The Trump administration’s reversal of decades of US foreign policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been in the works for a year, says a US official, but the timing couldn’t have been better for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has banked on his relationship with the US President to carry him to electoral victory in the past. But after showering Netanyahu with political gifts ahead of Israel’s April elections, Trump barely sent more than a supportive tweet his way leading up to the September re-do. The US President, it seemed, was ready to move on, as Netanyahu’s political fortunes ebbed and he failed to put together a government for the second consecutive time. For the first time in a decade, someone else had the chance to lead the country.
That opportunity fell to Netanyahu’s rival, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. The leader of the Blue and White party has until Wednesday at midnight to put together a government. But if he fails – and his chances of success are slim at best – Israel enters a sort of political free-for-all where any one of the 120 members of Knesset could become Prime Minister if they have enough support. That includes Netanyahu, who will put himself forward once again as the best candidate for Prime Minister.
And now Netanyahu has new bragging rights.
On Monday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a decisive break with international consensus when he declared that the US now rejected a 1978 State Department legal opinion that deemed Israeli settlements in the West Bank “inconsistent with international law.”
For Israel’s longest serving leader, Pompeo’s announcement was an immediate cause for celebration. “This policy reflects an historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria. In fact, we are called Jews because we are the people of Judea,” said Netanyahu in a statement. He finished by saying Israel is “deeply grateful” to Trump and the entire US administration.
His allies were equally ebullient. The Speaker of the Knesset – also from Netanyahu’s Likud party – said the next step is annexation of the West Bank. The Foreign Minister thanked the US administration for its “consistent and steadfast support” of Israel. Advocates of settlements joined in the jubilation.
The US reversal on settlements is one more feather in Netanyahu’s hat, whether the Trump administration intended it as such or not. In counting his political victories under Trump, Netanyahu has a long list to show off to Israel’s voters: US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, placing Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps on the list of foreign terror organizations, and the list goes on.
Does the victory make enough of a political difference to guarantee that Netanyahu remains Israel’s Prime Minister? That’s a difficult question to answer. If the Golan Heights, the embassy, the capital and everything else couldn’t get him over the line in April, he could still come up short.
In any case, his chief opponent’s hands are tied. Gantz would gain nothing from opposing the US announcement. In a short statement, he commended the American decision, saying, “The fate of the settlements should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and promote peace.”
Netanyahu, never one to miss an opportunity to attack an opponent, went on the offensive anyway.
After weeks of railing against the possibility that Gantz might form a minority government with support from Israel’s Arab parties, he kept up the anti-Arab rhetoric with a tweet aimed at his rival: “At a time when the United States recognizes our right to the land of Israel, Benny Gantz is trying to form a minority government with those who do not recognize any of our rights in our land.”
Gantz’s Blue and White party fired back quickly. “We won’t accept moral preaching from someone who shook hands with [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat and pours millions of dollars every month as protection money to Hamas,” the party said on Twitter.
As it happened, many Israelis in fact had their attention turned elsewhere Monday night. In a country tired of months of political deadlock, the fact that one of the world’s greatest footballers, Lionel Messi, was visiting – playing for Argentina in an exhibition friendly against Uruguay in Tel Aviv – provided a welcome distraction.
“Bibi,” said Blue and White to end their statement, “let the people of Israel watch Messi quietly.”