November 16, 2018

How to deal with Trump: the Netanyahu-Bennett debate

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett have been having an interesting fight in recent days. It is a fight with clear political undertones and implications – each of these two leaders would like to present himself to the public as the true guardian of Israel’s interests. But it is also a legitimate fight over tactics – namely, about what is the most effective way for Israel to prepare for Donald Trump and his half-baked plan for advancing the Israeli-Palestinian process.

Netanyahu is the leader of Likud, the main party of Israeli right. Bennett is the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, a much smaller party that used to be the political home of right-wing religious Zionists. Netanyahu would like to keep his throne as the leader of the right. Bennett would like to succeed Netanyahu, even though he comes from the wrong party to do that. So there is a political undertone to every debate these two – who also dislike each other personally – have.

Then there is substance – and real questions which need to be settled. For example: is it wise for Israel to let Donald Trump decide for himself whether to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, as he vowed to do – or maybe it is wiser for Israel to put pressure on the American President by reminding him publically that he made a promise and that Israel has expectations based on this promise? Bennett hints that the prime minister is letting Trump off the hook by being cautious about voicing Israel’s expectations. He’s been criticizing Netanyahu to score political points – but also because he seems to think that being clear about Israel’s expectations is the only chance Israel has to achieve its goal.

When it comes to disagreements on tactics, the embassy question is small change. The real question is the Two-State solution. That is, should Israel be clear about its lack of interest in having a Palestinian State – or should it blur its intentions and negotiate its way forward without revealing its true feelings and cards.

Netanyahu is cautious. This is something that many outside observers don’t understand about him because of his occasional bluster and his hawkish image. But truly, he is one of the most cautious leaders in Israel’s history. He does not gamble, he does not engage in sudden moves. He is careful not to miscalculate. He is nothing like Ariel Sharon – who gambled on evacuating Gaza. He is nothing like Ehud Barak – who gambled on Camp David. Netanyahu’s critics would argue that his caution leads to paralysis. His supporters would argue that in a volatile region the only reasonable approach is conservative caution.

Bennett is not cautious. At least not as long as he doesn’t have the mandate to make actual decisions. In other words: Bennett might be bold because he doesn’t have responsibility –  or he might be bold because he is truly bold (Avigdor Lieberman seemed much bolder before he was made Defense Minister). Whatever the case may be, his argument goes as follows: Israel lost an opportunity after Trump was elected. It lost an opportunity because it wasn’t clear enough about its real interests and intentions. Had Israel been wiser, it would have made it clear that the Two-State solution is no longer on the table. In such case, Trump would not have been tempted to become a peace processor.

Bennett argues that Israel’s vagueness creates a vacuum. Peace processors are sucked into this vacuum. Netanyahu believes that clarity could mean trouble. If Israel takes the Two-State solution off the table, international pressure on Israel to propose something else, or measures taken against Israel as retribution, might follow. He also believes that clarity could complicate his dialogue with President Trump. If Israel puts forward a position with which the president isn’t satisfied, he might respond harshly. If Israel is vague, it could first listen to Trump, try to understand his positions, and then make sure to have an approach that accommodates Trump’s sensitivities.

There are two questions that could help determine what would be the better approach. Question number one: what is the price or benefit of keeping Israel’s cards close to chest without making grand pronouncements? Question number two: what is the price or benefit of having an Israeli position not in line with Trump’s?

Bennett is more afraid of vagueness. He is afraid of a slippery-slope peace process that will incrementally erode Israel’s position. He is less afraid of Trump – and his potential fury. Netanyahu is more afraid of Trump. He believes in his own power to navigate a peace process successfully, and believes that remaining on Trump’s good side is a key feature of such success.

Netanyahu makes the following calculation: there is no reason to pick a fight with Trump – because he might end up accepting Israel’s positions. And even if Trump doesn’t accept Israel’s positions, it is probably better to manipulate the President than to confront him. For now Netanyahu has the upper hand. First – because he is the Prime Minister. Second – because Trump has not yet showed his cards and revealed his intentions. If and when Trump becomes more aggressive in his demands, this might change.