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Trump’s Stances May Complicate Israeli Diplomacy

Mr. Trump’s election and his choice of David M. Friedman, an ardent settlement supporter, as his ambassador to Israel have already emboldened the Israeli right to push for more aggressive policies in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Some have even declared the death of the two-state solution that for years was, according to an international consensus, considered to be the way to settle the conflict.

Since the American election, pro-settlement leaders in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet have pushed for legislation retroactively legalizing outposts on privately owned Palestinian land that had been declared illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court. Mr. Netanyahu has been reluctant, even warning colleagues that it could lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court, according to an Israeli news report.

“Israeli leaders have used American pressure as an excuse to avoid doing something they really don’t want to do but are being pressured to do by coalition members,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel who is now at Princeton University. If Mr. Trump advances views even to the right of Mr. Netanyahu, “this will put the prime minister in an awkward position with no excuses for not doing what right-wingers want him to do,” Mr. Kurtzer said.

Now in his fourth term, Mr. Netanyahu has focused lately on keeping the Palestinian conflict relatively contained while he forges new bonds around the world. He travels widely these days, and has just returned from a trip to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two predominantly Muslim countries — a demonstration, he said, of Israel’s transformed global relations. He boasts that so many foreign delegations are coming to Israel that he barely has time to meet with them all.

He attributes this to what he calls T.T.P. — terrorism, technology and peace. Other countries, he argues, see Israel as an ally in fighting Islamist terrorism, a source of technological innovation and not an obstacle to peace, as it was once viewed. If so, though, the unopposed United Nations resolution could chip away at that impression, and Mr. Netanyahu retaliated against two of its sponsors, New Zealand and Senegal, by pulling ambassadors and canceling visits.

Most important, in his view and that of independent analysts, is the improvement of Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, not just Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace treaties, but with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries.

While many of those states still maintain a public reserve about Israel, they have quietly collaborated in important ways out of a shared belief that the greater threat in the region is the theocratic Shiite leadership in Iran.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in his office. Mr. Netanyahu celebrates the ascension of President-elect Donald J. Trump, but may find that it complicates management of his own conservative coalition. Credit Uriel Sinai for The New York Times

“Our relations with the Arab world are rapidly changing,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a security conference sponsored by The Jeruslalem Post last month. “More and more countries in our region, more and more people in this region, don’t see Israel as an enemy but as an ally — I’d say an indispensable ally — in the fight against radical extremism.”

But to the extent that is true, it could quickly change if the Palestinian issue returns to prominence. Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, said in a conference call sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars this past week that an embassy move to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv would prompt the Palestine Liberation Organization to withdraw its recognition of Israel that was granted as part of the Oslo peace accords.

While many Arab leaders have tired of the Palestinian leadership, even cutting off financial support, they may be forced to respond if their citizens are stirred to outrage.

“If the street’s reactions get too heated, it will be easier for these Arabs to jettison the Israeli relationship than to stand in the way of their own people’s anger,” Mr. Kurtzer said.

That may explain why even some conservatives in Israel are nervous that Mr. Trump may push provocative policies. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known as a hard-liner, said at a recent Brookings conference that there were other pressing issues aside from moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital.

In a recent column castigating the left for hypocrisy in opposing Mr. Trump’s pick to be ambassador to Israel, Yaakov Katz, the editor in chief of the right-of-center Jerusalem Post, wrote that moving the embassy could unnecessarily push away even friendly Arab states like Jordan.

“The fact that the embassy has not been in Jerusalem until now is a travesty,” he wrote, citing the history of Jews in the city. “Nevertheless, I question the practical gain from having it moved to Jerusalem.”

Still, some allies of Mr. Netanyahu’s argue that what increasingly binds Israel with its Sunni neighbors will still matter more than momentary flare-ups of the longstanding Palestinian conflict.

“Even when you forge new alliances, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be in sync on every issue,” said Dore Gold, a longtime adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who recently stepped down as director general of the Foreign Ministry. “Things go on inside Arab countries that we don’t agree with, and things go on inside Israel that they don’t agree with. But the fundamental interests are aligning.”

Some analysts said it might depend on how new initiatives were presented. Ehud Yaari, a commentator on Arab affairs on Israel’s Channel 2, said moving the embassy would not lead to serious problems with Sunni states beyond ritualistic protests. American encouragement of settlement construction in new areas “would prove much harder for the Sunni leadership to swallow,” he said.

Even so, Mr. Yaari added, “Arab public opinion may force rulers to demonstrate objections, but it seems they are all relieved to see Obama go and do not want to start on the wrong foot with Trump.”

Others suggested that nuanced diplomacy by Mr. Trump could work in Mr. Netanyahu’s favor. While the right may press the prime minister to acquiesce to more settlement construction, a Trump administration could endorse keeping any new housing within established blocs, said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“That would be a major victory for Netanyahu,” Mr. Satloff said. “And if linked to real suspension of growth outside the blocs, it may even advance Israeli ties with Sunnis.”

Source: NYT > World

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