From the day President Trump set foot in the White House, Israeli leaders have argued that he is the best friend they have ever had. Many of the Trump administration’s policies, from recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan to the maximum pressure campaign directed at the Palestinian Authority, have confirmed for Israelis that this view of Trump is correct. But at the same time that Israelis have embraced Trump as their unwavering ally, many of those same Israelis have expressed concern that there would be a price to be paid for this love down the road. This concern has been particularly acute given that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal embrace of Trump and efforts to bind himself to Trump for his own domestic political benefit leave him in a position where it will be impossible for him to stand up to Trump on anything. The various gifts that Trump has bestowed upon Israel without requesting anything in return have always seemed out of character for a president who approaches every other policy issue as a set of transactions, and the question has always been what Trump would eventually demand of Israel in return for his uncharacteristic beneficence.
For many on the Israeli right, the assumption has been that the price to be paid would come in the form of unwanted concessions to the Palestinians in the Trump peace initiative. Trump administration officials such as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have often said that there will be elements in their plan that will make both sides unhappy and that compromise will be required. Right-wing Israeli political leaders, such as Naftali Bennett, have for this reason stated in the past that they are grateful to Trump but do not want him proposing any type of peace plan, understanding that no matter how favorably tilted toward Israel, any peace initiative that conforms to a traditional framework will involve elements that the Israeli right will not want to swallow.
There have been multiple signals this week, however, that this view of the situation is incorrect. A variety of clues lead to the conclusion that the price of Trump’s unprecedented policy moves will not necessarily come as part of his peace initiative, but that the peace initiative itself will be another gift in service of his actual ask, which will be tacit Israeli acquiescence to the Trump administration entering into negotiations and an eventual nuclear deal of its own with Iran. Should this be the manner in which events unfold, it will place Netanyahu in the situation of having to decide whether he is willing to trade his political future for the policy goal that he has espoused for decades — containing Iran and denying its nuclear aspirations — or whether he is willing to cast aside the animating idea of his career in return for remaining in the prime minister’s office.
The past few days have featured some curious news items. After saying last week that any peace initiative to be unveiled would come following Israeli elections, Trump abruptly reversed course this week and told reporters that some elements of the plan may be released before the September 17 vote, which then prompted Greenblatt to clarify on Twitter that the plan would actually only come after the election. This came in conjunction with Netanyahu saying at a campaign event on Wednesday with an unusual degree of certainty that the Trump plan would be released after the election, and likely without much of a delay.
On top of this, a Likud internal poll was leaked that asked respondents whether Trump should release his plan before or after the election, or whether it would matter if Trump gave Israel the green light to annex the Jordan Valley or existing settlements before the election. All of this was then followed by Bennett, who as noted above has publicly expressed his opposition to any Trump plan being released, telling Israeli reporters that he will examine any Trump proposal seriously because of the president’s true friendship for Israel.
None of this seems like mere coincidence. It points to a White House that is planning on releasing a peace plan during coalition negotiations – which is the way to avoid charges of trying to influence the outcome of the election itself – and having in that peace plan components that will help Netanyahu form a government; namely, American cover for Israel to proceed with unilateral annexation. Should the election result in another deadlock and this scenario with a Trump peace initiative plays out, Netanyahu will point to the unprecedented concession that he has gotten from the U.S. – something far beyond the Bush-Sharon letter, which effectively conceded future Israeli sovereignty over settlement blocs but only in the context of a negotiated peace agreement – and argue that none of this would have happened absent his leadership and the relationship that he has cultivated with Trump. When portrayed as a historic opportunity to apply sovereignty to areas of the West Bank that may never again present itself, and which depends on Netanyahu in order to see it through, it will be difficult for Kachol Lavan to remain insistent that it will only join a unity government that does not include Netanyahu.
But none of this changes the fact that Trump will still have not asked Israel for anything in return, and this is where the Iran variable enters the equation. As Trump has made his desire to negotiate with the Iranian regime increasingly clear, Netanyahu and Israeli officials have made their concern over this outcome just as clear. While it is difficult to imagine Netanyahu publicly confronting Trump on anything, Netanyahu has made great political hay over the past four years of his willingness to stand up to President Obama over this precise issue, and forsaking the same principle when it comes to Trump will create a real credibility problem for the prime minister. A peace initiative that enables Netanyahu to remain prime minister by allowing him to take credit for American acquiescence to West Bank annexation or application of Israeli sovereignty over settlements is the most valuable chip that Trump is able to cash in if seeking to forestall a Netanyahu response to a future Iran policy that looks awfully similar to Obama’s.
If Trump does indeed sit down across from the Iranians and ends up negotiating a deal that is in any way short of the complete destruction of Iran’s entire nuclear program and existing capacity, the one source of opposition that he will have to worry about the most will be Israel. Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative may turn out to be the best answer to this problem, putting immense pressure on Netanyahu to choose another term as prime minister over enlisting any ally he can in his decades-long quest to warn the world about the singular threat that he views Iran to pose. Trading a hawkish Iran policy for West Bank annexation is not something that anyone would have contemplated Netanyahu doing a few short years ago, but the combination of Netanyahu’s political and legal difficulties and the legendary status for Trump that Netanyahu himself has constructed in the eyes of Israelis may lead to an entirely new reality.