The Israeli political right was briefly euphoric over President Trump’s unexpected election. The most prominent was the head of the religious-right Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The day after Trump’s election, Bennett declared, “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Bennett was wrong. It’s his euphoria that is over. With Trump’s outreach to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster’s recent statement that Trump supports “dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians”—which the Right sees as shorthand for a Palestinian state—Bennett has turned violently against the president.
As Israeli news site YNet reports, Bennett expressed this opposition by demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally abandon his support for a Palestinian state. Referring to Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University accepting future Palestinian statehood, Bennett said, “The Bar Ilan speech was from the Obama era. The speech and agreement to establish a Palestinian state brought boycotts on us, terror and a serious demographic threat and now is the time to announce its annulment.”
Trump’s Team Is Making the Israeli Right Nervous
Bennett continued, “Two paths stand before us. We can continue the Bar Illan policy and establish a second Palestinian state, in addition to the one in Gaza. This messianic formula failed and led to bloodshed, political deterioration and to a demographic disaster. Alternatively, the State of Israel can outline its own vision for the future of the region: regional economic development based on initiative, preventing a second Palestinian state to the one in Gaza.”
This is not the only breach in right-wing support for Trump. At the same time, a major diplomatic spat has suddenly erupted with the Trump administration. The Times of Israel reports that “senior member” of Trump’s delegation to Israel told his Israeli counterparts that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.” The Israeli government reacted with outrage and demanded clarifications.
All of this indicates that the high hopes the Israeli Right invested in Trump may have been misplaced. As a result, if Trump is indeed determined to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it will inevitably mean concessions from Netanyahu that will cause him serious political problems, especially regarding Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements. Indeed, this is likely the source of Bennett’s ire, as his party is, in effect, the patron of the settlement movement.
Netanyahu has, of course, faced this problem before. For eight years, he succeeded in effectively fending off former President Obama’s attempts to force Israel into major concessions. But Netanyahu managed to do this because the Right was united in opposing Obama, and was thus united with the prime minister in opposing the president’s demands.
Trump Will Be Harder for Netanyahu to Fight
But Trump is very different from Obama. First, he is identified with the Right, which will, ironically, make him far harder for Netanyahu to fend off. Second, Trump’s personality does not lend itself to compromise, and if Netanyahu resists him, the blowback will likely be far more powerful than under Obama. In addition, Obama was under pressure to conciliate with prominent Jews in the Democratic Party, a constituency Trump owes nothing. In short, under Trump, Netanyahu may well be forced to make concessions in a way he never was under Obama.
This would place Netanyahu is a nearly impossible position. His government is a narrow coalition composed of right-wing and religious parties, with a small representation for the center. If he gives in on Jerusalem or the settlements, his right-wing rivals—such as Bennett—will likely topple the government. Indeed, Bennett’s statement above is an all but open threat to do so.
In that case, Netanyahu will have only way to remain in power: Form a unity government with the opposition Zionist Union party. This option has been contemplated before. In fact, many believe Netanyahu has left the office of foreign minister empty to provide an opening for ZU leader Isaac Herzog should he choose to join the coalition.
But both Herzog and Netanyahu would face fierce opposition to such a move from within their own parties. Much of the ZU leadership finds Netanyahu repellent and view any offer from him as political maneuvering or open deception, underlined several years ago when Netanyahu offered a unity government but reneged and brought right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government instead. At the same time, much of Netanyahu’s Likud party is closer to Bennett than it is to the party leader, and would oppose any concessions to any president, Trump included.
The most likely result, then, would be new elections. This is something Netanyahu likely does not want for a very good reason: He is trailing Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party in the polls. Even if he were to succeed in retaining the premiership, he would likely have to bring Yesh Atid into the coalition, which would create a violently unstable and likely short-lived government.
While we do not yet know whether or under what terms Trump will seek to push Israel and the Palestinians toward an agreement during his upcoming visit, Netanyahu may well find himself in a similar position to Bennett. After eight years of Obama, Netanyahu likely felt something like euphoria after Trump’s victory. But now, like Bennett, that euphoria has likely been replaced with a disturbing and increasing anxiety.