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OpinionColumnistsDan Raviv

More power for Benjamin Netanyahu

Backed by Trump, prime minister could further strain Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as wife

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as wife Sara Netanyahu reacts at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, early on April 10, 2019. Credit: Bloomberg/Kobi Wolf

It was just wishful thinking for critics of Benjamin Netanyahu to predict that Israeli voters would end his long run as prime minister in Tuesday’s election. He has proved himself a master of Israeli politics, as convoluted as any nation of only 8 million citizens could create. Netanyahu knows that most Israelis are moving to the right — which means they are skeptical of negotiating peace deals with their Arab neighbors and would prefer to keep the territories captured in the Six-Day War of 1967: the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

So what’s next?

Netanyahu has said that if he won, he would annex parts of the West Bank, specifically where Jewish settlers reside, while offering nothing new to the Palestinian majority in that territory that was captured from Jordan. That may have been merely a pre-election ploy to convince right-wing voters that they could rely on Netanyahu and his Likud party to keep the West Bank.

As a ploy, it worked. But now he will feel pressure to do it, and here is why: In the new coalition that he is likely to form in the coming weeks, there are parties that are even more right-wing than his Likud, plus an increased number of Knesset members representing ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that feel a fervent biblical tie to the West Bank.

In addition, gone are the days when Israeli leaders could say to their cabinets: “I’m sorry. I’d really love to annex the West Bank (or invade the Gaza Strip or bomb Iran’s nuclear sites), but the president of the United States will never agree to that, and we’ve got to respect our huge, irreplaceable ally.”

Donald Trump has signaled that all the lights are green for whatever his friend “Bibi” Netanyahu wants to do. Last year, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — not for any particular reason, but basically to tell voters (notably Jews and evangelicals) and the world that the United States will always be on Israel’s side, and that Trump won’t feel bound by diplomatic niceties or red lines that traditionally were uncrossable.

Last month, in an obvious gift to Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, Trump declared that the United States recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

On Saturday, he explained to the Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas that he decided on impulse after receiving a “quickie” briefing on the history of the Golan. Enjoying laughter and applause, Trump recounted: “I went ‘bing!’ It was done. We make fast decisions.”

Now that Netanyahu will be pressured to fulfill a campaign promise and permanently make swaths of the West Bank part of Israel, there seems to be little reason to suspect that Trump would be an impediment. Trump doubtless feels that Netanyahu is far more of an expert than he on the Middle East, and specifically on what Israel needs to do to protect itself.

Yet peace activists in the Jewish state literally cry with pain that Israel would commit moral, if not military, suicide by taking over more territory. They say that most of the world will see the stark difference between full rights for 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank versus no rights of citizenship for more than 2.5 million Palestinians there. Left-wing Israelis, whose parties shrank to shadows of their former selves in Tuesday’s voting, affirm that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic critics of their country would then be right to label it an apartheid state.

Perhaps Trump aides who have been writing a peace plan will try to save Israel from itself, but more likely they will accept that Netanyahu is now empowered to make fateful, perhaps dangerous choices. Of course, one of those decisions could be to support the Trump peace plan. “Everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East,” Trump said on Wednesday, hailing Netanyahu’s win. “I think we have a chance, and I think now we have a better chance, with Bibi having won.”

Once again, we see an example of wishful thinking.

Dan Raviv, senior Washington correspondent of i24News, is author of “Spies Against Armageddon” and “Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”

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