After Israelis’ show of adulation for the United States during and immediately following the release of President Trump’s peace plan last week, many Israeli officials are sending decidedly different messages this week. Following what appears to be a clear disagreement between Jared Kushner and David Friedman over whether there is a green light from the Trump administration for Israel to immediately proceed with annexing parts of the West Bank and applying sovereignty to settlements, Kushner’s view has won out and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been told that no such support will be forthcoming until after Israel’s March 2 election. The request for a delay has not only caused consternation among proponents of annexation in Israel, but also has created a backlash against Kushner personally. Yesha Council chairman – and erstwhile Jordan Valley regional council head – David Elhayani said, “Kushner took a knife and put it in Netanyahu’s back. Kushner misled the prime minister. He misled everybody.”
Kushner is the direct target of Israeli anger, but the anger that annexation supporters actually feel is toward the U.S. As they have expressed in countless interviews and columns in the Israeli press, they felt as if they were given an unprecedented gift from the U.S. that has now been taken away. Their concern is that if annexation and extension of sovereignty do not happen immediately, the opportunity may be lost forever. If Netanyahu loses on March 2; if Israel’s political deadlock continues; if an actual negotiation process between Israelis and Palestinians is jumpstarted; most of all if there is a different American president come next January; all of these are things that could hinder Israel from transforming the fundamental status of the West Bank. Right-wing Israelis have become used to getting what they want from the U.S. during the Trump administration, and they are now in the strange position of being actively angry about a limitation being imposed by the same administration that has been so generous.
What this episode illustrates above all else is the mistake that Netanyahu and the Israeli right more broadly made with Trump. It isn’t the error that many (including me) warned about and that has not yet come to pass – though it still very well might – having to do with Trump’s fickle transactional nature and it inevitably boomeranging against Israel. It is the mistake of viewing and treating Trump as Cyrus the Great, Lord Balfour, and Harry Truman rolled into one and as an unparalleled hero of Zionist history, and thereby conferring upon him the status as the ultimate arbiter of Israel’s fate. Over the past three years, Netanyahu ceded Israel’s legitimacy and ability to act independently to Trump’s validation, and the result is that Israeli sovereignty has been diminished in a way that makes it very difficult to reclaim.
Time and again, Netanyahu has treated Trump’s pronouncements about Israel as the culmination of divine will and the only thing that matters. A casual observer of global events would be forgiven for thinking not that the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, but that Israel formally established the city as its capital after getting American permission to do so. Similarly, there are undoubtedly many people who do not know that Israel extended sovereignty over the Golan in 1981, and think it only happened last year when Israel treated U.S. recognition of that move as equivalent to the initial action itself. It is easy to understand why Israel has trumpeted American recognition of these Israeli actions, as they are important diplomatic victories. But Netanyahu has gone well beyond that, treating the recognition as if it is the more important milestone than the action itself and as if it confers a normative legitimacy that did not exist before. And so Israel now finds itself at the point where it cannot make any sudden moves without the White House’s signoff after having established the precedent multiple times that Trump’s consent is the only thing that matters. Israel wants to extend sovereignty to the West Bank, but it no longer has the sovereignty to do it.
When Naftali Bennett and others immediately after Trump’s election referenced the historic opportunity Israel had, they recognized that the U.S. has a unique power to prevent Israel from taking particularly inflammatory or controversial steps given unique American support for Israel. In other words, the U.S. has a strong negative power over Israel resulting from its being the sole remaining superpower and its strong pro-Israel positions. But that power was never absolute, as evidenced by multiple Israeli actions that were taken over American objections across decades, from bombing the Iraqi Osirak reactor during the Reagan administration, to continuing settlement construction over George H.W. Bush’s objections and suspension of loan guarantees, to multiple fights with the Obama administration over a variety of issues. What is different under the Trump administration is Netanyahu conditioning Israelis to view actions through the prism of Trump’s acquiescence, something he has done largely for his own electoral purposes and is now backfiring in a big way.
Israel never has been and never will be a truly independent and unfettered actor. It is a function of Israel’s relative size, its neighborhood, its historical positioning, and its place in the larger international system. Despite all of this, it is shocking how much Israel has intentionally put itself in the position of relying on Trump’s permission and good graces. The U.S. always had the power to locate its embassy anywhere it wanted, but that did not impact whether or not Jerusalem was indeed Israel’s capital. The U.S. always had the power to approve or condemn Israel’s presence on the Golan, but that did not impact Israel’s decision to stay there. Pretending that these things are now more widely accepted or inherently more legitimate because Trump says so was and is foolish. And now, when some Israelis are clamoring for Israel to take an action that they think is in Israel’s best interests, the great irony is that riding the Trump tiger in order to unnecessarily legitimate those previous actions is the factor that is preventing the one step that they most desperately wanted from the start.