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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu already the winner of US election

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump can be expected to put any real pressure on the Israeli prime minister to halt Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
Then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton shaking hands with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an offsite bilateral meeting as part of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2012. Keith Bedford / Reuters
Then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton shaking hands with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an offsite bilateral meeting as part of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2012. Keith Bedford / Reuters

Jerusalem // With Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump outbidding each other to support Israel, one leading local commentator is already declaring Benjamin Netanyahu the winner of Tuesday’s election.

“Netanyahu is a winner because he will be able to do whatever he wants,” said Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the International Center for Consultations in Haifa.

Neither Mrs Clinton nor Mr Trump can be expected to put any real pressure on Mr Netanyahu to halt Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, Mr Abu Nassar said. “What’s happening in Iraq and Syria will be more urgent. Whatever administration comes in the priority in the Middle East won’t be the Arab-Israeli conflict unless something dramatic happens like a rocket hitting an Israeli school or a settler massacring Palestinians.”

Mr Netanyahu can expect less criticism under the new president than he encountered from Barack Obama who rhetorically opposed settlement building but has not taken any direct action to stop it.

The building of settlements on Palestinian territory is illegal under international law and seen as one of the biggest barriers to a future Palestinian state.

“Under Obama, there was a personality dispute with Netanyahu, there were growing tensions and ups and downs. Such a thing won’t exist with Clinton and Trump. The starting point could be better for Netanyahu,” Mr Abu Nassar said.

In addition, it will take a long time for a new administration to settle in and devise a peace initiative if it is so inclined – time that Mr Abu Nassar predicts will be exploited by Mr Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu will use this opportunity to create more facts on the ground to make a Palestinian state impossible and to face the Palestinians with two options: to accept what Israel is dictating or to leave,” he said.

The two candidates were effusive in their support for Israel during separate speeches in March at the convention of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. Mr Trump blamed the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic impasse on what he said were Arab refusals to accept generous Israeli peace offers. “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one,” he said, adding that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Mrs Clinton, whose campaign has highlighted her strong pro-Israeli track record as a senator and as secretary of state, vowed to oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a peace solution on Israel and said the US-Israel alliance would be stronger than ever. “One of the first things I will do in office is to invite the Israeli premier to the White House,” she said.

Not everyone agrees with Abu Nassar’s bleak assessment of the prospects for the Palestinians under a new administration.

Sam Bahour, a US-born businessman and political activist in the West Bank city of Ramallah, conceded that “there are fears Clinton will be even more pro-Israeli than Obama”. But he said the dwindling possibility of a two state compromise solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could influence Mrs Clinton to pressure Israel.

“If the US as an institution has to come to terms with the fact that Israel is going to forfeit the entire two state paradigm on which US policy is built then it will have to act. That may force even a president like Hillary Clinton who is pro-Israel to change her ways. If Hillary Clinton or any president continues to allow Israel to expand its settlement enterprise they will be faced with Israel falling off the cliff that is called the two state solution.”

On the other hand, Mr Bahour predicts Mr Trump would pursue even more pro-Israeli policies than the Obama administration, which recently committed the United States to giving Israel US$38 billion (Dh139.6bn) in security assistance over ten years.

“As president, Trump would be very weak and open to a lot of influences from external parties whether that’s Putin in Russia or Netanyahu in Israel. The fear is that he doesn’t have the political weight, insight and knowledge to drive his own policies and that this will open things up for foreign entities like Israel to influence him unduly.”

However, Naji Shurab, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, does not believe it will make much difference for the Palestinians who is elected. “They both will encourage direct negotiations, the US will continue to declare support for a two state solution,” he said. However, he added, due to the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in the US “it will be difficult to pressure Netanyahu”.

“So they will continue the same policy. Relations between Israel and the US will be very good. There is no hope for the Palestinians that the US will present a solution.”

Given this, the Palestinians need to stop hoping that salvation will come from outside and instead focus on getting their own house in order, including by healing the rift between Fatah and Hamas, Mr Shurab added.

“The Palestinians have very little option but to reconcile their differences among themselves and to rebuild their policy based on democratic principles.”

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US election coverage from The National’s foreign correspondents

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foreign.desk@thenational.ae