Benjamin Netanyahu has always pandered to Israel’s darkest forces when it suits his purposes. Before the 2015 election, he warned that Arab-Israeli citizens were “voting in droves,” accused his opposition of being manipulated by the Americans, and said a Palestinian state would never emerge on his watch. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s election—in which he defeated Benny Gantz—Netanyahu demonstrated that he will go to any extreme to protect his grip on power. He vowed to annex the West Bank settlements. If implemented, this would kill any viable hope for an eventual two-state solution.
But his annexation pledge cannot be dismissed as another election-eve attempt to turn out right-wing voters. There’s a major difference between 2015 and 2019. Donald Trump is now in the White House.
In the past, Netanyahu could use American presidents to provide him with the cover necessary to disappoint his base. He could promise something radical, gain right-wing support, and then tell the ultra-nationalist, settler parties in his coalition, “I’d love to do this, but I can’t risk angering Washington.” Those days seem to be over. During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say whether the administration would oppose Israel’s unilateral annexation of the West Bank.
Indeed, Trump has already done Bibi’s bidding. He’s moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cut aid to the Palestinians, and pulled out of the Iran deal. Most recently, the president gave Netanyahu an enormous campaign gift: recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He did this without getting anything in return. Then, Trump helped Bibi again, designating the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization. Standing idle while Netanyahu annexes the settlements would be Trump’s logical next step.
If this plan is carried out, the president’s evangelical base would be delighted, but the damage would be irreversible. Israel cannot control Palestinians in the West Bank forever without suffering profound consequences. By extending Israeli sovereignty to territory that should one day constitute a Palestinian state, Netanyahu will force Israel to give up its commitment to remaining both Jewish and democratic—embroiling the nation even deeper into an existential crisis. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned two years ago that Israel was already on a “slippery slope” toward apartheid.
For now, many Israelis don’t seem to care. Netanyahu’s 10-year premiership has outlasted the 2011 Arab Uprisings, the Syrian civil war, two conflicts in Gaza, and the Great Recession. Throughout this period of global tumult, he has kept Israel relatively stable and secure. He has expanded Israel’s diplomatic relations abroad, including with China and India. He has forged quiet relationships with its Sunni Arab neighbors, like Saudi Arabia. And he has overseen Israel’s thriving economy, which enjoys an unemployment rate below 4 percent. But this short-term success obfuscates the long-term damage he’s inflicting on the country. Economic prosperity will mean very little if Israel can no longer remain a Jewish democracy.
Negotiations are now under way between Netanyahu and smaller right-wing parties as the prime minister looks to form his conservative government. Haaretz has reported that smaller parties are considering a bill that would prohibit a sitting prime minister from being indicted—a priority for Netanyahu, who faces multiple charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. But in exchange, he would annex the settlements, including isolated outposts.
If Trump lets him, it will divide world Jewry in ways like never before. As Tom Friedman has said, the debate about Israel will shift from “left versus right” to “right versus wrong.” The partisan split on Capitol Hill will only deepen as progressives lose ammunition for why the state is worth supporting. Israel will no longer be seen as an instrument of Jewish self-determination, but of permanent domination over the Palestinians. And once that happens, there will be no turning back. History will regard Netanyahu and Trump as the symbiotic partners who destroyed the liberal Zionist dream.