Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was certainly not surprised by the election outcome in the United States, but he is also not happy.
The Trump administration represented a bounty of benefits for Netanyahu, from domestic political points to major advances on Netanyahu’s longstanding policy aims—shutting down the Palestinian route to statehood, and dominating Iran for power in the Middle East. A Democratic victory challenges Netanyahu’s highly partisan approach to the U.S.–Israel relationship. And Joe Biden, despite his stalwart friendship with Israel over decades, is a discomfiting reminder to Netanyahu of the Obama presidency he loathed. Netanyahu is also facing legal and political crises at home, making his political position extremely precarious. As a result, the embattled Israeli prime minister might consider dramatic foreign policy moves to shore up his position and leverage Trump’s unconditional support during the remaining days of his presidency.
Trump meant the world to Netanyahu at home, where the personal friendship played to Netanyahu’s political advantage. Netanyahu campaigned on their handshakes and praised Trump so lavishly over four years that surveys indicate Israel would be among the reddest states if its citizens could vote. Like Netanyahu’s other populist, authoritarian, anti-democratic friends—Victor Orban of Hungary, Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and India’s Narendra Modi—Trump also helped legitimize illiberal leadership. He undermined democratic norms, consolidated and personalized power just like Netanyahu, while rolling back civil rights and fomenting nationalist-supremacist extremism to win.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear agreement, was a boon to Netanyahu’s long-term goal of punishing Iran. Netanyahu and Trump were also symbiotically aligned on the goal of crushing the Palestinian quest for national self-determination. The Trump administration has taken greater steps than any previous American leadership toward destroying the two-state solution, with a two-pronged policy of diplomatic “gifts” to improve Israel’s already far-stronger position, while relentlessly sidelining the Palestinians. Diplomatic blows such as shutting down the Washington representative office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), closing the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem that served Palestinians, and ending economic aid severely undercut the legitimacy, bargaining position, and political will of the Palestinian leadership.
The recent U.S. election results triggered an Israeli response that appeared well-planned. First, Netanyahu sought to paper over his recent history of intense partisanship in American politics, after years of openly siding with Republicans; his deeply polarizing address to the U.S. Congress at the invitation of Republicans during Obama’s presidency was perhaps a pinnacle of this partisanship up to that point, and the trend deepened under the friendship with Trump. Still, following the elections, Netanyahu emphasized his longstanding relationship with Biden, and after a slight pause, congratulated him on victory against the background of Trump’s electoral histrionics.
The initial politesse, however, turned out to be only a soft cover for a salvo of messages that followed. Netanyahu quickly began conveying to President-elect Biden and his foreign policy team packed with former Obama staffers how hard he intends to play to maintain the achievements, in Netanyahu’s view, of the Trump years.
First, Israel announced the opening of new housing tenders in the strategic southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos; developing this area drives yet another physical and symbolic wedge in the residual land basis for two states. Development plans were stalled for years before kicking off less than two weeks after the U.S. elections, with the bidding process scheduled to close, symbolically, just ahead of Biden’s inauguration or very shortly thereafter. Israel then celebrated the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the settlements after declaring them legal under international law, in American eyes.
Netanyahu’s boldest action comes on the Iranian front, his signature foreign policy area. First, Israel conducted another strike against Iranian positions in Syria, one of the more lethal of such attacks. He followed with a stern warning that there can be no return to the nuclear agreement with Iran. Coincidentally or not, also in November, news emerged that Israel had assassinated an al-Qaeda operative at America’s request on Iranian territory. But the most brazen action was the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in Iran at the end of November, presumably by Israel. The move reads like a clear and highly dangerous message to Biden: stand down on the JCPOA and Israel will stand down on provoking Middle East chaos.
Lame Duck and Transition: What Next?
Netanyahu appears prepared to venture even further into political, physical, and even military action during the lame-duck phase, to drive the message—and the two essential policy goals—home.
On the Palestinian front, ever since the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates was announced in August, Netanyahu and his party members have insisted that the West Bank annexation he had been promising from 2019 through to July 2020 was only postponed, rather than canceled. After the March 2020 Israeli elections, Netanyahu even wrote July 1 into the coalition agreement as the start of some undefined plan to annex parts of the West Bank, but the wave of Middle East normalization led to the suspension of this policy. Should Israel head into a new election cycle (failure by Israel’s fraught coalition to agree on a budget by late December will trigger elections), it would be highly characteristic of Netanyahu to advance some version of the annexation he has been talking up for so long. Such a move could conceivably include neighborhoods near Jerusalem such as Maaleh Adumim, or even Ariel, deep inside the West Bank, and therefore would strike a more severe diplomatic blow. Netanyahu has already announced his plan to annex the Jordan Valley; moving ahead is another option to ensure destruction of any good will or opportunity to revive negotiations with the Palestinians, let alone reach an agreement.
The Iranian front is even more threatening. Trump has seriously weighed a military strike on Iran with Israeli support, portending the most far-reaching and irreversible course of action. It would be paradoxical if the United States were to ignite a war in the Middle East even as Trump has loudly promoted withdrawal from foreign adventures, but Trump’s policy is not constrained by a need for consistency. The construction of regional alliances both for and against Iran in recent years—the driving force behind Israel’s spate of normalization—means that any such escalation could engulf the entire Middle East in flames.
The bleak scenarios described above are not inevitable. Netanyahu has other options, and though he might not agree, he may have political interests that can compete with his default policy goals. For example, his domestic image as the country’s towering statesman would only be burnished were Netanyahu to prove that he can work just as well with a Democratic president as with a Republican.
And while no Biden administration would be as generous as Mike Pompeo regarding settlements, the incoming administration might prioritize instead focusing on the more immediate danger of Iran’s nuclear program. In its desire to reconstitute the JCPOA, the Biden administration might even resort to a devil’s bargain, at least temporarily: the United States could refrain from significant pressure on Israel to make concessions to Palestinians, in return for a freeze on the annexation front, and Israel’s cooperation for (or at least tolerance of) an updated agreement with Iran. How bad could a renewed deal be for Israel? After the U.S. withdrawal, Iran has stockpiled twelve times more uranium just in Natanz, and committed five significant breaches of the deal since 2018. By any logic, reducing the nuclear threat favors Israel’s interest.
Further, the bitter truth is that even just a pause by Israel on physical or legal expansion in the West Bank, and perhaps loosening its chokehold on Gaza, may be the best possible course of action in the immediate future. Palestinian political leadership is in no shape for signing a deal; negotiation collapse or chaos would kill the idea of peace and relegate Palestinians to permanent serfdom under an Israeli apartheid regime. But if the negotiation situation remains frozen during the presidential transition phase and the early phase of a Biden administration, the two sides might actually have an opportunity to construct, if painstakingly, the conditions needed for an eventual peace. Progress in that direction could in turn help tempt a seemingly willing Saudi Arabia to join the emerging normalization club. Even a right-wing leader of Israel can reasonably leverage the Gulf normalization—Netanyahu’s triumph—to foster economic investment in Palestinian society, advance regional integration, and nurture broader cooperation for political stability while supporting future negotiations.
To quote Lyndon B. Johnson, “These are the stakes.” Netanyahu’s choice lies between bad and better. The bad route could lead to disaster.
header photo: Prime Minister of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on September 15, 2020. (Source: Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images)