What's changing and what won't: Netanyahu reveals Trump-era policy shifts

An interview with CBS on Sunday was the first glimpse into the Israeli PM's new diplomatic priorities


For all of Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-vaunted expertise in American politics, he was just as surprised as everyone else by Donald Trump’s election victory last month.

Having prepared himself for a Clinton administration, he is now carefully recalculating Israel’s policies with regards to Washington. 

On the surface, President-elect Trump’s positions are seen as being very pro-Israel, as well as those of many members of his inner-circle But Mr Netanyahu is being careful not to make too many prior assumptions about the incoming administration’s foreign policy. He is also extremely wary of what may happen during the last five weeks of the Obama administration.

The interview Mr Netanyahu gave to CBS’ 60 Minutes on Sunday was the first public expression of his diplomatic priorities during the Trump era. One thing he made clear was that he expects to have a much better working relationship with the new president than he had with his predecessor, saying: “I know Donald Trump. I know him very well. And I think his attitude, his support for Israel is clear. He feels very warmly about the Jewish state, about the Jewish people and about Jewish people. There’s no question about that.” 

So what does Mr Netanyahu expect to achieve from this new relationship? In one word, Iran.

Since Mr Trump’s victory, Mr Netanyahu’s close aides have been making it clear that this is where he is hoping to see a change in Washington. In the CBS interview, he said he was planning to talk to the new president about ways to undo the nuclear deal with Iran, saying that there were “about five” ways to achieve this. 

No less significant was the fact Mr Netanyahu did not seem to seek any major change on the Palestinian issue.

Despite repeated assurances from the incoming administration that it indeed intends to move America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and even reports that Mr Trump’s representatives are already searching for an appropriate location in the capital, Mr Netanyahu is still far from convinced that the US is about to entirely change its approach to the conflict. 

In what would have been a blow to the right-wingers in his coalition, he repeated his support for a two-state solution and added he expected Mr Trump’s agreement on this.

Mr Netanyahu’s caution was at least partly founded on the fact that many senior positions in the new administration have yet to be decided. The surprising appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the next Secretary of State means that America’s next top diplomat is that rare creature, a man with no known previous involvement in Israeli affairs. 

No Israeli official is rushing to pass judgment. However, there is a degree of suspicion over the fact he is an oil man — who are often pro-Arab — and, of course, over Mr Tillerson’s well-documented proximity to the Kremlin. 

Many believe the Pentagon could end up having a greater say in America’s Middle East policy — and therefore the appointment of General James Mattis as the new Secretary of Defence could be key. 

General Mattis is known as a hardliner on Iran, something that will be very welcome to Mr Netanyahu. But he has warned in the past that America “pays a military price every day” for its support of Israel and that it ran the risk of becoming an “apartheid” state if it continues with settlement activity in the West Bank. 

Mr Netanyahu’s remarks indeed seem to indicate he expects Mr Mattis to have a major input on foreign policy.

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