When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the White House on February 15th, the visit will be unlike any other—and not only because of the turmoil roiling the Trump administration following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. After 11 years as prime minister, and countless meetings with American presidents and secretaries of state, Netanyahu will be greeted for the first time in the Oval Office by a Republican president. For a leader who has long endured ideological, stylistic, and personal gaps with two Democratic presidents, while being hailed as a soulmate by GOP Members of Congress and presidential candidates, he will hardly be able to believe his luck.
Indeed, relations with this particular Republican president could be especially warm. Netanyahu and President Donald Trump benefit from a valuable channel of communication between Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, each of them perhaps the single person closest to their respective leader. It is widely expected that Trump and Netanyahu will find relatively easy agreement on a number of issues.
Both have advocated tougher responses, perhaps including new sanctions, to Iran's ballistic missile program and other provocative regional activities, while maintaining, for now, the basic structure of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has also shown interest in Netanyahu’s argument that the strategic alignment between Israel and the Sunni Arab states with regard to Iran and Sunni jihadist groups creates an opportunity to build a new regional security architecture, thaw Israeli-Arab ties, and use those bonds to overcome what Netanyahu sees as Palestinian weakness and recalcitrance that impede progress toward peace.
Finally, the leaders may be within reach of an accord on West Bank settlement construction, in which the United States would not criticize Israeli settlement activity within the main settlement blocs, comprising perhaps 8 percent of the West Bank and the bulk and of the Israeli settler population. A reciprocal commitment from Israel not to expand the footprint of existing settlements or build new ones could be harder to come by, due to strong opposition within Netanyahu’s coalition. But the White House’s repeated statements indicating its concern that further settlement construction is not helpful to prospects for peace can actually assist Netanyahu in restraining calls for aggressive settlement expansion. Meanwhile, both sides seem prepared to put the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—which Trump had controversially pledged to do over the objections of Palestinians—on the back burner.
To a significant degree, these are all things that Netanyahu will want from Trump, and that Trump, presumably, will want to give. But Trump will want something, too. And he will be in a position to demand it.
The signs of this dynamic have been clear for some time. Netanyahu’s surprising tweet endorsing the president's proposed wall on the Mexican border, comparing it to Israel’s southern border fence and calling it a “great idea” (which earned him a rebuke from Mexico), was a clear favor from Netanyahu to Trump. An inconvenient date for the meeting—back-to-back with Netanyahu’s long-planned trip to Australia and Singapore, taking him out of Israel for some 10 days in the midst of swirling coalition tensions and police investigations of corruption allegations against the prime minister and his family—was another sign. And the fiasco surrounding the White House’s omission of Jews from its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and tripling down in defense of the decision, suggest the American side was not concerned about putting Netanyahu in an uncomfortable position ahead of the visit.
These examples all suggest something about who really calls the shots in the relationship. But what does Trump want from the meeting? Assuming he can look beyond the Flynn-related chaos, here are three possibilities:
What’s your bottom line, Bibi? Trump will want to know, at least in broad terms, what Netanyahu wants to achieve with the Palestinians. Is it a two-state solution, as Netanyahu has advocated, in some form, since 2009? Or a version of a one-state solution, with Palestinian autonomy but no citizenship, as many in his party and coalition support? Trump has advisers in both camps. It appeared Netanyahu fell off the fence firmly on the two-state side with a speech at Bar-Ilan University eight years ago. But under pressure from annexation advocates in his coalition like Naftali Bennett to jettison two states, Netanyahu has lately faced a greater temptation to bob and weave, to define Palestinian statehood in such highly compromised terms as to make it unacceptable to Palestinians, or to avoid being pinned down on his ultimate vision at all.
But Trump’s own words make clear he wants a deal. His cautions about settlement expansion and his go-slow approach on moving the U.S. embassy are clearly intended to preserve space for one. He wants to coordinate it with Israel—indeed, until recently, the Trump administration had virtually no high-level contact with the Palestinians—and he is willing to test Netanyahu’s theory of working with the Arab states first. In appointing Kushner as his envoy, he is investing his family’s prestige in the cause.
No surprises, in reverse. It’s traditional for Israeli prime ministers, at their first meetings with American presidents, to seek a commitment to a principle of no surprises. Besides the obvious human factor (no one responds well to bad news received without warning), and political considerations (prime ministers’ opposition can make great hay out of a leader caught unawares) this request gives Israel opportunities to try to influence U.S. policy before it is finalized. Nevertheless, it is a sound principle between allies. But Trump will want it to be reciprocal, and it has not always been. How will Trump respond when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Israel, is greeted with a major surprise settlement announcement, as has often happened to others in the past? Netanyahu would be wise to offer the same commitment, and prove that he can make it stick.
Trust me and my friend, Putin. Trump’s big demand could be on Syria, where he may seek Israeli acquiescence to a new U.S.-Russian understanding. The Trump administration’s plans on Syria, which have included references to establishing humanitarian safe zones, and suggestions of linking U.S. and Russian efforts to combat ISIS, are not yet fleshed out, to say the least. But if Trump is serious about a establishing a more cooperative relationship with Russia, one can easily imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking a more formal consent to Russia's position in Syria, true joint U.S.-Russian operations against ISIS, and more explicit acceptance of the perpetuation of the Assad regime.
Netanyahu has told American visitors for months that they should continue to battle ISIS, but simultaneously counter Iran, which, together with its proxy Hezbollah, he considers far more dangerous. But in a Trump-Putin bargain, Iran and Hezbollah could well gain strategically in Syria from the stabilization of their ally, Assad. That will hardly please Israeli defense planners. Netanyahu may be asked to swallow it anyway. He will need to consider how to preserve Israel’s core interest of not allowing Iran and Hezbollah to threaten Israel from Syria, without undercutting Trump’s plans for a U.S.-Russian thaw.
Netanyahu can scarcely afford to leave Trump empty-handed on his demands. Disagreements between Trump and foreign leaders, even allies, tend to leak. On his visit to Australia next week, Netanyahu can hear first-hand what that feels like from Malcolm Turnbull.
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