U.S. Transition Puts Israeli Focus Back on Palestinians

JERUSALEM — On the wall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is a giant floor-to-ceiling map with Israel at its center. Mr. Netanyahu likes staring at the map. He regales visitors with stories about how Israel has made friends with so many of the countries shown, some nearby, others far away.

His point is that Israel has moved beyond the days when its conflict with the Palestinians defined its relations with the world. But even as he celebrates the ascension of President-elect Donald J. Trump as a steadfast ally, Mr. Netanyahu may find that it complicates management of his own conservative coalition and undercuts the very diplomatic outreach that has been his central priority.

The 14-to-0 vote by the United Nations Security Council condemning Israeli settlements, permitted on Friday by President Obama, who ordered an American abstention, served as a reminder that the Palestinian issue remains a powder keg. Instead of counting new friends, Mr. Netanyahu was left to tally up old enemies, and in a speech on Saturday night he lashed out, vowing to exact a “diplomatic and economic price” from countries that in his view try to hurt Israel.

He announced that he was cutting off $8 million in contributions to the United Nations and reviewing whether to continue allowing its personnel to enter Israel, in addition to recalling ambassadors and canceling visits from some countries that supported the measure. He accused the departing Obama administration of carrying out a “disgraceful anti-Israel maneuver.”

“The resolution that was passed by the U.N. yesterday is part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony honoring wounded soldiers and terrorism victims. “But, my friends, we are entering a new era and, as President-elect Trump said yesterday, that is going to happen a lot faster than people think.”

Indeed, in Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu will have a far more supportive ally in the White House than Mr. Obama, who views Israeli settlement policy as counterproductive. Yet Mr. Trump’s clarion call supporting Israel on settlements and his promise to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem could easily stir new antipathy among the Sunni Arab states Mr. Netanyahu has been courting most, analysts said.

“It doesn’t take a lot to imagine an American move that could provoke violence on the ground or just demonstrations on the ground with potential to become violent,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who is now at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. “And that would not only create an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it would create a broader Israeli-Arab crisis.”

Mr. Trump’s election and his choice of David M. Friedman, an ardent settlement supporter, as ambassador to Israel have already emboldened the Israeli right to push for more assertive policies in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Some have even declared the death of the two-state solution that for years was thought to be the way to settle the conflict.

Since the American election, pro-settlement leaders in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet have pushed for legislation retroactively legalizing outposts on privately owned Palestinian land that had been declared illegal by Israel’s Supreme Court. Mr. Netanyahu has been reluctant, even warning colleagues that it could lead to an investigation by the International Criminal Court, according to the newspaper Haaretz.

“Israeli leaders have used American pressure as an excuse to avoid doing something they really don’t want to do but are being pressured to do by coalition members,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel teaching at Princeton University. If Mr. Trump advances views to the right of Mr. Netanyahu, “this will put the prime minister in an awkward position with no excuses for not doing what right-wingers want him to do,” Mr. Kurtzer said.

Now in his fourth term, Mr. Netanyahu has focused lately on keeping the Palestinian conflict relatively contained while he forges new bonds around the world. He travels widely these days, and has just returned from a trip to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two predominantly Muslim countries — a demonstration, he said, of Israel’s transformed global relations. He boasts that so many foreign delegations are coming to Israel that he barely has time to meet them all. Even Fiji, he says, wants him to visit.

He attributes this to what he calls T.T.P. — terrorism, technology and peace. Other countries, he argues, see Israel as an ally in fighting Islamist terrorism, a source of technological innovation and not an obstacle to peace, as it was once viewed. If so, though, the unopposed United Nations resolution could chip away at that impression.

In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged that his drive to change Israel’s status was incomplete. “We are on a journey to improve our relations with the countries of the world. It is going to take more time,” he said.

But he predicted that friends would rally to Israel after the United Nations vote. “It could be that the scandalous resolution from last night will expedite that process because this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

His critics thought not, calling Mr. Netanyahu’s failure to win any support at the Security Council a sign that his diplomatic campaign involved more puffery than progress. “The man who just a month ago told us that the world worships him declared war this evening on the world, on the United States, on Europe, and is trying to calm us with conceit,” Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union and the parliamentary opposition, wrote on Facebook.

For Mr. Netanyahu, the most important goal has been improving Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors, not just Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace treaties, but with Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries. While those states still maintain a public reserve about Israel, they have quietly collaborated out of a shared belief that the greater threat is the theocratic Shiite leadership in Iran.

But that could quickly change if the Palestinian issue returns to prominence. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said in a conference call sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars this past week that an embassy move would prompt the Palestine Liberation Organization to withdraw recognition of Israel that was granted as part of the Oslo peace accords.

While many Arab leaders have tired of the Palestinian leadership, they may have to respond if their citizens are stirred to outrage. “If the street’s reactions get too heated, it will be easier for these Arabs to jettison the Israeli relationship than to stand in the way of their own people’s anger,” Mr. Kurtzer said.

That may explain why even some conservatives in Israel are nervous that Mr. Trump may push provocative policies. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known as a hard-liner, said at a recent Brookings conference that there were other pressing issues aside from moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital.

Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, doubted that an embassy move would set off a major backlash, but said an invigorated political right could press for more aggressive policies that would.

“If that were to happen, that would create a problem for Netanyahu,” Mr. Shoval said. “Netanyahu basically does not want to annex all of the West Bank, does not want to rule over the Palestinians. He realizes the risks of that from Israel’s point of view.”

Still, some allies of Mr. Netanyahu’s, including Mr. Shoval, argue that common interests will still matter more than momentary flare-ups of the longstanding Palestinian conflict.

“Even when you forge new alliances, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be in sync on every issue,” said Dore Gold, a longtime adviser to Mr. Netanyahu who recently stepped down as director general of the Foreign Ministry. “Things go on inside Arab countries that we don’t agree with, and things go on inside Israel that they don’t agree with. But the fundamental interests are aligning.”

Some analysts said it might depend on how new initiatives were presented. Ehud Yaari, a commentator on Arab affairs on Israel’s Channel 2, said moving the embassy would not lead to serious problems with Sunni states beyond ritualistic protests. American encouragement of settlement construction in new areas “would prove much harder for the Sunni leadership to swallow,” he said.

Even so, Mr. Yaari added, “Arab public opinion may force rulers to demonstrate objections, but it seems they are all relieved to see Obama go and do not want to start on the wrong foot with Trump.”

Others suggested that nuanced diplomacy by Mr. Trump could help Mr. Netanyahu. While the right may press for more settlement construction, the Trump administration could endorse keeping any new housing within established blocs, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“That would be a major victory for Netanyahu,” Mr. Satloff said. “And if linked to real suspension of growth outside the blocs, it may even advance Israeli ties with Sunnis.”

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