How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely has high hopes for U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump has gone to great lengths to differentiate himself from his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who had a tense relationship with Israel on account of his anti-settlement stance and his support for nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Netanyahu—who has long-standing relationships in Republican circles—may be looking forward to finally having a GOP counterpart in the White House. That said, despite greater superficial compatibility on policy and politics, Trump may create as many problems for Netanyahu and Israel as he solves.
Although he has never before served as prime minister during a U.S. Republican administration, Netanyahu has deep ties with the GOP. As U.S. evangelicals became politically active as Republicans during the 1980s and 1990s, he recruited them to Israel’s cause, even trying to leverage their support to counter President Clinton during peace talks. During the 2012 presidential race, moreover, Netanyahu’s apparent preference for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney went uncorrected. The Israeli prime minister also has a close relationship with Republican mega-donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Netanyahu developed these ties in part because he believed that Republicans would be less likely than Democrats to pressure Israel on key issues, such as territorial concessions to Palestinians and Israeli wartime conduct. Republican opposition to Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and abstention on a resolution against settlement building in the United Nations Security Council reaffirmed Netanyahu’s conviction.
Trump, however, is a political newcomer with only loose ties to the party Netanyahu has befriended, making his views and intentions uncertain. The president seems eager to demonstrate his closeness to Netanyahu, nominating an ambassador, former campaign adviser David Friedman, who is highly unlikely to press Netanyahu on Palestinian issues. Yet Trump may cause Netanyahu discomfort in pursuit of what he called the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians because renewed diplomacy could lead Trump to press Israel for concessions. Trump may also make Israel more vulnerable by forgoing traditional Middle Eastern partners or, worse, by simply disengaging from the region. And Netanyahu could alienate segments of the U.S. Jewish community by embracing Trump. Indeed, although a supportive Republican president may appear to benefit Netanyahu at first glance, the consequences of Trump’s presidency may be more complex.
For one, Israeli domestic politics could get much more complicated. Perceptions among the Israeli settlement movement of the incoming administration’s support for its cause could remove Netanyahu’s best excuse for limiting settlement growth to stave off international pressure. In a recent Israeli Democracy Institute poll, over 70 percent of Jewish Israelis responded that they thought or were sure that Israel would be able to keep building settlements under a Trump presidency. The pro-settlement movement has rejoiced at Trump’s early rhetoric on the issue.
Netanyahu could therefore find it harder to hold off pro-settlement hard-liners, who wish to build throughout the West Bank and legalize outposts in the heart of a future Palestinian state. Obama’s opposition signaled these moves’ bilateral and international diplomatic costs, including pressure and unfavorable moves at the United Nations, giving Netanyahu an excuse for moderation. Although Netanyahu decried U.S. abstention on a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning settlement expansion, he still used its passage to justify shelving a law that would legalize outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land.
With Trump in office, Netanyahu’s warnings about settlements’ diplomatic costs will become less persuasive. Pro-settler leaders will expect U.S. backing and claim that a supportive U.S. administration will be able to minimize costs internationally. However, Arab and European countries are almost certain to continue to oppose such outposts as a barrier to a two-state solution. With Trump, Netanyahu may have to mollify his domestic coalition through continued settlement building and face the prospect of international isolation. Already, Israel has announced expanded West Bank building despite international condemnation (not inlcuding the United States), and Netanyahu faces pressure to annex large settlements.
With Trump in office, Netanyahu’s warnings about settlements’ diplomatic costs will become less persuasive.
Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem also shows how a more supportive U.S. administration could create problems for Netanyahu. The Israeli government would certainly welcome the symbolic U.S. support that would accompany the move, but may privately worry about the resultant potential for Palestinian violence and Arab condemnation. Palestinian perceptions that a U.S. move predetermines Jerusalem’s status, rather than leaving it to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, could also complicate U.S. peace mediation and make Palestinians reticent to negotiate. Netanyahu cannot publically reject Trump’s attempt to move the embassy, but Trump’s actions could create problems for Netanyahu down the line.
As Trump complicates Netanyahu’s domestic politics, his broader approach to the Middle East may also harm Israeli regional interests. Although Trump has yet to articulate a clear policy, there are indications that his administration may be more withdrawn and transactional than its predecessors. On the campaign trail, Trump scorned hard alliance commitments and showed little interest in invigorating an alignment of the United States, Israel, and Sunni moderates against Russia, Syria, and Iran. Instead, he has pledged that he will avoid interventions against foreign states and promised to work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS).
Of course, a Trump administration could still veto unfavorable U.N. resolutions and denounce Palestinian attempts to internationalize the conflict with Israel. Yet heading off broader trends and helping Israel build relations with Arab states would require Trump to prioritize the Middle East. A Trump administration less invested in the region may also be less inclined to spend time deepening bilateral defense and intelligence ties with Israel. Israel would still receive U.S. defense aid, but it would not have a superpower attuned to its interests or needs.
To be sure, Trump and his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, do seem interested in fighting terrorism around the world. As in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Israel could try to position itself—with its decades of experience—as a key ally in counterterrorism. Yet if Trump lacks an emotional connection with Israel and a broader instinct for engagement in the Middle East, he could view such assistance as transactional rather than as an inherent strategic asset. It is too early to tell, but if Trump’s instincts lead him to disengage from the Middle East, Israel is likely to pay the price.
By working with Trump, Netanyahu may endanger bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship, which Netanyahu himself has called strategically important. Although Obama and Netanyahu often sparred, Obama’s steadfast support of Israel offered the United States’ pro-Israel Jews who took issue with Netanyahu’s stances on settlements or religious pluralism a template for supporting Israel while opposing some of its government’s policies. That room became particularly useful in the wake of Netanyahu’s congressional speech opposing the Iran deal, which forced Jews in the country to back either Netanyahu or Obama. Both still offered ways to support Israel. With Obama gone, liberal Jews may find it harder to square their values with an Israeli leader openly supportive of Trump.
After all, 71 percent of U.S. Jews voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Many fear Trump’s generally illiberal tendencies and his alt-right supporters. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s praise for Frank Gaffney—the head of the Center for Security Policy, a think tank that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed an anti-Muslim hate group—shows how Israeli efforts to become closer with Trump and his supporters could alienate liberal Jews. Pro-Israel Jewish progressives rationalize Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by arguing that Israel’s liberal democratic values mean that its government has done and will do all it can to make peace. Israeli officials’ public embrace of a U.S. administration with seemingly illiberal instincts would call these shared values into question.
If Netanyahu expands settlements or goes to war with Hamas under Trump’s watch, Democratic lawmakers could take cues from their Jewish constituents tired of witnessing the perceived misdeeds of an Israeli government backed by an unpopular Trump administration. These lawmakers would likely still back Israeli leftists, but governments such as Netanyahu’s would increasingly rely on exclusively Republican support. In the long run, mismatches between U.S. and Israeli administrations would produce periodic non-cooperation and endanger Israel’s security and diplomatic standing.
If Netanyahu takes these potential problems seriously, he could mitigate their effect. Quiet communication with the incoming administration could develop internationally palatable arrangements for expanded settlement construction only within large blocs. Private Trump-Netanyahu meetings present an opportunity to encourage the new president to engage in the Middle East. Coordination among U.S. Jewish communal leaders and elected officials with Netanyahu could minimize factors that would deepen the partisan rift. All of these steps first require Netanyahu to treat Trump as both an opportunity and a challenge.