Facing New Challenges

By Yaakov Amidror

Israel Hayom

February 10, 2017

Ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington next week and his Feb. 15 meeting with President Donald Trump, the differences between the Israeli Right and Left's worldviews, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue, has become more poignant.

The Left is concerned that under the new administration, which is more sympathetic to Israel and is not as wary of the Arab world's reactions as its predecessor, the Right will all but eliminate any chance of resuming the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- something that is bound to happen if Israel accelerates construction across Judea and Samaria or pursues the odd annexation here and there.

The Right, for its part, hopes that now, free of the constraints imposed by the previous American administration, it will be able to realize its dream and integrate Judea and Samaria, or at least the main settlement blocs, into Israel.

In between is the majority of the Israeli public, the wide and mostly silent center, which is not privy to the fine print on these issues and mostly just wants peace and quiet, with no physical involvement with the Palestinians.

If Israel decides to change direction and effectively close the door on future negotiations, it will be unable to avoid the question of the Palestinian population and its civilian-political future.

The need to deal with this issue is logical, even if we accept the (probably correct) assumption that in the next few years the Palestinian leadership will not seriously negotiate a reasonable solution to the conflict.

It is precisely now, when Israel is free of the limitations imposed by the previous American administration, that Israel shoulders even greater responsibility and must explore what the correct policies to pursue are. The leeway the Trump administration may give Israel will allow it to operate more freely, but this freedom is not without its risks: Marching solely to the beat of the Right's drum may lead to the point of no return of a binational state, so Israel must search for an answer not only to avoid being summoned to The Hague, but because of the importance of this issue for Israel itself.

 

A new Middle East?

With all due respect to the settlement enterprise, one must remember that Trump has a few other things to consider when it comes to the Middle East, and all of them are important to Israel as well.

Trump and Netanyahu are likely to discuss a myriad of regional issues, including how the U.S. plans to deal with radical Sunni Islam, which has grown exponentially stronger over the past few years.

Sunni Islam has both purely terrorist aspects, as evident by the rise of the Islamic State group, and political aspects, as evident by the Muslim Brotherhood's fight against the regimes of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan's King Abdullah.

The administration's controversial ban on the entry of individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- to the United States, aims to prevent terrorist elements from infiltrating into the U.S., but Trump has yet to shape an overall policy on dealing with terrorism, or with the political questions plaguing the Arab world.

Another major challenge is curtailing Iran's aspirations of regional domination. The Islamic republic is trying to build a Shiite axis running through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and this dynamic axis challenges the U.S.'s friends in the region, and its members could, within a few years, acquire military nuclear capability as a result of a bad agreement reached by the previous administration and Iran.

These moves already constitute a threat to the U.S., and the danger will only increase. The new administration has already clearly stated that it plans to take a more active approach against Iran, and it indeed reacted firmly to the ballistic missile test it conducted last week, but it is still unclear how far the new president wants to -- and can -- go. After all, this may lead to a complex military conflict.

These are two very important issues for Israel, and the Iranian issue is critical. With this respect, we have to ask ourselves how we can contribute to shaping U.S. policy and how we may be of assistance in the region, because that is what being a strategic ally means.

This is where the issues discussed here converge: It may turn out that Israel's moves in Judea and Samaria hinder the effort to outline an anti-Iranian alliance in the region, led by the U.S. and with Israel as a partner.

In other words, in this case, the ideological approach to the settlements may contradict the strategic need arising from the new situation in the Middle East at a time when dramatic regional changes are possible. Should it become clear that the U.S. may pursue new alliances in the region only if Israel is perceived as refraining from making the situation worse for the Palestinians  -- or even as promoting negotiations -- Israel would face a significant intellectual and political challenge.

 

Understanding Moscow

It seems the U.S. also intends on pursuing rapprochement with Russia, but here too things are not simple.

President Barack Obama also pursued dialogue with Moscow, but found out the hard way that President Vladimir Putin sees the world, and Russia's position in it, differently.

Moreover, understanding the U.S.'s limitations when it comes to exercising force, Putin succeeded in both carving positions of influence in areas far from home, such as Syria, and ruffling the EU's and NATO's feathers to the point of military friction, such as in Ukraine.

It is hard to tell whether the Trump administration plans on meeting Russia's moves with stride or acquiescence, or if it will side with the EU. The positions expressed during the election campaign, implying openness toward Russia, will undoubtedly have to stand the test of reality.

Naturally, any developments in Russia will contribute to the complexity of Middle East affairs, as Russia is an important ally of Iran in Syria, and therefore it indirectly contributes to the Islamic republic's growing influence in the region.

These are all international, external challenges, but the Trump administration will also have to deal with serious domestic challenges. Israel must not be perceived as taking sides on internal American issues.

Naturally, Israel will work closely with the new administration to promote its own interests, but it must act in a way that would express bipartisan support as much as possible, and all in the uneasy atmosphere of an American society divided by the rough elections.