Synergy: lame-duck Trump, indicted Netanyahu - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (November 9, 2020)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The coming two and a half months of President Trump’s lame-duck term coincide with the countdown to the opening of PM Netanyahu’s trial in January 2021. As close political associates facing adversity, how might they interact?

A. They can collaborate to improve on their Middle East legacies. Then again, they can collaborate to leave a more destructive set of legacies. Then too, conceivably they might just ignore one another in favor of more urgent tasks at home, like covid-19.

Here it is important to note that the Netanyahu-Trump relationship is not as straightforward as it may seem. On the one hand, Netanyahu has consciously aped Trump tactics like demeaning the media and the legal establishment. He has adopted Trump’s lexicon regarding ‘fake news’ and the like. And of course, he has heavily influenced Trump’s Middle East agenda, which he favors. On the other, Netanyahu is far more intelligent and better informed than Trump. He may have politicized his approach to the corona virus, but he has never belittled corona. In his personal and professional life, he takes extreme anti-virus precautions. Conceivably, he is enough of a political opportunist--some would say pragmatist--to sit his political allies down and lecture them about the do’s and don’ts of coexisting with Biden.

Q. What can Trump and Netanyahu do in the course of around 70 days regarding their Middle East legacy?

A. Netanyahu and, surprisingly, his rival and ‘alternate prime minister’ Gantz, sent an interesting signal in this regard on Saturday and Sunday. They both delayed sending congratulations to President-elect Biden until most of the world had done so. Netanyahu’s eventual congratulatory message was balanced by a paean of praise for Trump’s contribution to Israel’s security.

Even President Rivlin, presumably at Netanyahu’s behest, delayed his congratulations. So sensitive was the issue that, when three left-leaning ministers from Gantz’s half of the coalition jumped the gun and congratulated Biden in real time, Gantz publicly berated them.

Obviously, Netanyahu and Gantz were bending over backwards to remain in Trump’s good graces. Why? What sort of payoff are they expecting before January 20? It presumably involves Iran rather than, say, the Palestinian issue. After all, Gantz as defense minister is as committed as Netanyahu to blocking Iran’s aggressive initiatives, whether nuclear or in Syria and Lebanon. And together they have crucial strategic backing from the UAE and presumably Saudi Arabia. But Gantz does not share Netanyahu’s territorial greed in the West Bank.

More US sanctions against Iran? Some sort of military operation, perhaps involving both Israel and the US? Last week Tzachi HaNegbi, a veteran minister in Netanyahu governments, warned publicly that if Biden tries to return to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) that Trump withdrew from, this would “lead to a violent confrontation between Israel and Iran”. Netanyahu could reason that it would be best not to wait until Biden takes office on January 20.

Q. And without Gantz’s blessing but with Trump’s, what could Netanyahu do on other fronts in the weeks ahead?

A. Netanyahu is looking for initiatives that could help him launch and win yet another election in Israel and bring about postponement of his trial. At present, the biggest potential electoral threat to his chances is not on the fragmented political left and center of Israeli politics, but on the right, from Naftali Bennet, the dynamic leader of the Yamina list. Bennet’s approval rating as a potential prime minister is currently almost as high as Netanyahu’s.

How to outflank Bennet, of course with Trump’s backing, and rally the mainstream religious right behind Netanyahu rather than Bennet? Perhaps an initiative to institutionalize Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount esplanade. Or some sort of ‘stealth’ annexation of West Bank lands or application of Israeli law (i.e., annexation) to Israeli settlements. Or merely a major settlement-construction initiative.

On November 3, while the world was distracted by US elections, the IDF was sent to raze an “illegal” Palestinian Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley, displacing 73 Palestinians. We might see more such initiatives now, aimed at depopulating Arab land in preparation for de facto annexation.

Moves like these on Netanyahu’s part would be considered extremely inciteful by Palestinians and would generate violence. Israel’s new normalization partners in the Arab world, led by the UAE, would cry foul. If Netanyahu is going to endanger stability and tranquility for electoral purposes, he can’t risk a crisis with President Biden as well. He has until January to plan and execute such a move.

Q. Nothing by way of a more positive Trump-Netanyahu legacy?

A. Definitely also possible. But problematic, too. Trump has bragged about lining up 10 additional Arab state candidates for normalization of relations with Israel. With Trump on the way out, will the Moroccans, the Tunisians, the Omanis and the Saudis not wish to check first with Biden? Is the lame-duck Trump still in a position to reward them with weaponry and cancelled debts as he did (respectively) for Abu Dhabi and Khartoum? Will the Biden team signal them to wait because the incoming president has a different set of carrots and sticks in mind--perhaps something involving an Israeli concession to the Palestinians?

Then too, since Netanyahu has Trump’s ear, this might be the time for Arabs in need of a favor in Washington to ask Jerusalem to intervene. Or can Netanyahu be depended on by Israel’s Arab neighbors to have Biden’s ear as well? Egypt’s President Sisi is apparently not taking any chances. He just released several hundred Egyptians who had been jailed on trumped-up political charges, some since 2014. He knows that Biden, unlike Trump, looks closely at foreign leaders’ human rights records. Sisi was paying attention when, back in July, Biden tweeted that there will be “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.”

Q. Conceivably Trump will now adopt a scorched earth policy of firing senior officials like the heads of US intelligence and security agencies, some of whom he seems to have never trusted . . .

A. This implies a temporary breakdown of sorts in Washington’s strategic ties with countries like Israel. Until January 20, 2021, Israel and others may not be able to look to the United States for guidance and coordination with the security establishment in the event of global or regional crises.

Suppose, for example, that sometime in the coming two months yet another round of fighting breaks out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza or between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran might have an interest in igniting such a conflict. In such a situation, it would not be in Israel’s interest if there were no one in charge in the Pentagon and no US representative on the UN Security Council. Here Biden’s transition team, and early appointments of key security and diplomatic officials in his prospective administration, could conceivably create a kind of shadow government even before Trump leaves office. This could be particularly important if Trump orders his remaining officials not to cooperate with the transition of power.

Q. And if Trump defiantly refuses to officially resign and declares his candidacy for president in 2024? What will he expect from political allies like Netanyahu?

A. This could be the ultimate quandary for Netanyahu. How, for example, to deal with a Trump ‘victory lap’ trip to Israel without alienating Biden? What to say when interviewed on Trump TV, which could replace Fox as Trump’s sounding board?

Netanyahu knows that Trump is very popular with Israel’s predominantly right-religious electoral mainstream. But Netanyahu also knows he has to coexist harmoniously with the Biden administration. Trump can make this task very difficult.

Q. Bottom line?

A. It is doubtful that Netanyahu’s political calculations vis-à-vis the United States range beyond the next four years. Still, the advent of the Biden-Harris administration following upon the Obama-Biden administration provides food for thought regarding Israel-US relations in the longer term. If Trump was an aberration and Kamala Harris is more representative of future America (and, almost certainly, Europe), Israel as occupier of the West Bank will find itself increasingly out of step. The dominant Israeli right-religious establishment should take note.

As for the near term, it is also conceivable that nothing of note will happen in the Middle East and in Israel-US relations in the next two months and a half. Corona will dominate, along with economic worries. Netanyahu will fear risking elections. His corruption trial will start on time. Trump will play by the rules . . .

Don’t hold your breath.

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