Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu likes to tell his cabinet that no one understands the Americans better than he does.
But in his many years in power, appeasing and challenging Republicans and Democrats alike, Netanyahu has never dealt with a president like Donald Trump.
The two leaders will sit down as equals at the White House on Wednesday. They have known each other since Netanyahu served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York in the 1980s and was friendly with Trump’s father, Fred.
Netanyahu has been in nonstop consultations with his advisers as they prep him for one of the most important meetings of his career.
Israeli officials say the prime minister will seek to strengthen his already warm rapport with Trump after years of feuding and policy clashes with the Obama administration. But there is stark division on what message his right-wing government wants him to deliver in Washington.
His education minister and coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, has pressed him to abandon his tentative commitment to the two-state solution, which he first announced in a speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009.
Calling the upcoming visit to the White House “the test of Netanyahu’s life,” Bennett warned the 67-year-old prime minister that there were two words he could not utter at the meeting: “Palestinian state.”
“They must not be said. This is our test,” Bennett cautioned, voicing an ultimatum from the increasingly powerful settlers’ wing, a group that numbers more than 600,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If either side utters those words after the meeting, Bennett said, “the earth will shake.”
Inside Netanyahu’s own Likud party, activists have been circulating a letter calling for the prime minister to jettison the two-state paradigm.
Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, told Army Radio on Sunday: “Whoever talks about a Palestinian state today does not live in the real world. There is a general consensus among the public there is no way to reach it.”
But Katz said Bennett was wrong to try to publicly force Netanyahu into a corner on the eve of his Washington trip.
There is broad agreement in Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet that the prime minister should seek a mind-meld with Trump on Iran, which is seen not only by Israel but by its moderate Sunni Arab neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, as the looming challenge to regional security.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Trump meeting should have one overarching goal. “The greatest threat to Israel is Iran, Iran and Iran,” he said.
But as much as Netanyahu might want to keep circling back to Iran, the long-running Palestinian conflict has flared again, even as Israel begins its 50th year of military occupation.
After Trump’s election, Israel’s right wing was almost giddy with expectations of better days to come, hailing Trump as a savior of Greater Israel who would not only get tough with Iran, Israel’s nemesis, but also would quickly move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and green-light a building boom for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But it has been a stormy few weeks – for the settlements and Netanyahu personally, who is facing down police investigations including an embarrassing probe into his family’s receipt of thousands of dollars in gifts from wealthy benefactors, such as diamond jewelry, pink champagne and fancy cigars.
No politician likes to wake up to a front-page headline like the one in the Haaretz newspaper last week that read: “The Netanyahus’ requests for gifts made me sick.”
Late last month, after years of delays, the Israeli police finally carried out a supreme court order for the demolition of Amona, an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank built on private Palestinian land. Israeli TV screens blazed with the images of violent resistance for 24 hours.
Netanyahu and Lieberman quickly sought to shore up their right flank by announcing building plans for 5,500 more homes in the settlements.
Then Israel’s parliament passed a controversial bill last week allowing the state to expropriate more private Palestinian land and grant it to settlers – so there would never be another Amona eviction.
Netanyahu supported the bill, but even his fellow Likudnik, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, cautioned, “It will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state, which it is not,” according to Israeli media accounts.
On Friday, Trump surprised Jerusalem when he gently warned Israel in an interview that building more homes in Jewish settlements was not “good for peace” and said he wanted Israel to “act reasonably” as his administration explores paths toward brokering peace talks with the Palestinians and Arab governments. Trump also said he would move cautiously on a possible relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which Arabs have warned would inflame religious passions and spark violence.
The interview was published in Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by the prime minister’s long-term supporter Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and GOP mega-donor who dined at the White House with Trump last week.
For the Israeli government, the most problematic section of the interview was Trump’s statement that he and his son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner, are considering a new round of peace talks to broker what Trump has called “the ultimate deal.”
Orly Azoulay, a columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote on Sunday, “The Israeli right wing appear to have popped their champagne corks a bit prematurely when they celebrated Trump’s victory.”
She added, “Presidents come and presidents go, but there is nothing new under the sun in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nor are there any magical solutions.”
On Sunday at his cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said, “I hear and understand that there is great excitement ahead of this meeting” with Trump, “with all different kinds of motivation behind it.” But he stressed that his goals were “to strengthen the steadfast alliance with the U.S.” and other national interests dependent on that tie.
In response to the calls to abandon the two-state solution, Netanyahu said his White House visit “requires a responsible and considered policy – and thus I intend to act.
“I have navigated Israeli-U.S. relations in a prudent manner,” he said, “and I will continue to do so now.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · William Booth