On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu secured a fifth term as Israeli prime minister. A master of coalition-building and political compromise, Netanyahu has earned himself a significant chapter in Israel’s history.
No one should forget, though, that President Trump played a significant role in Netanyahu’s victory. Just in time for the election, Trump handed Netanyahu major policy victories that he was able to sell at home. That includes the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump’s support for Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights, his pushing of the Sunni monarchies to more openly support Israeli interests, and his generous reinforcement of U.S. aid to the Israeli military.
In Trump, Israel has found its greatest presidential friend since Harry S. Truman. And so we completely understand why Netanyahu’s supporters gleefully waved Trump flags at the prime minister’s election night party.
Now it is time for Netanyahu to prove himself the ally Trump needs, especially when it comes to curbing China’s malicious global influence and advancing Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Netanyahu has been a great friend to America, most recently with the bold intelligence operations he has authorized against groups such as the Islamic State and hard-liner elements inside Iran. He has helped fill gaps in U.S. intelligence efforts and, on occasion, served U.S. security interests far more than Israeli ones. To be clear, Netanyahu’s friendship has saved American and allied lives.
His government has also shared valuable intelligence on the political strategies of and intrigues within regional governments. This informs more effective U.S. foreign policy.
Still, Trump needs Netanyahu’s help on China and the peace process.
For starters, Netanyahu has got to get a little less cozy with Beijing. Israel’s technology sector is a crown jewel of its economy and thus a central source of export value and foreign investment appeal, but China’s growing footprint in Israel is greatly problematic for U.S. national security. China has a proven record of gaining access to civilian technology and then using it to develop its own military capabilities. This is a particular problem in relation to China’s deployment of advanced stand-off weapons platforms such as its “carrier killer” ballistic missile force and its next-generation, “blue water” navy fleet.
Beijing’s potential access to U.S. military capabilities sold to Israel, such as the F-35 Strike Fighter program, could someday prove deadly. Trump should ask Netanyahu to restrict China’s access to value-added technologies capable of dual-use manipulation and to present safeguards in relation to China’s construction of Haifa Port.
As for Trump’s long-brewing plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an agreement with appropriate concessions on all sides would eliminate a driver of Islamic extremist propaganda, terrorist recruitment, and resentment in the Muslim world. While the role of the conflict in fueling Islamic terrorism is often exaggerated — issues of poverty, political failure, and ideologically extreme education are far more important — the conflict does matter at the margin.
True, we needn’t fool ourselves: Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other groups in Gaza will likely oppose the deal on any terms. Trump should be ready to punish them if they act against his proposal. Still, Netanyahu owes it to Trump and himself to keep an open mind about any proposed peace plan and to signal a willingness to make concessions under the right circumstances. These circumstances might entail a commitment by the Sunni Arab monarchies and Egypt to get the Palestinians to the table in good faith. But we don’t, for example, expect Netanyahu to risk his government unilaterally.
Netanyahu’s willingness to deal would send an important signal to future U.S. administrations. Former President Barack Obama’s goal of creating “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, so that the U.S. could be seen as a more honest broker among Arabs, backfired. Obama’s hostility toward Israel caused Netanyahu to dig in, which in turn took the pressure off the Palestinians to engage. Trump, on the other hand, has shown himself a great friend of Netanyahu. By treating the Trump proposal seriously, Netanyahu will demonstrate that future American presidents can get further by fostering closer ties and creating more trust between the U.S. and Israel.
And for now, a serious engagement will put pressure on Palestinians and the Arab states to make a deal. If they reject a reasonable offer out of hand, then they will have to swallow the blame.