Was Netanyahu right to return from Washington triumphant?

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg

Yossi Mekelberg

By : Yossi Mekelberg

Watching the joint press conference with US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt like I was watching a Saturday Night Live special on a Wednesday afternoon. There was much self-congratulating, and Netanyahu looked relieved to make it through his first public outing with the volatile Trump without any major hiccups.

He may be presently rejoicing, but this might prove to be a bit too early, since he must have noticed some warning signs awaiting him on the way ahead. Despite Trump being less than coherent in expressing his views regarding US-Israeli relations or the stalemate in the conflict with the Palestinians, one could decipher certain themes during the press conference.

Trump declared, as expected, that the historic alliance between the US and Israel was “unbreakable.” However, he expressed reservations about Israel’s persistent expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. It also became obvious that despite his harsh criticism of the Palestinians, he expects both sides to compromise in order to reach a deal. Lastly, he had no intention to move the US Embassy anytime soon, despite early promises.

It is no secret that Netanyahu and his government were happy to see the back of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. Nevertheless, as much as Netanyahu favored the idea of a Republican occupant in the White House, it was not a Trump-like president that he had in mind.

Unlike some of the other Republican candidates, he is not instinctively Israel-friendly, and Netanyahu is apprehensive of his unpredictability. Whereas other Israeli Cabinet members were queuing to declare that Trump’s presidency would confine to history the idea of a Palestinian state or any attempt to stop settlement expansion, Netanyahu was right to be more cautious.

For him, this week’s visit to Washington was mainly a scouting mission, testing both the new administration’s general approach to Israel, and more specifically toward issues such as the peace process and Iran. Netanyahu was desperate for a successful visit, not only for the sake of Israel’s relations with its main ally, but for his own political sake.

As much as Netanyahu favored the idea of a Republican occupant in the White House, it was not a Trump-like president that he had in mind.

Yossi Mekelberg

He faces pressures at home from his own coalition on an array of issues, and is under police investigation for serious corruption allegations. Holding a successful meeting with the US president was an important step in reasserting himself politically at home. In this sense, he can feel his first Trump-era visit to Washington went according to plan, but not without signs of pitfalls ahead.

The joint press conference was an illustration of a president who is very scant on the most basic of details on any of the issues he discusses. Many eyebrows were raised vis-à-vis his comment that he did not have a preference whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved in a one- or two-state solution. This was a very casual approach demonstrating shallowness in dealing with a very complex issue.

As someone who fashions himself as a master negotiator, he should recognize that if he wants to succeed where so many failed before him, he should first master the details of all possible options. This should be a source of concern to both Israelis and Palestinians.

For Netanyahu, it should serve as an eye-opener that his obstructionist policies toward a two-state solution legitimize what most Israelis fear most: The one-state solution, which would spell the end of the Zionist project of a Jewish and democratic state.

Palestinians are not enthusiastic about this development either. A recent joint Palestinian-Israeli survey indicates that less than a fifth of the Jewish population supports a one-state solution, compared to more than a third of Palestinians. This is still way below the level of support for a two-state solution.

Yet there was a flicker of hope when both leaders seemed to agree that a revival of a regional approach could be essential to bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is a long-overdue opportunity to bring back the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which was initiated by Saudi Arabia and led to the Beirut Declaration by the Arab League. If Trump and Netanyahu are genuine about a deal, this can be the path to it.

However, their performance was hardly convincing that there was a sincere intention to embark on a genuine peace process. Neither of them engenders any faith that they would have the first clue where to start, even if they wanted to.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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