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Opinion Netanyahu was a cautious leader — until Trump came along

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Trump at the White House March 25. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On the eve of the election that returned him to Israel’s prime minister’s office a decade ago, Benjamin Netanyahu promised he would “smash” and “uproot” the Hamas movement from the Gaza Strip. He declared that “there will be no escape from toppling the Hamas regime,” and he blamed the incumbent government for failing to “finish the job .”

Ten years later, Hamas is not finished. Despite being pressed by his hawkish allies on multiple occasions to send Israeli troops into Gaza, Netanyahu has never delivered on his campaign promise. Nor did his government bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, though he was reported to favor it. He has limited Israel’s involvement in Syria to airstrikes on Iranian assets, avoiding conflict with the regime of Bashar al-Assad or Russia. And, at least until recently, he has quietly restrained the building of Jewish settlements outside areas of the West Bank that Israel could be expected to annex in any peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Liberal Israelis despise Netanyahu for his divisive and occasionally hateful rhetoric, his assaults on the media, civil society and judicial system, and his personal corruption. But most have been quietly relieved that he has proved a prudent, even cautious, statesman who has avoided steering the country into self-defeating adventures or unwinnable wars — campaign promises notwithstanding.

You might say Netanyahu has been Israel’s Donald Trump, only smarter. But that was before the two men forged what they claim is the closest bond between any U.S. president and Israeli prime minister. Having long espoused Trumpian politics, Netanyahu has adopted the president’s social media tricks. Will he now, urged on by his partner, embrace the reckless measures that he has always avoided?

The Post’s View: Netanyahu has descended into new depths of demagoguery

That is what some Israelis are most afraid of following Netanyahu’s electoral victory last week. “Netanyahu didn’t need any lessons from Trump on populism, personal insults or incitement against minorities,” wrote liberal journalist Chemi Shalev in the Haaretz newspaper. “But [Trump] . . . showed him how to buck tradition, ignore norms, shed restraint, lose inhibitions and go for the jugular.”

The crucial test of whether Netanyahu has changed will be whether he acts on his latest wild pre-election promise, which was for Israel to annex large portions of the West Bank. In an interview three days before the vote, he vowed to “apply sovereignty ” not just to the large Jewish settlement blocs near the border with Israel but also to the “isolated settlement points ” deep inside the Palestinian territory. That would, in a stroke, virtually foreclose the possibility of a deal on Palestinian statehood, plunge Israel into conflict with most of the rest of the world and, ultimately, force it to choose between giving up its Jewish identity and becoming an apartheid state.

The old Netanyahu would never make such an error. In fact, the not-so-old Netanyahu blocked annexationist initiatives as recently as last year. Until 10 days ago, the prime minister was the only member of his Likud party who had not publicly endorsed the absorption of most or all of the West Bank settlements and the territory around them.

Netanyahu’s problem — or perhaps his golden opportunity, as he may see it — is that he no longer has the emergency brake that Israeli leaders have traditionally pulled to check excesses: the threat of rupture with the United States. White House disapproval stopped Israel from bombing Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, and it played a role in preventing a strike on Iran during President Barack Obama’s first term. Obama, and several presidents before him, at least partially restrained Israeli settlement construction.

Now, in Trump, Netanyahu has a U.S. president who enables and even eggs on Israeli nationalism. By recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights last month, Trump convinced Israel’s far right that there would be no serious opposition to a West Bank seizure. The right could have been only further encouraged by congressional testimony last week by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who refused to say whether the United States still favored Palestinian statehood. A State Department spokesman also refused to comment on Netanyahu’s annexation promise.

Some hope that Trump might thwart an Israeli annexation by issuing the long-promised Middle East peace plan drawn up by Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. On the contrary, argues Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that may be the final trigger for Netanyahu. That’s because the plan is almost certain to be rejected by the Palestinians, whom Trump has done everything possible to alienate — from moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to cutting off aid.

Once the Palestinians say no — or simply fail to respond — Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners will likely demand that he act on his annexation promise. That’s when we’ll learn if Israel’s veteran leader has truly embraced Trumpian politics — and its disregard for consequences.

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