Netanyahu’s visit is another headache for Trump

 16 Feb 2017 - 10:49

SSince his inauguration on 20 January, Donald Trump’s presidency has been rocked by one controversy after another. Reports that Russia hacked into the offices of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, triggered a showdown with the powerful Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Similarly, his “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States has placed him at odds with the federal legal establishment. And, as if he hasn’t got enough headaches at home, he will this week host Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Like his predecessor, Barak Obama, the dear leader will be lobbied to endorse an Israeli shopping list of contentious policies. Put bluntly, his loyalty to Israel will be tested to the limit. Will he carry out his March 2016 promise to move the US embassy to the “eternal capital” of the Jewish people, Jerusalem? Will he support Netanyahu’s plan to annex the large Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank to Israel? Will he drop references to the “two-state” solution from the lexicon of US diplomacy? And will he give the green light for another war of aggression against the Gaza Strip?

Trump is not alone in having mounting domestic problems. His Israeli guest is himself barely clinging on to power as he battles against criticism and threats from within his coalition government. Hardliners like Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, Minister of Culture Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are openly opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Although the prime minister may embrace similar views he will not, for tactical reasons, express them publicly while in office. His late father, Benzion Netanyahu, who served as a secretary for Zeev Jabotinsky – the founder of Revisionist Zionism – said of his son in a 2009 interview, “Bibi might aim for the same goals as mine, but he keeps to himself the ways to achieve them, because if he gave expression to them, he would expose his goals.”

Nevertheless, Netanyahu Junior dares not denounce or distance himself from the views of his fanatical ministers. To do so would spell the end of his coalition government.

Like his American host, Netanyahu is also embattled with the legal system. Every week brings with it a new investigation into one allegation of corruption or another. It seems only a matter of time before he is indicted and even imprisoned, as his predecessor Ehud Olmert was.

Then there is the issue of the missing soldiers captured during the 2014 war on Gaza or thereafter. Their relatives are becoming increasingly impatient, as is the Israeli public. Thus far, attempts to mediate their release for the exchange of Palestinian prisoners are proving highly embarrassing and painful for the Israeli leader. Practically speaking, he seems left with very few options: he can swallow his pride and release the Palestinian prisoners demanded by Hamas; launch another murderous war; or intensify the blockade to cripple what is left of the Palestinian economy in the Gaza Strip.

While some within the Israeli government – including Bennett, who is accused of “opportunistic warmongering” by a ministerial colleague – continue to threaten another military offensive in Gaza, it is unlikely to secure the release of the soldiers. While there is a strong temptation to go in with all guns blazing, it must be remembered that the 2008-09 war on Gaza did not secure the release of Gilad Shalit, who was held captive from 2006 to 2011. Furthermore, yet another adventure may result in the capture of more soldiers, thereby making a bad situation worse for Netanyahu.

For now, Israel can wait for opportunities to attack and undermine Gaza’s fragile economy as it did last week when alleged Daesh operatives in the Sinai fired a rocket into the Israeli town of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. It was a welcome gift to Israel – raising questions about who actually fired the rocket – which responded by bombing some of the commercial tunnels that continue to provide a lifeline for Gaza’s two million inhabitants. At the very least, Donald Trump may respond to Netanyahu’s demands by ordering the Egyptians to scale back trade with Gaza and compensate them handsomely with the financial aid that has all but stopped coming from the Gulf.

It is hard to predict which Trump will turn up at the summit. Will it be the ideologically-driven alternative-right populist, or the hard-nosed pragmatic business magnate? At the end of the day, he may well be President of the United States, but Trump still has a network of global business interests to protect.

Either way, given the fact that both men are addicted to excessive bravado it is only reasonable to expect another farcical encounter in Washington. Apart from making the headlines for a few hours, this meeting will no doubt add nothing substantial to the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East. It may even make matters substantially worse.

The writer is the Director of Middle East Monitor (Memo)