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What does Israel want from America?

Von David Ignatius


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Tel Aviv, Israel - President Donald Trump's embrace of Israel poses an unlikely dilemma for leaders of the Jewish state: They have to decide what they want from America, and on that question, there's sharp disagreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to seize the Trump moment Tuesday by announcing that Israel plans to construct 2,500 new housing units in West Bank settlements. Just two days before, he and Trump had what the new president called a "very nice" phone conversation. "We're building - and will continue to build," an emboldened Netanyahu proclaimed Tuesday.

But Netanyahu's quick move angered some other Israeli officials, who argue that more settlements will push Israel toward annexation of the West Bank that would mean the end of the "two-state solution." Yitzhak Herzog, head of the largest opposition bloc, said his supporters would resist a pro-settlement agenda that they see as a threat to Israel's status as a Jewish democratic state.

Trump's election offers what many Israelis have dreamed of - a relaxation of American pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. But for some, it's a case of "be careful what you wish for." Israel's views may now be decisive - but the country remains conflicted 50 years after the West Bank was seized in the 1967 war.

A panoramic narrative of the puzzles facing Israel in the age of Trump was presented this week at a conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies. The gathering was attended by nearly every top Israeli official, other than Netanyahu. The voices were sharply divergent.

"Israel must make a choice between separation and annexation," argued Tzipi Livni, a parliament member who is one of the strongest advocates for a peace deal. "With a new administration, there is no longer the same pressure from Washington that Israel experienced previously. Israel now has the opportunity - indeed, the obligation - to decide what kind of future it seeks."

Proposals for what Israel should request from Trump ranged across the spectrum. Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Jewish Home party, used Trump's signature line, "you're fired," to describe what he would say to Israeli officials who advocate what he described as a failed peace process. He presented a plan to formally declare Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.

Herzog, in sharp disagreement, told the conference that Israel should start moving now toward an eventual Palestinian state. He outlined a 10-year transition plan that would conclude with resolving "final status" issues such as Jerusalem and the rights of refugees. The alternative to such a separation process, he said, was Israel's "suicide" as a democratic Jewish nation.

Israeli public opinion is divided, but according to a poll presented at the conference, 59 percent of Jewish citizens favor a two-state solution, and more than 60 percent support withdrawal from at least some settlements. Most Israelis, including peace advocates, favor retention of large settlement blocks around Jerusalem in any final deal.

Americans attending the conference urged Israel to be cautious in its requests to Trump. "It's hard to say what Donald Trump will do, because I'm not sure he himself knows," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who was the Obama administration's special emissary during its push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

As a sign of Trump's start-up uncertainty, Indyk noted that within the past week, the new administration seemed to have moved from advocating a quick relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which could trigger incendiary reaction in the Muslim world) to saying that the issue was in the "very early stages" of decision.

Walter Russell Mead, a prominent foreign policy scholar who teaches at Bard College, cautioned that Trump took office with a low popularity rating and a minority of the vote. Mead urged that Israelis "not get identified with Donald Trump in the popular mood in the U.S.," and that he not be seen as "Israel's man."

Trump has proclaimed his desire to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that, if he succeeded, would truly demonstrate "the art of the deal." But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a veteran of peace negotiations, warned the conference: "You cannot be a broker ... by making a deal that's 90 percent pro-Israel. It won't fly."

Shlomo Avineri, a prominent Israeli academic, offered a stark summary of his nation's dilemma. "Israel after 1967 didn't make up its mind what kind of country it wanted to be, in geography or demography. ... This year we should say what kind of Israel we want." That's the conundrum Trump presents: What should Israelis ask for?

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".