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Netanyahu’s Point Man in the White House

By Asher Schechter

Three weeks after the U.S. presidential election, it seems clear that Donald Trump’s victory has thrown global politics into a potentially protracted period of uncertainty and disarray.

Trump's actual policies are still a mystery (possibly even to Trump himself), but given that his victory has already had the effect of emboldening far-right populist movements, his election was mostly greeted with a mix of ambivalence and concern by mainstream politicians worldwide.

In Israel, however, where the political establishment has long since been taken over by a far-right populist coalition very similar in strategy, ideology, rhetoric, and donors to Trump’s, politicians greeted the news of Trump’s election with a sense of vindication, euphoria, and excitement.

Consider, for instance, the reaction of Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Herzog, who heads Israel’s Labor Party and the Zionist Camp, is supposed to be the leader of the Israeli left—the chairman of a party that purports to promote liberal values and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet even he reacted enthusiastically to Trump’s victory, taking to his Facebook page to write that Trump “showed pundits and skeptics that we are in a new age, one characterized by change and ousting of the old ruling elites!” (Herzog, it should be noted, is a descendant of one of Israel’s most prominent patrician families, an honored member of the country’s ruling elite.)

To be fair, Herzog’s enthusiasm was not shared by most of Israel’s dwindling left—his second in command in the Zionist Camp, Tzipi Livni, produced a far more measured response, expressing hope that Trump will “fulfill the promises of his victory speech, and not those of his campaign.”

Within Israel’s right wing, though, Trump’s election has inspired similar enthusiasm, prompting some of the coalition to treat Trump’s victory as if it was also, in some way, theirs. Expecting an immediate and drastic change in U.S. policy toward Israel, right-wing operators and politicians could not contain their excitement. After eight years of tensions and squabbles with Barack Obama’s administration, they expect a President Trump to give them cart blanche to do whatever they want.

Education minister and leader of the far-right Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett, for instance, said Trump’s victory marked the end of the two-state solution. “The era of the Palestinian state is over,” he declared.

Bennett’s fellow coalition members, among them justice minister Ayelet Shaked and deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely expressed similar sentiments, calling on the new administration to follow through with a proposed relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and reverse the current administration’s support for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Interior minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, even went so far as to describe Trump’s election in religious terms, saying “we must be in Messianic times, when everything turns around in favor of the people of Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely kept silent about his preferences in the presidential election—owing, perhaps, to his ill-fated endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012. Following the election, however, Netanyahu could not conceal his contentment, reportedly telling associates he is “overjoyed.” Netanyahu also said he “looks forward to speaking to him [Trump] about what to do” about the “bad” Iran nuclear deal, which Trump once called "the worst deal ever" and vowed to renegotiate.

The right wing’s optimism is understandable, given the overtures that Trump has made toward it, before his election and since. However, the excitement isn’t just the result of Trump’s statements, or his advisers’ reassurances that Trump will indeed support many of Israel’s current policies, such as settlement expansion. It also stems from the simple fact that when the Israeli right sees Trump, they recognize him as one of their own.

After all, years before Trump was able to leverage xenophobia and economic populism into a successful presidential run, Israel’s current leadership was selling the people of Israel the same recipe. Like the so-called “alt-right” that contributed to Trump’s ascension, the Israeli right has pandered in recent years to voters who felt anxious and betrayed, placing blame on the “old ruling [Ashkenazi] elites.” It has relied on a similar blend of militarism, hatred of liberal values, and hatred of the media spouting them. Much has been written about the contribution of “fake news” and conspiratorial outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars to Trump’s victory, but Israel’s current leaders have been trafficking in “post-truth” for years. Remember Netanyahu’s claims that the Palestinian mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was the one who inspired Hitler to order mass killings of Jews?

Trump and the Israeli right are connected not just by a similar worldview, but also by a shared donor pool and a feeling of being excluded from the political and cultural establishment. It is not for nothing that many of the greetings Trump received from Israeli politicians spoke enthusiastically of upending “the old elites.” Tellingly, both Netanyahu and Trump have spent much of the last year railing against media figures who criticized them.

Admittedly, it is still unclear what Trump’s policies on Israel will be. During the campaign, Trump promised to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his advisers said he would be vigorously pro-Israel, even cutting funding for the United Nations Human Rights Council and vetoing U.N. decisions that “single out Israel.” But Trump has also said once that he’d play a “neutral” role in Israel-Palestinian negotiations and he has suggested that Israel should pay the U.S. for military aid. And while his advisers assure Israelis that Trump would not actively pressure Israel to reach a settlement with Palestinians, Trump himself said he’d like to reach a peace agreement, which he called the “ultimate deal”—suggesting he’ll be a more active president than his advisers on Israel let on.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, Gen. James Mattis, who once warned that Israel is on the road to apartheid and said the U.S. should urgently press Israelis and Palestinians to reach a two-state solution.

Uncertainty aside, it is not likely that Trump will confront Israel. First, there’s the simple matter that the people surrounding Trump and the people governing Israel are, in effect, the same people—they share donors, values, and similar targets for incitement. They have a mutual interest in having Trump focus mostly on domestic issues, instead of making a doomed effort to achieve peace and risk dragging U.S.-Israel relations (and Trump’s appeal with pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson) through the mud.

Plus, there’s the matter of his predecessor: Despite outward appearances, Obama has not stopped Israel from doing much of anything. In recent years, the administration’s policy toward Israel focused almost exclusively on mild expressions of concern and harsher, anonymous rebukes while remaining enormously supportive of Israel in financial terms. A President Trump will likely give Israel a freer hand in the West Bank, but it is not as though it’s encountering much resistance right now.

Still, Trump’s election could potentially mean a profound change. While he didn’t do much in the way of curtailing Israeli policies, Obama’s hostility to Netanyahu and his allies has been well documented. Now, however, the Israeli right finally has its own point man in the White House. What both sides intend to do with this remarkable kinship, we’ll have to wait to find out. But if the early celebrations are any indication, don’t hold your breath for peace in the Middle East.

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 Asher Schechter is journalist and author, specializing in issues of antitrust, social change, and Israeli politics. He currently writes for ProMarket.org and is a columnist for Haaretz.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of State]

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