Washington Watch: It’s only skin deep

That surface goodwill is likely to last only until Trump does something Netanyahu doesn’t like, such as get serious about limiting settlements or making peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at a White House press conference in Washington , US on May 15, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at a White House press conference in Washington , US on May 15, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It took more than three weeks after the botched Holocaust Remembrance Day proclamation, several waves of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, cemetery vandalism, growing calls from Jewish leaders and tweeted prodding from his daughter for President Donald Trump to get around to denouncing antisemitism. Notably silent was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed defender of the faith.
In last week’s high-profile White House visit, Netanyahu did not even mention the intensifying controversy in public. Maybe fear of offending the volatile and thinskinned Republican president caused him to adopt the timid “shush, don’t make waves” approach. Or maybe he was more concerned with trying to show his political rivals back home that there was finally a president he could get along with.
At their joint press conference, Trump dodged a question on the subject that has sent waves of anxiety through the Jewish community by pointing to his Jewish grandchildren and stating his love for Israel.
Netanyahu, who never misses an opportunity to lecture the entire world about its offenses against Jews, stood silently by.
There’s growing concern among American Jewry that if Trump isn’t himself an antisemite he tolerates – if not encourages – Jew hatred among many elements of his political base.
During remarks at the National Museum of African- American History and Culture Tuesday morning, he finally said, “Antisemitism is horrible and... and it has to stop.”
Netanyahu’s top priority in Washington wasn’t fighting antisemitism but protecting his own political survival in the face of spreading corruption investigations back home.
In terms of optics, the White House visit was a great success, but he brought home little in the way of substance.
Yes, Trump was effusive in his praise of Netanyahu, and especially when he gave a shout-out to the “so lovely” Sara Netanyahu and included her in the Oval Office photo- op. Optics are important, but they can be misleading.
The painful expressions on faces of Barack Obama and Netanyahu in their encounters left Israelis with the false impression that the underlying security-intelligence relationship was in trouble. In fact, that part was doing better than ever while on the personal level it was in bad shape.
Now along comes Trump who expresses love and admiration for Israel, its prime minister and his own Jewish grandchildren. But what did Netanyahu really achieve? He got the president’s promise to vote whichever way Netanyahu wants at the UN, unlike all previous presidents.
Netanyahu also got what Israel has gotten from every other president, the US’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.
That’s important, but he wanted a lot more and didn’t get it.
The Israeli Right saw Trump’s election as the beginning of a new era of laissez-faire diplomacy. Netanyahu quickly cleared the way to build thousands more settler homes in the West Bank. Things began to sour even before Netanyahu left home. The green light on settlements turned amber as Trump told him to “hold back.”
Netanyahu failed to get a renewal of the 2004 letter from president George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon saying the US would recognize existing settlement blocs as part of Israel in any future peace deal. Nor did he persuade Trump to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, which was denounced by president Reagan and opposed by every administration since, and he got nothing useful to boast about relocation of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
He went home without convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
He and his predecessors had asked this of all previous presidents, but this time Netanyahu was confident of success because Pollard was out on parole and Trump was his good friend, or so he told people.
What he didn’t want was another president who thought he could bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians.
It should have been obvious that neither Netanyahu nor his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas has any interest in making the difficult decisions and compromises necessary for peace, and even if they did they’re both too politically weak and dislike each other too much to try, but apparently Trump – he of the Art of the Deal – has other ideas.
He said he “can live with either” a one-state or two-state approach, leaving the impression he didn’t really understand the implications of what he was saying and had no clear policy. (The next day UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said the US remains committed to two states. It’s unclear who she really speaks for.) Trump showed how unprepared he is by saying he can broker a deal because past presidents “have not started until late because they never thought it was possible.”
That is untrue. Both Obama and Bill Clinton began early in their first term and made concerted – if failed – efforts.
Netanyahu looked uncomfortable when Trump talked about possible new negotiations and seemed taken by surprise when Trump said, “both sides will have to make compromises.”
And to Netanyahu, “You know that, right?” Netanyahu wanly responded, “Both sides.”
Netanyahu came to Washington to grovel, as Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea pointed out, and did it so well that he ignored the ugly white supremacy, antisemitism and racism surrounding Trump throughout his campaign and into the White House as he declared, “There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people or the Jewish state than Donald Trump.”
How long with this era of good feeling last? If Netanyahu’s main mission was to show he could finally get along with an American president, the trip was a great success.
But aside from the positive photo ops and expressions of good will, the prime minister came away with nothing – and he left a very sour taste in the mouths of American Jews who are watching with fear and shock the rising forces of antisemitism unleashed by Trump’s ascension to the White House.
And even that surface goodwill is likely to last only until Trump does something Netanyahu doesn’t like, such as get serious about limiting settlements or making peace. Or until Netanyahu does something that gets under Trump’s ultra-thin skin.