The high price for supporting Bibi Netanyahu

Donald Trump no longer owns a casino. But he bet heavily on Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu returning once more as Israel’s prime minister. Trump may have won his bet; late results indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud party may remain the largest in Israel’s parliament, in which case the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will have no choice but to ask Netanyahu to form a new government.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE pulled out all the stops in order to help his right-wing soul brother return to office: in the space of but a few weeks he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be a terrorist organization. And he remained silent as Netanyahu promised that, if reelected, he would begin the process of annexing the West Bank and ensuring that the residents of its towns and villages (which pundits erroneously continue to call “settlements”) would never be displaced.


Trump’s short-term gamble, even if he wins, is nevertheless likely to have some exceedingly negative long-term consequences for the United States. Trump’s silence surely will have been noted in the Arab world, and particularly in those moderate Arab states that first son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Deutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner Watchdog group accuses Stephen Miller of violating Hatch Act with Biden comments MORE was hoping to entangle in his still-to-be-revealed peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians.

Opposition to any such deal has been mounting for some time. The Palestinians themselves pronounced it dead before arrival. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman made it clear that whatever his favorite son Mohammad’s inclinations, Riyadh would not support a peace plan that did not provide for Palestinian statehood.

Oman, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor to the south, which has consistently maintained semi-official contacts with Israel for decades, issued a similar warning just a few days ago. Yusuf bin Alawi, the country’s long-serving foreign minister, made it clear that while Arab states should reassure Israel that it had nothing to fear if it withdrew from the West Bank and the Golan, such a withdrawal — and the creation of a Palestinian state — were both necessary conditions for Kushner’s peace plan to succeed.

Moreover, even if Netanyahu — whose relationship to the truth matches that of Donald Trump — reneges on his promise to annex the West Bank, the damage to the peace process will be difficult to undo. The turmoil in Algeria and Sudan, what some are calling “Arab Spring 2.0,” is certain to scare away the Arab kingdoms and sheikhdoms that are critical to the success of any American peace plan. They fear that if they agree to anything less than a Palestinian state, they will face similar popular convulsions in their own countries.

Trump confronts a serious dilemma. If he continues to support Netanyahu, he loses his vaunted peace deal and wrecks his self-molded image as the greatest of all deal-makers. If he betrays Netanyahu, which would not be contrary to his character, he risks losing support not only of the large percentage of Orthodox Jews who are his only real Jewish support, but of the millions of evangelicals who are the bedrock of his base and whose support for Israeli retention of the West Bank is stronger than that of the majority of the American Jewish community.  

The consequences of Trump’s support for Netanyahu do not end there. Washington’s decision to label the IRGC a terrorist organization, a move long sought by Netanyahu and his Israeli and American supporters, has far more serious consequences for the United States. In a departure from the past, Iran has now responded in kind, applying the same label to the U.S. Central Command. Iran’s decision opens the door for Qasem Soleimani, the wily head of the IRGC, to order his forces to shoot at American troops in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere.

Such an attack could well provoke major American retaliation and might even lead to all-out war with Iran. Nothing would please Bibi more than to have the United States act as his proxy against Iran. And war with Iran is the last thing Washington needs, given its tension with China, its friction with Russia — which now has deployed troops to Venezuela — and its concerns about the way ahead with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino went bankrupt. That outcome will pale in comparison to the increasingly likely bankruptcy of his policies in the Middle East, which will be due solely to his determination to support the insatiable political ambitions of his good friend, the current and possible future prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.