In Trump, Netanyahu Sees an Ally Who Helps Him Push the Envelope

WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank would flout four decades of American policy, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. But nothing emboldened Mr. Netanyahu to take such a risk more than the support of his ally President Trump.

From recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights to moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, Mr. Trump has given Mr. Netanyahu the political cover and legal legitimacy to embrace a position that critics say would all but extinguish the dream of a viable Palestinian state.

Mr. Trump’s moves are not merely temporary gestures, which a future president or Israeli leader could reverse. They are policy changes that experts say have permanently altered the contested landscape of the Middle East, making his own stated goal of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians more unattainable than ever.

“They talk about a peace plan, but we never see it,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel who tried to negotiate a deal between Israel and the Palestinians during the Obama administration. “What we see are new facts on the ground that will make a two-state solution impossible.”

The White House declined to comment on Monday on Mr. Netanyahu’s latest remarks. Partly, this reflected qualms about speaking out on a delicate diplomatic issue on the eve of an Israeli election. But it also revealed the extent to which Mr. Trump has become Mr. Netanyahu’s biggest enabler.

For Mr. Trump, who has talked about brokering a “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu’s aggressive move could pose a long-term problem. There is no obvious alternative to a two-state solution, however bleak its prospects. If Mr. Netanyahu is re-elected and follows through on his promise to annex territory, it would force the United States to retire a diplomatic strategy that dates to President Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. Trump continues to promote the idea of a peace accord, placing his hope in a blueprint drafted by three of his senior aides: Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser; Jason D. Greenblatt, his special envoy for Middle East peace; and David M. Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel. The Trump administration, officials said, still intends to present the plan sometime after the Israeli election.

“A big thing for me, and some of you won’t like this maybe, but I would love to see peace in the Middle East,” Mr. Trump said Saturday at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. “If those three can’t do it, you’ll never have it done.”

The setting captured the tension between Mr. Trump’s diplomatic ambitions and his domestic political imperatives. Acknowledging that the audience might not welcome a peacemaking effort that required compromises by Israel, he spent most of his time taking credit for decisions like the Jerusalem embassy and Golan Heights, which are popular with right-wing Jews and evangelical voters.

In Israel, meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu suggested that he had the tacit backing of Mr. Trump to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The prime minister told Israeli news media over the weekend that the White House was aware of his plans and said that he hoped to “do it, if possible, with American support,” though he added that he would not change his position, regardless of how the United States reacted.

There was little in Washington’s silence to indicate that Mr. Netanyahu would face pushback. At every step of the prime minister’s hard-fought campaign to stay in power, Mr. Trump has tried to help him. The president’s announcement on the Golan Heights last month came at a critical moment, when Mr. Netanyahu faced a rising opponent and damaging new disclosures in the corruption cases against him.

Even Mr. Trump’s announcement on Monday that the State Department would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organization paid dividends for Mr. Netanyahu. On his Hebrew-language Twitter feed, Mr. Netanyahu thanked Mr. Trump for “keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”

Mr. Trump has wrapped Mr. Netanyahu in a warm embrace from the beginning of his presidency, even as he has voiced mild support for a two-state solution. “That’s what I think works best,” he said last fall during a meeting with the prime minister at the United Nations General Assembly.

While Mr. Trump’s moves have been unstintingly pro-Israel, some could also be interpreted as a way to pressure the Palestinians to come back to the bargaining table. The administration cut off aid to Palestinian groups, closed its diplomatic office in Washington and ended funding for a United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees.

None of that persuaded the Palestinians to reopen a dialogue with the United States that was cut off after Mr. Trump announced the embassy move in late 2017. The threat of annexation, experts said, might be the last form of leverage the United States has over the Palestinians. Unless they agree to a peace deal, the United States could give Mr. Netanyahu a green light to claim territory.

“The one issue that clearly opened a Pandora’s box was the Golan Heights announcement,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator. “Once they broke that particular taboo, they opened the door for all the annexationists in Israel to say, ‘Now go for the West Bank.’”

Whatever his election-eve theatrics, some analysts argue that Mr. Netanyahu would be loath to take such a radical step. They say he is motivated less by a desire to upend decades of diplomacy than by his own political survival. Dangling the prospect of annexation is a way to nail down the support of smaller right-wing parties, which he will need to form a government.

“He’s smart enough to realize that if he goes through with this, he is creating with his own hands a Bosnia on the Mediterranean,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Mr. Makovsky acknowledged that if the Trump administration presented its plan and was rebuffed by the Palestinians — a scenario he and other veterans of peace negotiations view as likely — Mr. Netanyahu could use that as a pretext for selective annexation of large settlements.

Mr. Trump’s aides have kept a tight lid on the details and timing of their plan. Some analysts speculated that they might introduce it after the election, but before the victor forms a government, so as to influence the makeup of the new coalition. That scenario now seems less likely, given Mr. Netanyahu’s weakened position, because he will probably have to reach out to right-wing parties to form a government — and none of those are interested in a Palestinian state.

Some former diplomats argue that the intense focus on the peace plan misses the point: The Trump administration has utterly transformed the paradigm for American engagement in the Middle East.

“What we’re watching in terms of American policy is a shell game,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “They want you to watch the peace plan — it’s 40 pages long; it’s 60 pages long. What they don’t want you to watch is how they are trying extraordinarily hard, under cover of the plan, to change things on the ground.”

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