A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Bibi’s Test Case

A new settlement bill challenges Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ability to control his coalition.

For many Likudniks, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States was seen as a welcome change. But as a recently-passed settlement law demonstrates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may only have won the rope he needs to hang himself.

© REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool

The Israeli legislature’s vote on February 6 to legitimize, post factum, pure land grabbing is a disgrace on many levels. Land grabs are nothing new in the West Bank, but the sanctioning of the theft of private land from Palestinians, only a few days after the evacuation of the illegal settlement at Amona (as if there were “legal” settlements…), shows new chutzpah from those right-wing extremist politicians who believe that anything is possible with Donald Trump in the White House.

Since Trump has taken office, Israel has announced plans to build more than 2,500 new housing units. The most right-wing government in Israeli history is no longer even subtle about pursuing the plans of settler party leader Naftali Bennett, who wants to annex Area C, including 60 percent of the West Bank. With that step, the two-state-solution would go down the drain.

But there’s more: Last week’s vote showed frightening weakness from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He wasn’t a fan of this new law – not out of ethical conviction, but rather because of a deeper understanding of the consequences this law could entail. Palestinians would have a good case to bring Israel to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The fact that Bibi hopes for the Israeli Supreme Court to annul this law is yet more proof that the prime minister can no longer contain his coalition himself. And it’s not even his coalition partners that are the problem; members of his own party voted in favor of the bill. It is already well known that Bibi is a “leftist” within Likud, but up until now he has known how to tame “his” extremists. This no longer seems to be the case.

The White House, meanwhile, has decided not to comment on the new law, but rather wait for the outcome of the appeal at the Supreme Court. This is, indeed, a mixed message. A few days ago, Trump, to Netanyahu’s surprise, criticized Israel’s intense expansion plans. Now, it seems the US is against the latest settlement enterprise, but waiting for Israel’s “checks and balances” to resolve the problem, as if this would lead Israel to make a U-turn in its settlement policy in its entirety.

In a way, Netanyahu needs some kind of opposition from the White House. The advantage with Obama was that Israel’s strong man could always counter his coalition partners by saying, “We can’t do that, Obama won’t accept it,” thus reining in the most extreme plans of his political “friends.” Now everything is in limbo. What will Trump finally tolerate, and what not? Where will he set the borders for Bibi? And will they be enough to stop Israel’s extremists from going off the leash completely?

At some point, Netanyahu will have to decide whether he will follow his heart and ideology, or at least try to keep Israel somewhat sane, without relying on direction from the White House. In any case, the Trump administration may prove to be Bibi’s greatest test case ever.