With tomorrow’s inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, Israel is entering an era of uncertainty unseen to this extent since 1967. It is not only Trump’s ascent to the presidency – expertly broken down by my colleague Ilan Goldenberg – that is causing so much ambiguity for Israel’s future; the Trump presidency is coinciding with two other variables whose outcomes are unknown, and the combination of the three together makes predicting Israel’s path forward with regard to its relations with the U.S., with the Palestinians, and with the rest of the world very difficult.
Trump’s Israel Policy
While there has been no shortage of guessing – including by yours truly – as to what Trump’s policies toward Israel and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be, the truth of the matter is that nobody actually knows. While Trump has actually been consistent, if simplistic, on other foreign policy issues – protectionism, questioning NATO’s contribution to global and American security, a less antagonistic relationship with Russia, for example – on Israel he has sent conflicting signals.
On the one hand, he is quite obviously seduced by the idea of making what he calls “the ultimate deal” and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has spoken about the need to be seen as a “neutral guy” on Israel in order to command the Palestinians’ trust as a mediator. He has announced his intention to appoint Jared Kushner as his Middle East peace envoy because he views Kushner as uniquely suited to get the two parties to an agreement. On the other, he has taken actions that will make his stated goal of reaching a deal harder and possibly call it into question entirely, from supporting relocating the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to removing any mention of the two-state solution from the GOP platform.
On the one hand, he has nominated Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to serve as his secretaries of state and defense, and neither of them is associated with rightwing policies on Israel. In particular, Mattis has talked about the damage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does to American interests in the Middle East and has squarely cast the blame on settlements for the impasse between the two sides. On the other, David Friedman is as rightwing and hawkish on Israel issues as any nominee to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Israel could possibly be, and Jason Greenblatt – Trump’s new envoy for international negotiations – has stated that he does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace in any way, and looks askance at the two-state solution as unwise and impractical.
There is no way of knowing at this point which of these competing impulses will win out. The main takeaway, however, is that the Israeli government has no way of knowing either, making any sudden moves fraught with danger. If, for instance, the Israeli government moves ahead with Bezalel Smotrich’s plan to annex Ma’ale Adumim, it may meet with a green light from the Trump White House, or it may be met with opposition from the White House and the State and Defense Departments. This is the genesis of the disagreement between Naftali Bennett, who wants Israel to quickly move ahead with annexation plans and formally abandon the two-state solution, and Avigdor Lieberman, who wants Israel to work out an agreement with the U.S. that would allow building in the blocs while freezing construction outside of them, similar to the plan developed by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. Whichever direction Israel moves in, what is certain is that it cannot be sure what the consequences, if any, will be.
The second uncertain variable is the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu and how they will be resolved. Either Case 1000 – the allegations that billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer supplied the Netanyahu family with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cigars, pink champagne, flights on private jets, luxury hotel stays, and the use of posh vacation residences in return for favors from the prime minister – or Case 2000 – the allegations that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes conspired to reduce rival newspaper Yisrael HaYom’s circulation in return for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu in Yedioth – have the potential to end in Netanyahu’s indictment. Whether or not they result in indictments or end with no charges filed, they are creating gridlock while they are ongoing. The talk of early elections that has sprung up overnight is partially because other politicians smell blood in the water, but partially because a prime minister under such serious investigation is limited in what he can carry out. Until the situation is resolved, Israel’s political system is in a state of limbo.
If Netanyahu is ultimately charged, it is difficult to see how he will manage to stay in power rather than being forced to resign as the Likud and coalition MKs abandon him. Should Netanyahu step down – voluntarily or otherwise – it will not, however, mean the end of the political chaos. Netanyahu has purposely cultivated a leadership vacuum underneath him, from chasing away serious challengers to his primacy on top of Likud – Moshe Ya’alon, Gidon Sa’ar, and Moshe Kahlon being the most prominent recent examples – to not appointing a deputy prime minister underneath him. Should Netanyahu suddenly be whisked away from the scene, who will replace him is entirely unclear. New elections will not resolve the uncertainty either; the current polls indicate that Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid would receive the most seats in Knesset, but would be unable to put together a coalition unless the Haredi parties and Lapid are able to bridge their seemingly unbridgeable differences. This would mean a repeat of 2009, when Kadima and Tzipi Livni won the elections, but after weeks of futile attempts at creating a government, Netanyahu was left standing as prime minister instead. While this makes for great news for political junkies, it does not make for stability in Israel’s policymaking.
Palestinian Leadership Transition
The third uncertain variable surrounds Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. While Abbas’s actions make clear that he is going to serve as the Palestinian president and head of the PLO until he dies, that could happen at any moment given his age and proclivity for chain smoking, and who will replace him is a complete black box. The recent Fatah Central Committee elections and conference sidelined Muhammad Dahlan and all of his allies while empowering Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti. Rajoub is well placed in terms of controlling the relevant institutions and organs of power but does not have much popularity or legitimacy with the Palestinian public, while Barghouti is enormously popular with the public but is sitting in HaSharon prison serving out multiple life terms for orchestrating the terrorist murders of Israelis. Furthermore, it is possible that when Abbas is gone, no single person will hold the reins of power but that it will be more of a politburo, or that the roles of Palestinian Authority president, PLO chief, and Fatah leader will be separated.
The stakes involved for how this gets resolved are enormous for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the single biggest factor preventing the resumption of mass organized Palestinian terrorism from assaulting the streets of Israeli cities is the robust cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces. The PA security cooperation with Israel is immensely unpopular, and to Abbas’s credit, he has not wavered in his commitment to continuing it, even if his reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic. But there is no guarantee that whomever comes after Abbas will evince the same commitment; in fact, in a protracted leadership fight, one of the easiest ways to win public support will be to pledge to end security coordination with Israel. The negative consequences should this happen cannot be overstated, and thus Israeli officials are watching with bated breath to see how the post-Abbas period will play out. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as unclear as can be.
The irony of all this is that Israel is entering this era of uncertainty on so many political fronts when its security has never been more certain. The conventional threats from neighboring states has evaporated; the Iranian nuclear threat has been deferred – though certainly not eliminated – in the estimation of Israel’s military and intelligence brass; the borders with Gaza and Lebanon have been unprecedentedly quiet for a variety of reasons from effective Israeli deterrence to the Syrian civil war; and organized terrorism (as opposed to lone wolf attacks) is at its lowest point since before the Second Intifada. Yet on the political and diplomatic fronts, the status Israel’s relationships with the U.S., the wider international community, the Palestinians, and Diaspora Jewry have rarely been so murky. While all may turn out fine in the end, Israel should be prepared for a period of potential upheaval.
Dr. Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, DC. To contact Michael, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.