With Israel-US ties, perception and reality don't always add up

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Be careful before jumping to conclusions about the state of US-Israeli relations based on what meets the eye.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

There is much to unpack from excerpts of journalist Barak Ravid’s two taped interviews with former US president Donald Trump that were released last week to promote Ravid’s new Hebrew book, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East.

From Trump’s warm words of praise for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to his charge that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was never sincere in his desire to make peace with the Palestinians, to his cursing out Netanyahu for congratulating President Joe Biden in a video message after Biden’s election victory, the excerpts prove one thing: things are not always as they appear.

What was so astounding in this version of Trump unplugged was not that the former president used the f-word to dismiss Netanyahu – Trump is no stranger to salty language – nor that he failed to grasp why an Israeli leader would feel the need to congratulate the next president of the United States. What was so astounding was that the tone of the interview and the negative way Trump spoke of Netanyahu and his relationship with him were so completely at odds with the public perception of that relationship.

The public perception – one promoted heavily by Netanyahu – was that the men had a long-lasting bromance; that they were – as various news reports described it – “birds of a feather,” “conjoined twins,” “two sides of the same coin.”

In Feb 2019, before the first of four Israeli elections in two years, billboards of Trump and Netanyahu smiling broadly and shaking hands bedecked the country. While this relationship was viewed by Likud strategists as an electoral asset in Israel, in America Israel actually lost some support among US Jews precisely because of the perception that the two men were too close.

 THEN-US President Donald Trump and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump’s address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2017. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS) THEN-US President Donald Trump and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump’s address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2017. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

What the excerpts of these interviews have done is show that the perceived bromance was exaggerated. Trump did not withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal because he was convinced by Netanyahu; the unveiling of the “Deal of the Century” in Washington in January 2020 was not a triumphant moment in the US-Israel relationship; and Trump believed Abbas was more serious about peace than Netanyahu.

That last bit was most confounding.

“I thought he wanted to make a deal more than Netanyahu,” Trump said of Abbas. “I will be honest, I had a great meeting with him, Abbas.... We spent a lot of time together, talked about many things. And it was almost like a father. I mean, he was so nice, couldn’t have been nicer. And after meeting with Bibi for three minutes, I looked at him and said, ‘You don’t want to make a deal, do you?’

“The fact is I don’t think Bibi ever wanted to make a deal,” Trump continued. “I [had] thought the Palestinians were impossible, and that the Israelis would do anything to make peace and a deal. I found that not to be true.”

Trump met three times with Abbas during his tenure – once in May 2017 at the White House, again in Bethlehem later that same month during the president’s visit to Israel, and a few months later in September at the UN General Assembly meeting.

In December of that year, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced he would move the US Embassy there. The Palestinians subsequently cut off ties with the administration, with Abbas cursing Trump during a speech in Cairo a month later, wishing him “Yakhreb beitak,” or that ruin should come upon his house.

The public perception of Trump’s four years in office is that he and Netanyahu got along tremendously, while he had no patience for Abbas and the Palestinians. The excerpts from these interviews tell a much different tale.

RAVID’S FIRST interview with Trump took place face-to-face in April, and the second one by phone in July. Even accounting for the fact that in April, when Trump cursed Netanyahu, the ex-president was still raging mad over his loss to Biden, was still convinced he was robbed of the elections, and was still furious at those allies who he didn’t think stood with him steadfastly, the picture that emerges from these interviews is that all was never smooth and rosy in the relationship between the two leaders – something the public was completely unaware of.

This dissonance between perception and reality has a bearing today as well: be careful before jumping to conclusions about the state of US-Israeli relations based on what meets the eye, because much of what meets the eye belies the true nature of what is going on elsewhere.

Why is this important to keep in mind now? Because after half a year of Prime Minister Naftali’s Bennett’s tenure, a period during which it appeared that his government and the Biden administration were getting along very well, over the last few weeks cracks have begun to appear, and there are those increasingly speaking of a rift emerging between Jerusalem and Washington.

Or, as The New York Times put it in a subhead to a news story this week about disagreements between the US and Israel over the Iranian nuclear talks, “Strains emerged during talks this week after a short period of strong relations between a new Israeli government and new American one.”

According to the report, Bennett had a “tense” phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the Iranian nuclear talks earlier this month, and both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mossad head David Barnea left talks in Washington this week frustrated by the American positions.

While policy toward Iran is the most significant point of contention between Jerusalem and Washington, it is not the only one. There is the as yet unresolved issue of whether the US will open a consulate in Jerusalem that will serve the Palestinians (Israel is adamantly opposed); there is unhappiness in Washington at how Israel is dealing with the two Israeli cyber firms it has blacklisted; and – of course – there is the issue of settlements. Between Washington and Jerusalem, there is always the issue of settlements.

Even Trump said that he asked Netanyahu during their first meeting why he continued to build in the settlements. And following the unveiling of the “Deal of the Century” when Netanyahu began talking about annexing part of the West Bank, Trump said, “I got angry and I stopped it, because that was going too far, that was going way too far. You know when he did the big, ‘Let’s take everything and just start building on it [thing],’ we were not happy with that.”

But while in previous administrations the focus of attention was on settlement construction, now – according to various reports – the focus of contention is on “settler violence.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov this week quoted Israeli diplomatic officials as saying that American officials “bring up ‘settler violence’ all the time, obsessively,” and have even put the issue on the same level – in their discussions with Israeli officials – as the Iranian nuclear threat.

If this is indeed the case, it seems a revival of the linkage between settlements and Iran that the Obama administration made in its early years, a linkage referred to as “Yitzhar for Bushehr” – Yitzhar being the settlement in Samaria, and Bushehr the Iranian nuclear plant near the Persian Gulf. If Netanyahu would be willing to dismantle settlements like Yitzhar, according to this linkage, then the US would work with Israel to ensure the disassembly of Bushehr.

By putting settlement violence on par with the Iranian talks, the Americans may be saying that if Israel has demands of the US in its negotiations over Iran, then America has demands of Israel when it comes to the settlements. In other words, this may be the Americans’ way of saying, “You want to talk to us about Iran; we want to talk to you about the settlements.”

As these stories slowly seep out, the perception they create is of suddenly choppy and troubled US-Israel waters.

Trump’s interviews serve as a reminder, however, that perception does not necessarily match reality. Just as things in the US-Israeli relationship may not always be as good as perceived to be, so, too, they may not be as bad as the perception of the moment might indicate.