US-Israel Ties: ‘The relations are between our countries’

Trump told reporters in Los Angeles that he hadn't spoken with Netanyahu since the election.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
The second round of elections in Israel has left many people confused about the future. With no clear winner, it’s hard to predict where the country is headed. The same rule applies to the relationship between the Trump administration and the next Israeli government.
President Donald Trump surprised many on Wednesday when he told reporters in Los Angeles that he had yet to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and added: “The relations are between our countries.” While Trump’s statement is obvious – the “special relationship” is between Israel and the US, not between Trump and Netanyahu, some people argued that the president was giving Netanyahu the cold shoulder.
After all, just a few days ago, pictures of Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu were decorating billboards across the country, signifying the warm personal relations between the two.
The president’s tweet about a possible defense treaty with Israel – three days ahead of Israel’s elections – was another demonstration of the confidence that Trump had in Netanyahu’s reelection.
Did Trump try to distance himself from his old friend? According to Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel, “Trump and Netanyahu formed an alliance that served both their interests, and Trump actively intervened to try to help Netanyahu win the April election. But with Netanyahu’s failure to form a government in May and the stalemate this week, Trump’s ardor has cooled. He invested much less to help Netanyahu before the second round, and by emphasizing that ‘our relationship is with Israel,’ he seems to be preparing to distance himself from a guy he sees as a loser.”
“Space was already opening up between Trump and Netanyahu on Iran,” Shapiro told The Jerusalem Post. “Trump wants talks with Iran, wants to avoid conflict and, before the attack on Saudi Arabia, was open to sanctions relief. But nothing divides Trump from Netanyahu like the perception he is losing, as Trump made clear on the tarmac on Wednesday.”
“He basically said he’s committed to Israel, not to any individual,” Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, told the Post.
“It was very literal. I think it’s very clear that Trump hates being identified with a loser. He hates that word. He attacks people for being losers. Why would he back Netanyahu when it’s not clear that he is going to come out the winner here? Why should he take that risk?”
According to Zakheim, Trump is most likely to warm up with Netanyahu again, if he’s able to form a coalition. “Trump is going to wait to see who the next prime minister is, and if it’s Netanyahu, he will say, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful, my friend won.’ And if it’s Benny Gantz, he’ll say, ‘Well, I’m happy to work with the general.’ Trump always identifies with winners.”
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that he wouldn’t read too much into Trump’s remarks.
“Trump’s answer was the appropriate one,” said Schanzer. “He should be stressing the alliance between the two countries, not the friendship between the two men. I think the president certainly has to wonder what will become of Bibi.” With two Israeli elections in a row signaling political deadlock, Trump “may even feel the need to signal to Blue and White or others that he’s open to new friendships.
“I’ve been watching Israeli politics for a long time. Never count any Israeli politician out, as long as they still have oxygen to breathe,” he joked. “And right now, Bibi’s chances may have dropped a little bit, but he is still very much in the fight. He is a political survivor, so I don’t rule him out. And as such, the declaration of the death of the bromance is premature.”
AT THE same time, the political stalemate in Israel is also expected to cause yet another delay in the release of the administration’s peace plan. While Jason Greenblatt is visiting Israel at the moment, most experts agree that no one in the administration is seriously considering releasing the document right now. Taking such a sensitive plan and throwing it into the chaotic political climate in Israel may be the least effective way to promote it.
“There is no logic to presenting a US peace plan during such a fraught Israeli government formation period,” said Shapiro. “Netanyahu cannot respond positively on anything that would require Israeli concessions, or he would lose support on the Right. Gantz and Liberman have no incentive to allow such a plan to rescue Netanyahu,” he added.
“If the plan is favorable to Israel, Gantz will argue that he can get the same terms from Trump later, and that he might seek different ones. And if the plan contemplates Israeli annexation, that is not something a caretaker government can carry out. The US team can stand down for a couple of months. If a unity government emerges, they would need to consult with them on the terms of a deal from the beginning.”
“The deadlock results in a postponement of any peace plan,” said Zakheim. “To me, the interesting signal about the peace plan was that Greenblatt has left. I mean, the fact of the matter is that if he thought there would be any success, why would he leave? Why now? It made no sense. It wasn’t because he wanted to take off for Rosh Hashanah. So, that’s already a signal to me that this peace plan is going nowhere.”
“If Netanyahu wins,” Zakheim continued, “then I suppose the president could still put it forward, because if anything like what [Naftali] Bennett was talking about is in the peace plan, it makes Netanyahu look good, it allows him to possibly not even talk about annexation at this point. If it’s Benny Gantz, they don’t put the peace plan forward, because Gantz isn’t going to sign up to that. So, this gives them a certain degree of flexibility.”
“Introducing this plan now, amidst the coalition negotiations, is ill-advised,” agreed Schanzer. “It has the potential to swing the election and to influence it, in ways that the US should not be. And it also could have unintended consequences and adding chaos to the existing political chaos, which is also not helpful.”
ANOTHER ISSUE that was forced onto the sidelines due to the political deadlock is the strategy toward Iran. In the past few weeks, Trump signaled his willingness to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with no preconditions, but the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil fields created new tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“I’m not too concerned about that,” said Zakheim. “I think the real issue isn’t for Israel. It’s for the United States because Trump is in a very, very difficult situation. If he attacks Iran, he doesn’t know whether that’ll lead to war. It probably will. And it won’t be the kind of war that allows tanks to charge across to Tehran.”
“It’ll be the kind of war where Iranians attack American troops in Afghanistan, troops in Iraq, and maybe troops in Syria and elsewhere,” he continued. “Iranians don’t play by our rules. That’s a very dangerous step to take. On the other hand, if he does nothing, then he looks like a weak leader. He can’t afford that either. He’s talking about tougher sanctions, and maybe that’ll get him past this particular crisis. It’s not clear. But right now, Israel’s not in the center of it.”
Schanzer added that Netanyahu’s decision to not attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week is a signal that this is not politics as usual in terms of messaging on Iran.
“This is the moment that he would usually jump on to share new information or to provide new messages to the international community,” he said. “So, clearly, that has been inhibited by the political deadlock. However, the IDF continues to operate independently of politics, as do the intelligence services and other security apparatus in Israel. I sense that if there was a short-term problem, the IDF is equipped for this.”