On the morning of Nov. 9, Donald Trump’s upset presidential win was hailed by the nationalist right in Israel, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett proclaiming it the end of the two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
But analysts say Israel’s ultra-hawks shouldn’t uncork the champagne just yet — under a Trump presidency, America’s role in the Middle East is anything but guaranteed.
“I am going to be really cautious,” said Tal Shalev, the chief political correspondent at the Israeli news site Walla. “Trump is one of the most unpredictable people I have ever seen. We have no way of knowing if Trump the candidate and Trump the president will be the same person.”
In May, for example, Trump ruffled pro-Israel feathers when he said he would make Israel pay for its own defense aid from the United States, a position long held by Israel critics on the left. By the fall, however, the Trump campaign had swerved rightward on Israel, coming into line with the country’s hawkish leadership. Trump also vowed to undo the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied hard against.
Trump’s Israel advisors circulated a memo that seemed “copied directly from Netanyahu’s talking points,” noted Haaretz journalist Barak Ravid. In it, the Trump campaign slammed Palestinians for incitement, saying a two state solution is impossible unless they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The campaign also vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a promise made by many American presidents but never fulfilled.
Whether or not Trump will enact the vision he set forth with regard to Israel remains to be seen. Though Trump has already invited Netanyahu for a Washington visit, it’s unclear if and when Trump will play a proactive role in Israel’s affairs with regard to the Palestinians, with Iraq and Syria likely at the top of his agenda.
“America, even if it were Hillary [Clinton elected], has recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main issue in the Middle East today,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and 1998 to 2000.
In the scenario that Trump does seek to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu might find himself in the previously unthinkable position of being outflanked on the right by Trump, the first Republican president elected during his tenure.
And that’s not necessarily a comfortable spot for Netanyahu, who will likely face pressure from ultra-nationalists like Bennett who are pressing for Israeli annexation of the occupied West Bank and increased settlement building. That pressure could build into an outright political challenge that will threaten Netanyahu’s rule.
The Israeli ultra-right “will say, ‘Obama was your excuse, what is your excuse now?” said Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. “[Netanyahu] will have to come up with some kind of an answer or change his policies.”
However, Netanyahu might also feel emboldened to present alternative ideas about his vision for a regional solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that would bypass direct negotiations with the Palestinians and involve Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, said Shalev.
“It will be easier for Netanyahu for instance to convince Trump to support a regional process than it was to convince [Secretary of State] John Kerry or President Obama,” she said.
During Obama’s tenure, Netanyahu was widely seen as disrespecting the American president in order to plead his case with the American public and curry favor among his right wing base at home. His 2015 speech to Congress to scuttle the Iran deal — which was boycotted by dozens of Democrats — was a provocative rebuke of Obama on American turf.
Netanyahu might not dare such a move with Trump should he find himself disagreeing with the new president’s policies.
“I don’t think Trump will have much patience for people trying to cross him,” said Rosner.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.