Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming to the United States in two weeks for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, and while here he will be meeting with President Trump. This will be the fourth meeting between the two men since Trump assumed the presidency, and while normally this would be a little more routine, this time the stakes are going to be far higher. While it sounds hyperbolic, the meeting between the American president and the Israeli prime minister may in fact be the most important meeting of Netanyahu’s life, as it will influence the future trajectory not only of his political career but of Israel as well.
When Netanyahu arrives in Washington, the fog of corruption allegations surrounding him will no longer be mere rumors. He now faces concrete police recommendations to indict him, and one of his closest advisers is cooperating as a state’s witness in yet another investigation into his affairs. Netanyahu has often used his star power in the U.S. and his ability to interact with the world’s most powerful leaders as their equal to burnish his image at home. In particular, he has argued that his unique history with the U.S. and his unparalleled popularity with the American Jewish community make him the only Israeli politician who can capitalize on the tight bond between the U.S. and Israel in a way that maximizes Israeli interests. Although that was a difficult assertion to credibly sustain while he feuded with President Obama, Netanyahu has made the most of his relationship with Trump, doing all he can to not only project an image of perfect coordination between the two but to personalize it in the largest way possible.
On this particular visit, Netanyahu will need to be flawless in using the optics of his meeting with Trump to boost himself politically, but he will also need to thread a very tight needle in executing his substantive agenda. Netanyahu’s career is in unprecedented peril, with the police recommendations to indict him in Cases 1000 and 2000 bad enough but the worst still yet to come. The news that his former adviser and handpicked director general for the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, has turned state’s witness is the most serious development that has yet occurred, and will likely lead to a recommendation to indict Netanyahu on charges that will make the other two cases look like small potatoes in comparison. As a result, Netanyahu needs to return back home from the White House having done two things, both of which ultimately amount to long shot efforts to retain his job but may be the best chance that he has.
The first is making a plausible case that allows him to double down on the argument that he, and he alone, can manage the U.S. He needs to have Trump effusively praise him and bask in the adoration of thousands of cheering AIPAC attendees, and then remind the Israeli public and his coalition partners that it is due to his unique political talents and insights into the U.S. that the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and set the Palestinians so far back on their heels. Whether or not this is accurate or true is secondary; what Netanyahu needs is the pageantry of a victory tour on American soil. This alone will not be enough to save his skin, but it may give pause to those within his camp who are inching closer to giving him a shove over the side of the boat.
Second and far more importantly for him, Netanyahu has to get a green light, or even a yellow light, from Trump on annexation. While Trump may be focused on a peace deal, the thrust back in Israel within Netanyahu’s political camp – as encapsulated by the Likud Central Committee’s annexation resolution and the various annexation plans being floated by people like Naftali Bennett and Yoav Kisch – is very different. Not only does virtually everyone on the political right believe that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate and that a peace deal would be a waste of time, their impatience with Netanyahu’s historical unwillingness to alter the status quo in the West Bank is reaching its limit. The only way for Netanyahu to prevent defectors from his strategy of remaining in office until actual indictments – or possibly even convictions – materialize is to give in to the political impulses that have taken over the right regarding annexation. But he cannot risk doing so without first coordinating with Trump and making sure that the White House will not come down on his head like a ton of bricks if Israel moves toward any type of annexation plan, which would negate his argument about being the only reliable navigator of American political currents.
And because of the idiosyncrasies of this particular president, there is more danger lurking in this approach than there would ordinarily be. Netanyahu will be looking for even a wink or a silent nod that he can seize upon in order to move ahead with some form of annexation to mollify his right flank, whether it be now or after the inevitable Palestinian rejection of the Trump peace initiative, but what he may interpret as backing might be nothing of the sort. Trump and his team are unsophisticated in this arena, to put things mildly, and the potential for misinterpretation leading to unintended consequences is sky high. We have seen this already in other foreign policy realms, such as when Rex Tillerson unwittingly recognized China’s contested claims in the South China Sea by adopting Chinese catchphrases about “mutual respect” without understanding the implications. One can easily imagine a scenario in which Netanyahu says something to Trump about respecting Israel’s historical claims to Judea and Samaria and Trump nods in agreement, not realizing that he has just signaled something to Netanyahu that will have far-reaching implications and that the prime minister might seize upon to destroy any future for the two-state solution.
In addition, the Trump-Netanyahu conversation may also dictate whether Netanyahu moves toward annexation or decides to call new elections. If Trump does indeed make it clear to Netanyahu that he wants to release his peace plan and have it seriously considered and that Israel is to make no sudden moves in the interim, the only choice Netanyahu will have left is to dissolve the government and hold elections that he portrays as a referendum on potential indictments. The argument in that case would be that if Netanyahu wins the elections and is returned to Balfour Street yet again despite everyone knowing that indictments are imminent, the political process supersedes the legal process since the people have spoken. This is a riskier path for Netanyahu, but whether or not he chooses to take it may also hinge on the outcome of his Oval Office discussion.
Netanyahu has been backed into a corner, and he will use his trip to Washington to see if he can buy himself some leverage. Given his political interests combined with the unpredictability and inexperience of Trump, what results from their meeting may end up being momentous for the prime minister and his country.