in its struggle for dominance across a wide swathe of the area.
And, on the most immediate level, Israel does not want to be viewed by the Trump White House as having quashed any chance of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
What may happen now though may also be a succession of blows to Netanyahu, the worst of both worlds.
Netanyahu’s political fortunes are fast failing, police investigators are circling his office, and he sorely needs the perception of a triumph to help reverse his eroding popular support. But if, as expected, Trump settles for recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, rather than his promised move of the embassy, Netanyahu could face a double problem.
On the one hand, an eruption of Palestinian and pan-Arab rage and unrest could ensue, similar to what the embassy move might have sparked. On the other, Israelis could conclude that there is less to Netanyahu’s prestige and powers of persuasion with the White House than the prime minister has himself insisted.
Israelis know that Donald Trump gives away nothing for free. The question now is, what price will he exact? What will Israel now need to pay – and in return for much less than what they’d been repeatedly promised, and when the smoke clears, whatever the violence or diplomatic reversals or unwanted pressures Israel may now experience, there will still be no American embassy in Jerusalem.
There are a number of good reasons why four successive administrations in Washington (Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump) have resisted pressure to implement the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, a law passed by an overwhelming, likely unrepeatable margin in Congress (93-5 in the Senate, 374-37 in the House).
But one of the most important factors has also been one of those most closely kept from public view. This was the well-grounded fear of no fewer than six successive Israeli prime ministers (Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu once again), that moving the embassy and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can – for purely symbolic benefit, if that – detonate a conflagration of major proportions.
For decades, in well-rehearsed, all-too-familiar choreography, presidential candidates both Democratic and Republican vowed to move the embassy once in office, and Israel politely applauded their words. Once in office, the presidents, Trump until recently included, refrained from moving the embassy, and Israel silently uttered a sigh of relief.
In recent years, though, as Netanyahu has grown increasingly dependent on maximalist, anti-peace-negotiation donors and the support of fundamentalist messianic-rightist support both Jewish and Evangelical – and as heated competition from his coalition partners and Likud party colleagues grew increasingly extreme, Netanyahu has broken new ground – and taken new risks – in urging an embassy move.
The first direct indication came in late December 2016, weeks before Trump’s inaugural. Netanyahu protégé and Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, who had acted as a backstage adviser to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner during the campaign, enraged still-serving Obama administration officials by setting out a startling new line in favor of moving the embassy.
Along with sending a “strong message against the de-legitimization of Israel and of Jerusalem,” Dermer told an Israeli embassy Hannukah party in extensively quoted remarks, “the second reason why I think the embassy should be moved to our capital is that it would be a great step forward to peace. That’s right. A great step forward to peace.”
Dermer, who has long served as something of the Stephen Miller of the Netanyahu brain trust, seems to have been testing the political waters for a more strongly stated Israeli position on an embassy move.
The occasion came last May, when the newly installed Trump administration faced the first of the Jerusalem Embassy Act’s every-six-months deadlines for the president to approve or waive an embassy move. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson then set the stage for the first public dispute between Netanyahu and the White House, by hinting thatIsrael itself was not keen for the embassy move to take place. Tillerson said that the president wants to understand “whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps as a distraction.”
Stung by the suggestion – or by the inconvenient truth embodied there – Netanyahu quickly responded, lobbing a verbal grenade of the type Dermer had employed at Hannukah. “Relocating the American embassy would not harm the peace process, on the contrary,” the prime minister’s office declared.
Moving the embassy, the Netanyahu statement said, “would advance it (the peace process) by correcting a historic injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy according to which Jerusalem isn’t the capital of Israel.”
Herein lay the trap. Political considerations forced Netanyahu to stump for the fulfillment of a promise neither Trump nor the prime minister himself really wanted to see fulfilled. As he did, it has become harder and harder for Trump to let the Jerusalem Embassy Act languish unimplemented.
Netanyahu has always thrived politically as the sultan of a sour status quo – a tolerably distressing reality in which Israel and Israelis can see themselves as making the best of a profoundly, immutably rigged geo-political game. It is a state of affairs in which the world treats the Jewish state with a doubtlessly anti-Semitic unfairness marked and proven by flagrant double standards of what is inaptly called diplomacy.
For generations, the most accessible and politically exploitable symbol of that unfairness has been the failure of the world community, Washington included, to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Now all that could change. But not necessarily for the better.
In the tournament of three-dimensional chess that is Jerusalem, Israel, and the Palestinians, grandmaster Netanyahu may just have engineered one move too many, and in the end, the blood that will surely be spilled will not be on Trump’s hands. It will be on Netanyahu’s.
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