10 tips for a successful Netanyahu-Trump summit

The two would be wise to learn from what went wrong with Obama, and do the opposite.

By
February 14, 2017 13:22
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower. (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

 
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Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US president Donal Trump hope their meeting in Washington on Wednesday will be the start of a beautiful relationship for the two leaders and stronger ties between their countries.

But they also know that so much could go wrong, as happened with the first meeting of Netanyahu and former US president Barack Obama in the White House, which set the tone for eight ugly years of bickering and fighting.

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There is much for Netanyahu and Trump to learn from that May 2009 meeting. Studying what went wrong and doing the opposite is a key step toward the two of them getting along.

But it is obviously more complicated than that. So here are 10 tips for Netanyahu ahead of his first meeting with Donald Trump as president of the United States: 
Netanyahu prepares to fly to Washington DC, US (credit: GPO)

1. No surprises

When Obama was elected, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky predicted that he and Netanyahu could get along despite differences on policy, as long as they did not surprise each other, which is exactly what they did to each other repeatedly over the past eight years.

It all started in that first meeting when with no prior warning, Obama called for an end to construction in east Jerusalem privately and then a complete settlement freeze in front of the cameras, in what Netanyahu advisers still call "the ambush."



Obama kept on surprising Netanyahu. He announced a Middle East peace plan March 2011 the day before Netanyahu was due to arrive in Washington and negotiated with Iran behind Israel's back.

The president felt surprised by Netanyahu when a building project was advanced in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood during the 2010 Israel visit of US Vice President Joe Biden. The fact that Netanyahu was not involved in the decision and had never even heard of the neighborhood did not ease the damage done by the surprise.

Obama was also surprised when Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address a joint session of Congress on the Iran deal from US House Speaker John Boehner in March 2015. Israeli officials said it was Boehner who was supposed to tell him and they thought he had, but they could have done more to prevent the surprise.

2. Expect the unexpected

When Netanyahu met with Obama, he was unaware that the president had made a strategic decision to distance himself from Israel so he could improve relations with the Muslim world, as former Obama adviser Dennis Ross later wrote about in his book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.

Netanyahu should have had better intelligence on the president back then. One can only pray that he does now.

The New York Times has reported that Ambassador to Israel Ron Dermer has forged a close relationship with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. That relationship could end up being the key to improving US-Israel ties.

But this is still Donald Trump, who has been known to take controversial steps on a whim. So Netanyahu must expect the unexpected and handle it the best way possible when it comes.

3. Focus on Iran

Minister-without-portfolio Ayoub Kara was laughed at Monday when he told a room full of Likud activists that Netanyahu should not bring up the Palestinian issue when he meets with Trump, "because it is irrelevant."

It is very relevant, and as Netanyahu told the security cabinet, Trump intends to try solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as his predecessors before him have tried. Netanyahu may decide he wants the conflict to be resolved while both he and Trump are in office, because he believes their successors would produce a deal that would not be as good.

But especially if there are differences between Netanyahu and Trump on the matter, the Palestinian issue could be limited to the private meeting of Netanyahu and Trump. They don't have to air those differences publicly.

If Netanyahu and Trump use their press conference to speak only on Iran - on which they completely agree - it would present an image of a united front that will make both leaders look better to their constituents.

4. Load him with facts

Obama hated it when Netanyahu tried to lecture him about history. Trump realizes he is still learning about Israel, which he has never visited.

Trump respects "really smart people." If Netanyahu makes that list, he could prove to be a close adviser to the president behind the scenes whenever he has to make a key decision on international affairs.

5. Maximize your intel

There are those who say that Israel has been keeping a long list of Iranian violations to the nuclear deal for more than a year, waiting for the right time to present it to whoever would succeed Obama. This could be the meeting when that happens, which could make a serious impression on Trump.

Netanyahu has reportedly already sent the interim head of the National Security Council, Ya'acov Nagel, to meet with Trump's team. But chances are he is saving the best of Israeli intelligence on Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, etc, for him to present Trump directly to maximize its impact.

6. Take your time

Not everything can be said and done in the first meeting of two world leaders in the White House. If Netanyahu and Obama met 17 times in eight years, even though they did not like each other, there will be plenty more chances for Netanyahu and Trump.

Obama hurried to appoint George Mitchell as his envoy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict two days after his inauguration. That only expedited failure.

Ha'aretz reported that Trump was going to announce a decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem at 12:01 on Inauguration Day but changed his mind. While there is no more consensus issue in Israel, waiting to plan key moves correctly cannot hurt.

7. Be humble

When Trump and Netanyahu meet, there will be more plenty of ego in the room. Neither leader is known for being particularly modest.

Trump's arrogance is made fun of constantly on American satire shows. Netanyahu suffers the same fate from their counterparts in Israel.

In 1996, then US-president Bill Clinton remarked privately after his first meeting with Netanyahu, "Who the f--- does he think he is? Who's the f---ing superpower here?"

Netanyahu should try to swallow his pride and be humble when he meets with Trump. It won't be easy, but it is key to avoid a blow-up between the two men.

8. Smother him with love

Trump is the most maligned president in American history. Netanyahu knows what it's like to get bad press and not get along with key world leaders, so he can empathize with him, perhaps better than anyone.

Saturday Night Live even depicted the leader of Zimbabwe treating Trump rudely.

When Netanyahu shows him the love, it will be a much warmer reception than he has gotten from other world leaders, so it can go a long way.

9. Get a good night's sleep

One of the lessons of Leon Tolstoy's classic book War and Peace is that getting a good night's sleep is one of the keys to victory in battle.

Netanyahu has faced criticism for requesting a double bed on a plane and for taking his wife Sara, even on short trips abroad. He shouldn't listen to them.

He also has been know to stay awake until late at night, revising a speech over and over again. He shouldn't do that tonight.

10. Lower expectations

It was wise of Netanyahu to remind his ministers when he boarded his plane to Washington that only he is in charge and only he will navigate.

No one will be satisfied with Netanyahu's performance in Washington, no matter what happens there.

So he might as well lower expectations. That is the key to success in anything.



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