For Netanyahu, so warm inside the Oval Office, so cold outside

For Netanyahu, the Oval Office has never been a warm place where you go to forget about your troubles in the company of a sympathetic friend. Today it is.

March 5, 2018 19:13
3 minute read.
For Netanyahu, so warm inside the Oval Office, so cold outside

US president Donald Trump said he may come to Jerusalem in May for the formal move of the embassy to Jerusalem. . (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)


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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no stranger to the White House Oval Office.

He has been there numerous times, first in meetings with president Bill Clinton during the 1990s, and then again from 2009 to 2016 with president Barack Obama.

It is doubtful that when he came to any of those meetings – where he jousted with the presidents over the Palestinians, settlements or Iran – he looked at the Oval Office as a place of refuge.

For Netanyahu, the Oval Office has never been a warm place where you go to forget about your troubles in the company of a sympathetic friend.

But on Monday, it was.

Sitting there, with portraits of presidents Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson on the walls and a bust of Winston Churchill on a table, Netanyahu had to be asking himself why he could not linger there just a little bit longer.

There he was discussing high policy with the leader of the free world. There he could forget about Nir Hefetz, his former spokesman and close adviser who just signed an agreement to turn state’s witness against him. There, for just a moment, he could forget about cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 and feel the warmth of someone who obviously likes, respects and appreciates him: US President Donald Trump.

Watching the two men interact on Monday in the office full of flags felt like being in a bubble. Here the discussions were about the marquee issues.

Here each man was strong and in control. Step out of the bubble and everything looks a lot different. It’s comfortable in a bubble but it is not real.

It is no secret that Netanyahu and Trump like each other.

You can see it in the ease with which they interact. You can hear it in the way they speak of each other. Trump would like to help Netanyahu, he would like to do something to extract him from his legal woes, because he does not want to see the Israeli leader fall.

But the president’s ability to help Netanyahu is limited.

He can help him politically by moving the embassy to Jerusalem in May, even more so by coming to the ceremony marking the embassy’s move himself.

All of this does help Netanyahu – politically. But that is not where Netanyahu’s problems lie. His problems, like many of Trump’s own woes, are legal, and in that sphere, even the impact of the president of the United States is restricted.

But help is not only a oneway street.

Trump is a businessman, the quintessential businessman. In business you give not out of altruism, but with the expectation of getting something in return.

And here is where relations between the two leaders get a little dicey.

Trump, like Netanyahu, also has his own domestic and legal difficulties. One thing that would be beneficial would be to score a success in the Mideast diplomatic process, which Trump himself has characterized as the “ultimate deal.”

Some kind of movement on the peace process now would even be more timely for Trump, with his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner facing problems of his own, including having had his top-secret security clearance stripped. A success here would show that Kushner is indispensable.

The much-discussed US peace plan, administration officials have said, will not be loved by either side and will obviously entail Israeli and Palestinian concessions. Even if the plan goes nowhere because the Palestinians will balk at the concessions they will be asked to make, it would be good politically for Trump to roll it out and show that he has won concessions from Netanyahu.

But the prime minister, because of his political uncertainty – the possibility that, either due to the crisis with the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) over conscription or because of his legal situation, he may have to go to early elections – is in no position to start making concessions.

You don’t want to go to elections, especially when you are competing with Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu for right-wing votes, after having just made concessions.

Netanyahu wants things from Trump and has received quite a bit – first and foremost, the embassy. Trump wants things from Netanyahu as well. A test of how genuinely close their relationship is – a relationship that judging by the appearance of Monday’s Oval Office meeting looked very close indeed – is how Trump will react if Netanyahu is unable, because of his particular circumstances right now, to give Trump what he needs.

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