The Victims of the Trump-Netanyahu Special Relationship

The flurry of favors the president did for Netanyahu could constrain U.S. policy — and hurt people in the region — for years to come.

Phyllis Bennis

U.S. President Donald J. Trump listens to remarks from Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu (unseen), before signing an order recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli territory. (Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

For Israelis, the ques­tions had been hov­er­ing for months.

Hypocrisy aside, the consequences of Trump’s actions could be severe and long lasting.

Would the right-wing Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu claim vic­to­ry and a fifth term, mov­ing his far-right Likud gov­ern­ment coali­tion even fur­ther right? Or would the sup­pos­ed­ly cen­trist” chal­lenger, for­mer army chief of staff Gen­er­al Ben­ny Gantz, ride to vic­to­ry among cor­rup­tion alle­ga­tions against Netanyahu?

Netanyahu faces three — and poten­tial­ly as many as five — sep­a­rate indict­ments for var­i­ous scan­dals. If his Likud par­ty forms the new gov­ern­ment, which now seems like­ly, will it pass a new law pro­hibit­ing the indict­ment of a sit­ting prime minister?

Those ques­tions remain cen­tral to Israeli polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. But among Pales­tini­ans, there was lit­tle need to ask about what the elec­tion meant for them: What­ev­er gov­ern­ment emerged seemed guar­an­teed to main­tain cur­rent Israeli posi­tions in sup­port of occu­pa­tion and apartheid, against inter­na­tion­al law, for war with Iran, for full-throat­ed alliance with the U.S. pres­i­dent and U.S. mil­i­tary aid, and against human rights for Pales­tini­ans and equal­i­ty for all.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Netanyahu not only vowed to annex ille­gal Israeli West Bank set­tle­ments in vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law, but also express­ly dis­avowed the state of Israel’s oblig­a­tions to its Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens. Yet his chal­lenger Gantz was lit­tle bet­ter, run­ning ads brag­ging about how many Pales­tini­ans he killed bomb­ing Gaza back to the stone age” while com­mand­ing Israel’s 2014 mil­i­tary assault on Gaza.

What­ev­er the spe­cif­ic com­po­si­tion of the new gov­ern­ment tak­ing pow­er in com­ing weeks, the hor­rif­ic con­di­tions of Pales­tin­ian life will remain. While Netanyahu’s polit­i­cal career may have sur­vived an anx­ious moment, the sys­tem of occu­pa­tion and apartheid he over­saw for decades was nev­er in any danger

Sup­port from Trump

And that, it should be said, is fine by Pres­i­dent Trump.

Its been clear for a while that Netanyahu’s pow­er is thor­ough­ly bound up with his up-close and per­son­al alliance with the U.S. pres­i­dent. Trump’s list of gifts to Netanyahu goes back a long time.

First was the uni­lat­er­al U.S. with­draw­al from the Iran nuclear deal, a long­stand­ing Israeli demand, despite the unan­i­mous agree­ment of U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies that Iran remained in com­pli­ance with the agreement’s terms. Next began the leaks of what Trump’s peace plan” (orches­trat­ed by his set­tle­ment-financ­ing son-in-law Jared Kush­n­er) would look like — a list of harsh con­di­tions imposed on the Pales­tini­ans with no Israeli con­ces­sions required.

Then came the U.S. recog­ni­tion of occu­pied Jerusalem as the uni­fied” cap­i­tal of Israel and mov­ing the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, vio­lat­ing in one fell swoop inter­na­tion­al law, UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions that Wash­ing­ton itself had signed, and decades of U.S. and inter­na­tion­al diplomacy.

Next came Trump’s embrace of Israel’s new nation-state” Basic Law, which rais­es the legal sta­tus of Israel’s apartheid by decree­ing that only Jews have the right of self-deter­mi­na­tion in the coun­try. Then Trump end­ed long­stand­ing U.S. sup­port for the UN agency pro­vid­ing basic assis­tance to state­less Pales­tin­ian refugees — and used the occa­sion to announce Washington’s posi­tion that vir­tu­al­ly none of the 5 mil­lion Pales­tin­ian refugees reg­is­tered with the Unit­ed Nations actu­al­ly are refugees at all, and there­fore have no rights that Israel must recognize.

More recent­ly, Trump rec­og­nized Israeli author­i­ty in the Syr­i­an Golan Heights, ille­gal­ly occu­pied by Israel since 1967.

And the pièce de résis­tance, less than 24 hours before the Israeli polls opened, Trump announced the unprece­dent­ed claim that part of the Iran­ian mil­i­tary, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, would now be con­sid­ered a for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion sub­ject to crip­pling new sanc­tions, seri­ous­ly esca­lat­ing the threat of war.

Just in case his avid base didn’t notice, Netanyahu imme­di­ate­ly claimed cred­it for Trump’s lat­est anti-Iran move, explic­it­ly thank­ing the U.S. pres­i­dent for respond­ing to anoth­er of my impor­tant requests.”

And that was all on top of the ongo­ing U.S. sup­port for Israel and Netanyahu, includ­ing the $3.8 bil­lion a year in U.S. tax dol­lars sent direct­ly to the Israeli mil­i­tary, the unfail­ing pro­tec­tion of Israel in the Unit­ed Nations ensur­ing that no Israeli polit­i­cal or mil­i­tary offi­cials are ever held account­able for poten­tial war crimes, and the efforts to crim­i­nal­ize non-vio­lent boy­cott cam­paigns aimed at end­ing Israel’s vio­la­tions of human rights.

Those go on all the time. But Trump’s embrace of Israel has esca­lat­ed the already sup­port­ive rela­tion­ship far beyond any of those ear­li­er assump­tions. The whole run-up to the elec­tion was a tour de force of U.S. enabling of Netanyahu’s reelec­tion and the rise and con­sol­i­da­tion of Israel’s far right wing.

A pass on anti-Semitism

Final­ly, giv­en Trump’s embrace of all things Israel, it’s per­haps unsur­pris­ing that his per­son­al anti-Semi­tism pass­es by with­out a hint of pushback.

He’s direct­ly — and explic­it­ly — invoked the exact same anti-Semit­ic tropes that he and so many oth­ers false­ly attrib­uted to Rep. Ilhan Omar. Speak­ing to the right-wing Repub­li­can Jew­ish Coali­tion two days before the Israeli elec­tion, he direct­ly sug­gest­ed that Jews har­bor secret dual alle­giances. Brag­ging about his grant of legit­i­ma­cy to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of Syr­i­an ter­ri­to­ry, Trump said, I stood with your prime min­is­ter at the White House to rec­og­nize Israeli sov­er­eign­ty over the Golan Heights.”

None of the Amer­i­can Jews in the room called out Trump on his assump­tion that they viewed Israel’s leader as their” prime min­is­ter, and few in the main­stream press raised a hint of con­cern about the anti-Semi­tism inher­ent in the remark.

Trump went even fur­ther, brazen­ly acknowl­edg­ing that mov­ing the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was designed to please Shel­don and Miri­am Adel­son, his biggest donors. We got you some­thing that you want­ed. I can tell you, Shel­don and Miri­am, that is the most impor­tant thing, I think, that ever hap­pened in their life.”

The pres­i­dent was brag­ging about vio­lat­ing inter­na­tion­al law and over­turn­ing decades of U.S. pol­i­cy in order to keep his donors hap­py. Yet this unequiv­o­cal anti-Semi­tism didn’t lead to calls for his removal from office, even as Rep. Omar was dragged over the coals for dar­ing to sug­gest that mon­ey in pol­i­tics played a role in U.S. polit­i­cal sup­port for Israel.

Cast­ing a long shadow

Hypocrisy aside, the con­se­quences of Trump’s actions could be severe and long lasting.

Pub­lic dis­course around Israel has shift­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly in recent years, with peo­ple across the coun­try —espe­cial­ly the pro­gres­sives now mak­ing their pres­ence known in Wash­ing­ton — express­ing far more crit­i­cism of the Israeli government’s actions and U.S. sup­port for them, and far more sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights.

Yet even with these shifts, some of these recent actions will be extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult to undo.

How long will it take before a future U.S. pres­i­dent decides it’s final­ly polit­i­cal­ly viable to announce that Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps is now not to be con­sid­ered a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion? That sud­den­ly Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the Golan Heights real­ly is in vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law? That Jerusalem does not belong sole­ly to Jews and that the U.S. embassy needs to be moved back to Tel Aviv?

Crit­i­cism of Israel is no longer polit­i­cal sui­cide. But any future pres­i­dent would still have to expend far more polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to reverse these dam­ag­ing changes.

U.S.-controlled peace process­es” have failed in Israel-Pales­tine for more than a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry, but Trump’s actions will pre­vent the U.S. from play­ing any poten­tial­ly benign diplo­mat­ic role in the future. And they’ll sig­nif­i­cant­ly raise the threat of a U.S. war with Iran for a long time to come.

Is Netanyahu worth all that?

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus and The Nation. It is reprint­ed with permission.

Phyl­lis Ben­nis is a fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edi­tion of Under­stand­ing the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli Con­flict: A Primer.
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