From The Australian, 18 Feb 2017, by Greg Sheridan*:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had the best Washington meeting with US President Donald Trump that he could have hoped for.
Trump was as warm to Netanyahu as Barack Obama had been cold and haughty. Trump was as effusive in his praise not only for his Israeli colleague but for Israel itself, as Obama had been constipated and miserly.
On the most important strategic issue that Israel faces — Iran’s growing nuclear and missile power and its aggressive and destabilising role in the region — the view from Washington is now aligned with Israel’s view.
Above all, Trump gave Netanyahu the maximum diplomatic space to move, especially on policy in relation to the Palestinian issue.
Trump broke protocol by declining to explicitly commit to the traditional formulation of supporting a “two-state solution”, meaning the state of Israel sitting alongside a Palestinian state occupying most of the West Bank and Gaza.
Instead, the President said: “I am looking at two states and one state (solutions). I am very happy with the one that both parties like. I thought for a while the two-state might be easier to do, but honestly, if Bibi (Netanyahu) and the Palestinians are happy, then I am happy with the one they like best.”
Netanyahu himself studiously avoided uttering the phrase “two- state solution”.
In yet another case of Trump derangement syndrome, half the world’s professional bloviators have decided Trump has produced a global revolution, called down the 10 plagues and committed the crime that dare not speak its name.
Yet there was both more and less to what Trump said than the words themselves.
The most important change here was in tone. The US still has its differences with Israel on the Palestinian issue, as Trump also made clear. But the change in tone was everything. Trump is Israel’s ally, and Netanyahu’s ally, standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel, jointly working on extremely difficult problems.
But the formal policy differences still remain. Trump, albeit in very gentle language, told Netanyahu that Israel would have to pull back on settlement construction in the West Bank. He said Israel would have to compromise. It wouldn’t get everything it wanted.
About eight years ago, in a famous speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu made his own historic, public commitment to the two-state solution. When questioned after his joint appearance with Trump, Netanyahu said his views had not changed. But he is reluctant to go back to intoning the mantra of the “two-state solution”, he says, because its meaning can be too divergent and unclear, and the implications about its timing can also be unclear.
Of course, in saying that he would support a solution the parties agreed to, Trump was in any event giving the Palestinians a veto over anything short of the two-state solution, if that’s what they want.
But there’s no doubt that things are moving. Trump is shaking things up. Netanyahu is facing a miscellany of domestic political problems after an astonishing near decade at the top of one of the most complex and difficult political systems in the democratic world. And the roiling chaos and instability of the Middle East provides its own context of heightened tension.
This week Netanyahu comes to Australia. He will get a warm welcome from Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten too. Australia is not a first division player in the Middle East, but it is the 13th largest economy in the world, the second largest Western allied military contributor in Syria. We are a big player in Asia, where Israel is enjoying unprecedented diplomatic success. And probably, outside Washington, Canberra is the most steadfastly pro-Israel capital in the Western world.
On the day Netanyahu met Trump in Washington, I interviewed Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in his Jerusalem office. Steinitz is close to Netanyahu and was acting Prime Minister during Netanyahu’s overseas visit. In a long discussion, he offered a critical insight into Israeli government thinking on the two-state solution, on Iran, on Syria and on Israel’s booming hi-tech economy.
He rates Iran as the most important challenge facing Israel, but it’s worth quoting him at some length on the Palestinian question.
I asked him if he and the government supported the two-state solution.
“This is very complicated,” he said. “In the longer term, this (the two-state solution) is the view and the hope of the Prime Minister and most Israelis, me included. Unfortunately, at the moment, this is only a theoretical question.
“If someone would come and offer us real peace — the right of Israel to maintain its tiny Jewish state — if someone really offered us genuine peace and real security, most Israelis would be willing to make territorial concessions, including painful territorial concessions, to bring about a demilitarised Palestinian state.
“Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) is not a real partner. Look at the main messages in his education system. The main message is that Israel must be destroyed, that Jews are horrible creatures and always corrupt the vicinity around them, so they should be got rid of, like Europe did. Also look what’s happening in Gaza. We withdrew from Gaza, uprooted Jewish settlements, got a mini-Palestinian state with contiguous territory, and we got no security. Instead we’ve had 16,800 rockets and missiles launched on Israel.
“Now, who can guarantee that if we were to make territorial concessions in the West Bank, we won’t see the same thing we saw in Gaza, especially if we see what’s happening all through the Middle East?
“So it (the two-state solution) is unrealistic currently, until we have realistic partners for peace.”
Palestinians would contest many of Steinitz’s points but it seems to be the authentic Israeli government view: the two-state solution is the ideal. It’s not realistic now in a way that is compatible with Israeli security, therefore the status quo, with all its difficulties, must be persisted with.
But Steinitz is much more urgently concerned with the danger for Israel, and for many other nations, emerging out of Iran, and it is here that he most urgently wants action from the new Trump administration.
He wants the Trump administration to show resolve, to “stop Iran, to stop Iranian terrorism, Iranian missile programs, Iranian expansion all over the Middle East’’.
“Take Syria. Let’s assume there’s a settlement. Iran’s hope is to make Syria an Iranian stronghold, a Shi’ite extension of Iran, to develop a permanent military presence there. This would mean for Israel an Iranian air force presence, Iranian Republican Guards, tactical missiles, intelligence presence, navy — all on our borders.
“This would also be extremely dangerous for NATO, if Iran has direct control of naval bases. It is very dangerous for American allies like Jordan, which could be engulfed by the Iranian presence.
“Iran is also in Lebanon, endangering us and the people of Lebanon. It could lead to another very destructive conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Like North Korea, Iran is trying to develop long-range missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles. There is a new determination to constrain both North Korea and Iran. It boils down to the same issue: if North Korea can get thermonuclear weapons and long-range missiles, it can reach the middle of America and the middle of Australia. This will have an effect on Iran.”
Steinitz hopes Trump will be more resolute than Obama (he could hardly be less resolute) and Netanyahu is sure to seek Australian support on Iran during his forthcoming visit.
But Israel is concerned not only about missiles and territory and threats. It is a start-up nation and its hi-tech success is the envy of the world. Steinitz believes this is having a direct effect in improving even further Israel-Australia relations, and indeed Israel’s standing around the world.
“Technology is playing a big role here,” Steinitz says.
“Countries are realising that although Israel is small, if you want to be on the front line of technology, you need a big Israeli leg. All the hi-tech giants have come to Israel. In the last five years we’ve seen a new phenomenon. Other industries, like the car industry or the aeroplane manufacturing industry, see that they too need to have an R&D centre in Israel. Suddenly, all industries are realising that cyber technology and cyber security are crucial.
“Let me give you just a couple of statistics. In little Israel, there are more tech start-ups than in the whole of the EU put together. In complete numbers, Israel is second only to the US. It has more tech start-ups than China or Japan. This year, about 20 per cent of global investment in cyber security (R&D) will be in Israel.”
Israel is a small nation — 8.5 million people — but it is at the centre of giant forces shaping the global economy and global security. This week, it wants to focus on Australia.
*Greg Sheridan visited Israel as a guest of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council