Washington watch: Netanyahu’s big surprise

Netanyahu may be the only world leader eagerly embracing Trump.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Is Netanyahu’s honeymoon with Trump over before it began?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthusiastically welcomed US President Donald Trump’s election, believing it would offer him freedom from pressure to stop settlements and make peace with the Palestinians, and a chance to kill the Iranian nuclear deal. He started celebrating by announcing the construction of thousands more homes for settlers in the West Bank and confessing he had no plans to give the Palestinians their own state, just some Bantustan-like “state minus.”
He thought Trump’s campaign talk about making peace was just like his own – empty campaign rhetoric. He was shocked to find out the new president might be serious about making – and claiming credit for – the deal of the century.
The Israeli premier’s February 15 visit to Washington was supposed to be a love fest, a bonding of brothers who shared a common antipathy to Barack Obama and a desire to create a new world order in the Middle East. Netanyahu will be urging Trump to reverse Obama’s pivot to Asia and refocus on the Middle East, where Israeli and Arab leaders alike have felt neglected and fear Russia filling the vacuum America left.
Netanyahu may be the only world leader eagerly embracing Trump, even to the point of imitating his self-congratulatory Twitter style and – in a masterpiece of bad PR – praising the president’s plan for a wall on the Mexico border, creating a rift with Mexico’s president that had to be cleaned up by Israel’s president.
Netanyahu thought he was coming to Washington to say kaddish for the peace process, only to learn that Trump is serious about its resurrection and giving the task to his son-in-law, who would bring to this most difficult piece of diplomacy a complete lack of diplomatic experience.
Netanyahu wanted his Oval Office visit to focus on Iran and establishing a close, warm personal relationship while avoiding uncomfortable topics like settlements and peace.
Candidate Trump had told Israel to “go ahead” with settlements, but last week White House press secretary Sean Spicer changed signals. They may not be “an impediment to peace” but they “may not be helpful” either, he said. It wasn’t the blanket ban Obama wanted but the message was no “unilateral” actions and no “undermining” of Trump’s peacemaking efforts.
The seeds of conflict with the new administration were planted on Monday when the Knesset, with Netanyahu in London, retroactively legalized illegal settler outposts built on Palestinian land. Knowing Trump is a guy who likes to spring surprises but resents being on the receiving end, Netanyahu wanted to block the move until he returned from Washington. That could create problems for one of Netanyahu’s top priorities. He wants Trump to renew the pledge George W. Bush gave prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 that the US would recognize existing settlement blocs as part of Israel in any future peace deal. It meant that settlements could grow up, but not out.
Monday’s Knesset vote – pushed by Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partners – won’t help get the pledge renewed. The “legalization” law was pushed by factions that want to annex the West Bank and prevent Palestinian statehood.
That comes as a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post, “Trump is committed to a comprehensive two-state solution.”
When he heard that, Netanyahu’s aides sent a message to the White House: Netanyahu and Trump will have a “long discussion” on the subjects of peace and settlements when he gets to the Oval Office.
Careful, Netanyahu. The last time you gave one of your history lectures to an American president you did enormous damage to bilateral relations, and remember this president is hyper-sensitive and holds grudges. Two words of advice: Mexico, Australia.
Candidate Trump, like Netanyahu, had called for ripping up the Iranian nuclear pact, but both ran into objections from their intelligence and security officials, who urged them to push instead for tougher sanctions and enforcement.
Another fading Trump campaign promise was to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Soon after the election, Trump began backing off that pledge – notwithstanding the pronouncements of his designated ambassador – and Netanyahu, despite his enthusiastic public embrace of the move, reportedly agrees.
Both men have heard from friendly Arab leaders that the embassy relocation could cause serious problems with their publics, incite violence against American embassies and damage their diplomatic relations needlessly. One of Netanyahu’s successes has been establishing quiet ties to pragmatic Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, and those are more critical to Israel’s strategic interests at this point than the symbolic relocation of the US embassy.
There may be a symbolic work-around so Trump can claim he kept his campaign promise, but there won’t be a real embassy move in the foreseeable future.
Netanyahu fashions himself as the defender of World Jewry, and he is quick to lecture Europeans about the rising tide of antisemitism on their continent, but he is alarmingly silent when it happens here in the US.
The prime minister had nothing to say when the White House issued a proclamation marking Holocaust Remembrance Day last month leaving out any reference to antisemitism or the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.
Many Jews considered the omission to be bordering on Holocaust denial, and the White House’s lame excuse that the message was drafted by a Jew and meant to be all-inclusive only added insult to injury. Netanyahu was equally silent about the administration’s Muslim ban (which most Jewish organizations condemned), about the growing influence of white supremacists in this White House and about antisemitic imagery tweeted by Trump in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Can you imagine Netanyahu’s outrage if the same Holocaust proclamation had come out of the Obama White House? Is Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed defender of the Jews, too terrified of a thin-skinned, vindictive president to speak out in the defense of the Jewish people?