The prime minister and the president

Netanyahu seems to understand that, while Israel has opportunities, President Trump has turned on close allies before, and therefore Israel needs to exercise caution.

February 5, 2018 22:19
3 minute read.
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Davos Switzerland

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)

One year into the Trump administration, it’s clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has handled President Donald Trump’s personality better than anyone expected, and as well or better than any other non-US leader.

During the primaries, candidate Trump gave Israel cause for concern. His December 2015 speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition felt like the casual anti-Jewish teasing still heard around the office water-cooler. He painted his mostly-Jewish audience as “negotiators.” He taunted, “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.” On substance, Trump frankly equivocated on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and stated that a peace deal was contingent on “whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.” However, Trump noted that he wanted to meet Netanyahu before making any commitments.

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Well, whatever Netanyahu has done, it seems to have worked. While almost everyone else was, and still is, trying to figure out “the Donald,” Netanyahu knew the exact mix of persuasion and argument required to bring the White House into Israel’s corner. Forget about Europe – most of the United States still does not “get” the president. Netanyahu does.

President Trump is now firmly behind Israel. The Iranian nuclear deal is being canceled, the Iranian people are ready to revolt and American power is being deployed against the Islamic regime. Aid to the Palestinians is being slashed and the Palestinian Authority is running out of friends in Washington. Jerusalem is being pushed off the negotiating table. The Europeans, increasingly wary of crossing Trump, have called on the PA to end stipends to terrorists. Israel is even contemplating the extension of government authority to additional zones beyond the 1949 armistice lines.

Netanyahu does not get all the credit. Israel has committed friends in the administration: Vice President Mike Pence and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have been particularly outspoken. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been supportive or neutral, far better than anyone would have guessed from ExxonMobil’s former point man with Qatar. The American religious Christian community, which forms the bedrock of Trump’s support, has conferred on Netanyahu rock-star status. And Israeli supporters in the American Jewish community continue to punch above their weight.

Significantly, President Trump has grown rapidly in office. The president’s detractors claim that he cannot be coached. However, his views – unlike those of his critics – have evolved through experience: on both foreign policy in general and Israel in particular. The candidate who was ready to abandon South Korea and Europe stared down North Korea and Russia from the Oval Office. Islamic State (ISIS) is not looking too good right about now. Maybe Trump was a blank slate when he was elected (unlikely), but if so he’s been a quick study.

Moreover, supporting Israel is great politics for President Trump. A January 8-9 2018 poll from The Economist/YouGov showed that only 5% of Americans consider Iran to be either an ally or friendly, while 74% of Americans consider Iran to be either unfriendly (34%) or an enemy (40%). In the same poll, Israel did pretty much the opposite, with 66% of Americans viewing Israel as an ally/friendly, and only 12% viewing Israel as an enemy/unfriendly.

Netanyahu has also been helped by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who appears to have lost his touch. In the past month, Abbas has disrespected Vice President Pence, prayed for the White House to be demolished and cut off negotiations with the most powerful nation in the world. Just as it seemed that his reconciliation plan with Hamas was working, he’s back to being just the unpopular mayor of Ramallah.

During president Barack Obama’s administration, Netanyahu showed poise in thwarting Louis Farrakhan’s BFF. In the face of hostility from the White House and especially from secretary of state John Kerry, Netanyahu never lost his temper. He stayed on message, and he certainly earned a few cigars for doing the best which could be done in a tight spot.

Netanyahu is famous for his ego. That’s not quite right – Netanyahu is famous for having a Texas-size ego. However, he also seems to understand that, while Israel has opportunities, President Trump has turned on close allies before, and therefore Israel needs to exercise caution. So far, Netanyahu is steadily and surely advancing Israel’s interests, without being greedy.

The author is an attorney.

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