Israel should not let itself be carried away by having Trump in the White House. Four years of unrestricted settlement growth will only produce an eventual backlash. Rather, now is the time to build ‘economic peace’.
The recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements provoked critical comments from the Australian government (which isn’t on the Council). The peace conference in Paris (for which Israel wasn’t present) provoked critical comments from the British government. And with the Trump ascendancy, there is now a pro-Israel administration in the US (though Trump may well prove to be unpredictable).
The alignment of conservative governments in these three English-speaking countries (especially since the UK will be increasingly independent of EU foreign policy) has the Israeli government salivating, given the sustained diplomatic pressure placed on Israel during the Obama years.
Indeed, a day after the Trump inauguration, Israel announced hundreds of apartments will be built in east Jerusalem, with Netanyahu boasting he will be ramping up construction in the settlements.
But Netanyahu ought to be cautious, for a couple of reasons.
Although a large segment of the American public love Trump, an equally large section loathes him, as does much of the media. Polite society around the world find him a caricature, at best. If Israel seeks to do whatever it wants, protected by Trump, the popular hatred of Trump will be extended to Israel by association.
Further, after a couple of years of international diplomatic frustration, the next US administration will pile pressure on Israel as a way to expunge memory of the Trump era, in much the same way that Obama immediately put pressure on Israel, after eight years of American support under Bush. (And there is little doubt, given the depth of feeling about Bush, Obama and Trump, that Trump’s replacement will be an anti-Trump, in much the same way that Obama was an anti-Bush and Trump is an anti-Obama.)
However, the Trump presidency provides an opportunity for Israel. Many, including myself, argue that sustained international pressure on Israel is counter-productive, since it convinces Israel that the world will not have its back when it comes time to make potentially dangerous concessions. Well, now a supportive administration is in place. I’m not suggesting that Israel withdraw precipitously from the West Bank, as this will only encourage terrorism. But Netanyahu and others have spoken in the past of ‘economic peace’, and of building up the Palestinian Authority as a responsible economic actor ahead of, or hand-in-hand with, further withdrawals. This doesn’t mean merely pressure on the Palestinians to curb corruption (though that is vital). It means Israel putting in place measures that really help Palestinian individuals, businesses and government. With Trump in the White House, and conservative governments in London and Canberra, Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to have the international community offer the right balance of carrots and sticks to the Palestinians at the same time Israel does. Will Netanyahu recognise and grasp this opportunity, or will he bow to populist tendencies, and reap the whirlwind in four years time?