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Analysis

Annexation, Iran sanctions, weapons? What Israel may ask of Trump as he leaves

Obama allowed a UN Security Council resolution slamming settlements to pass when he was a lame duck; by contrast, Jerusalem is hoping for farewell gifts from the outgoing president

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, right, looks over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, at which Trump unveiled his "Peace to Prosperity" vision for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. (AP/Susan Walsh)
US President Donald Trump, right, looks over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, at which Trump unveiled his "Peace to Prosperity" vision for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. (AP/Susan Walsh)

A great deal can be done in 72 days. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has doubtless started to think about what he’d like to ask of outgoing US President Donald Trump before Joe Biden moves into the White House on January 20, 2021.

For the Israeli government, the Trump administration was the gift that kept on giving: in only four years, it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US Embassy to the city; drastically cut aid to the Palestinians; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan; asserted the legality of West Bank settlements and endorsed in principle their annexation to Israel.

So what else could Netanyahu now ask of an administration that already gave his government pretty much anything it wanted?

Quite a lot, actually. According to Israeli and American analysts, Jerusalem’s potential wish list may include explicit support for the annexation of parts of the West Bank, upgraded defense aid, including advanced weaponry, more tough sanctions on Iran, and intensified pressure on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel.

Netanyahu could also use the administration’s remaining 10 weeks to accelerate the pace of West Bank construction (before a Biden administration would likely ask him to freeze or at least slow down settlement expansions) and/or intensify military attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and Lebanon.

Working till the last minute

It is generally assumed that Israel wouldn’t take drastic measures, such as unilaterally applying sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, without Trump’s blessing, but his aides may be keen to advance their Middle East agenda before leaving office — and their policy objectives often overlap with Netanyahu’s.

“We were elected for four years — we came to work, and we intend to use the time until the last minute,” a US administration official told the Kan broadcaster on Monday. “We have quite a few things to do with Israel and for Israel — and we will continue the work.”

It’s unclear to what extent Trump will use his remaining time in office to initiate or approve significant steps that would contradict the incoming president’s positions (Biden is opposed to annexation and is said to want to return to the Iran deal).

But everything’s possible, said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American politics and US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University. “It’s an American tradition that lame-duck presidents usually do not take bold new initiatives in transition periods,” he told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“However, [former US president Barack] Obama broke this rule in December of 2016, when he initiated UN Security Council resolution 2334, which declared the settlements illegal. Trump was president-elect and Obama and [his vice president] Biden knew that Trump opposed the resolution. So Biden cannot argue now that Trump shouldn’t initiate any moves he objects to. Trump has all the authority to do as president what he wants. And, Trump, being as unpredictable as he is, just may do more than is usually acceptable.”

US ambassador Samantha Power signals her country’s abstention in the Security Council vote on Resolution 2334, December 23, 2016 (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

A non-return to the Iran deal

According to Axios, the Trump administration plans a massive onslaught of new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program, assistance to terror groups and human rights violations.

“The goal is to slap as many sanctions as possible on Iran until January 20,” an Israeli source briefed on the plan told the website.

MK Uzi Dayan, a retired IDF general, said Netanyahu’s first priority should be to find a way to make the US’s exit from the Iran deal permanent.

“We need to anchor, as much as possible, America’s non-return to the previous Iran agreement,” he told The Times of Israel. He couldn’t exactly say how to do that, but suggested some kind of presidential declaration that would make it harder for the Biden administration to revive the flailing deal.

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said the most important thing Netanyahu can ask of the outgoing administration is to continue to sanction major parts of the Iranian economy supporting terrorism and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

“This will not only increase leverage for Biden when he comes into office but also strengthen the sanctions wall of market and political deterrence. That sanctions wall will make it more difficult for Biden to simply reenter the JCPOA,” he said, using the Iran deal’s formal name.

US President Donald Trump signs with US Vice President Mike Pence(R) and US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin at the White House on June 24, 2019, ‘hard-hitting sanctions’ on Iran’s supreme leader. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Wider normalization

Various right-wing politicians said they hope the Trump White House would give Israel the green light to annex parts of the West Bank, such as the Jordan Valley.

But most analysts dismiss such ideas as wishful thinking. One of the administration’s biggest foreign policy achievements was the brokering of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were made possible by Jerusalem and Washington agreeing to suspend Netanyahu’s annexation plan.

“Annexation isn’t happening,” said Dubowitz, who is currently visiting Israel.

What could be an interesting farewell present from Trump is a “deferred payment plan option” that would allow Israel to access now military aid earmarked for the future, he said.

“This could allow Israel to sign new contracts for advanced weapons platforms that it currently cannot afford,” Dubowitz explained. “Another idea is to increase prepositioned American [defense] systems and ammunition in Israel. Israel then could access these during an emergency. This would be ammunition, but also Iron Dome or David’s Sling or maybe Tamir and Stunner interceptors.”

Interception tests of the David’s Sling Aerial Defense System on March 19, 2019. (Defense Ministry)

Gilboa, the Bar-Ilan University expert, said Netanyahu’s most important request from the outgoing administration should be pressuring additional Arab states to join the Abraham Accords. He believes that since Biden will seek to re-engage with Iran, he is “likely to stop the Arab-Israel strategic allegiance,” since the US cannot woo Iran while at the same time continuing to strengthen Tehran’s regional adversaries.

“Israel should press for new members of the anti-Iran alliance before it’s too late,” he said.

Others think that Trump will not embark on any major foreign policy initiatives in his last weeks in office.

“A lame duck can cause more damage than do good,” warned Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US. Israel should hence lower its expectations, he suggested.

“What Netanyahu may ask for are practical things. Maybe more military aid, a few additional defense systems or specific equipment, such as bunker-busting bombs. But nothing in terms of long-term policy or strategic paradigm changes.”

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