When newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak was about to arrive in Washington for his first meeting with US president Bill Clinton in July 1999, Clinton could hardly contain his ecstasy.
After enduring three years of tension with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton actively worked to get Barak elected. He sent his top strategists, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, to help Barak beat Netanyahu, and then told reporters that he was eager to work with Barak.
Clinton said he felt like “a kid with a new toy.”
Seventeen long years later, Netanyahu is having a hard time hiding his joy over the change in power in Washington, and the prospects of working with US President-elect Donald Trump.
Burned from accusations he interfered in American politics in the past, Netanyahu remained carefully neutral in the election. In private conversations, he sincerely praised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and expressed confidence that he would be able to get along much better with her than he did with current US President Barack Obama and with her husband, Bill.
But Netanyahu, who looks, talks, and acts like a Republican, was obviously overjoyed when Pennsylvania, the state where he spent the formative years of his life, gave the presidency to Trump. It was the first time Pennsylvania had elected a Republican since November 1988, the month Netanyahu was elected to the Knesset for the first time.
Netanyahu scolded ministers who released statements congratulating Trump on his victory before his own video congratulating Trump was ready to be posted on the Prime Minister’s Office website.
Smiling broadly in the video, Netanyahu appeared downright giddy as he declared Trump “a great friend of Israel,” and said he looked forward to working with him to advance “security, prosperity and peace” – an order that might have been different had someone else been elected.
Not stopping there, Netanyahu also posted to his Facebook page a video Trump released in 2013, in which he endorsed Netanyahu ahead of an Israeli election and praised him as “a great prime minister” and “a winner.”
Netanyahu stopped short of posting the exclusive Jerusalem Post interview with Trump that same day in which he said he wished Netanyahu was running in his own country.
“I think he would have been a great president of the United States,” Trump told the Post in what to this day is the last interview Trump has given any Israeli media outlet that is not owned by campaign contributor Sheldon Adelson.
Mocking his trademark “you’re fired” line from his reality show The Apprentice, Trump said “Netanyahu will not be fired.” He added that he believed Netanyahu was respected by Obama, and that he did not think the prime minister had a bad relationship with Democrats in Washington.
There are indeed plenty of Democrats whom Netanyahu got along with, but there were also Democrats who boycotted his speech to Congress last year. Ironically, in more than 10-and-a-half years in power, Netanyahu has never served a single day with a Republican president.
More than one former Netanyahu adviser recently recounted past conversations in which the prime minister made the following incredible statement: “I want to know what it’s like for just one day to have a president who has my back.”
That one day will arrive on January 20, the day Obama leaves and Trump is inaugurated. There are 71 days between today and then.
That interregnum period between the election and the inauguration has been the subject of much speculation, because Obama could use it to push through anti-Israel policies unencumbered by political obligations.
But now speculation will also begin on what Netanyahu will do during that period. Netanyahu has 71 days to figure out how to handle the potential of a US president who – if he keeps his campaign promises – will not pressure Israel in any way.
Every day of his four terms as prime minister until now, whenever right-wing politicians pressured Netanyahu to build throughout Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, he would point to Washington and raise his hands.
Now what will he say and do? Well, that depends on what his actual policies are in his heart of hearts, and with all due respect to current and former Netanyahu staffers, it is possible that no one knows that but Netanyahu himself.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who as Netanyahu’s former chief of staff knows him pretty well, rushed to declare on Wednesday that the pursuit of a Palestinian state is over. That message was intended not only for the media, his constituents and the world, but also to get into Netanyahu’s head that he must use Trump’s victory to swerve rightward, or his political future could be jeopardized.
Netanyahu’s Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar released his own statement to the right of Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is sure to follow.
Netanyahu spoke on the phone Wednesday with Trump, who invited him to come to Washington as soon as possible. That could end up being at the end of March, when the AIPAC Policy Conference takes place in Washington.
That would give Netanyahu two more months beyond the interregnum to figure out where he is heading. But then there will be no more stalling, and Netanyahu will have to have figured out his new toy’s instructions.
Like an instant lottery winner, Netanyahu has never had to deal with such a new challenge of riches: the blessing of an American president who says he will not pressure Israel. But winning the lottery has proven to be a curse in disguise for many who could not handle the pressure.
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