NEW YORK — Benjamin Netanyahu appears to think that Donald Trump is his American presidential dream come true.
On Wednesday, in the Oval Office, Netanyahu expects to sit with a US president who has no delusions about Iran’s ideological and territorial rapacity, and who does not believe for a second that the radical ayatollahs can be moderated by warm words and sanctions relief. A US president who considers Israel a gutsy American ally in the evil black hole of the Middle East. A US president who respects strength, and who by extension appreciates the revived Jewish state’s accumulation and projection of power.
And Netanyahu may well be right.
But Benjamin Netanyahu leads a savvy people. And the people of Israel, when asked ahead of the US presidential elections whom they would choose to run America, preferred Hillary Clinton by a significant margin, even as they told some of the same pollsters that they thought Donald Trump would be a better president for Israel. How to understand that seemingly inexplicable contradiction? Quite simply: Israelis thought they’d know where they’d be with a president Clinton, and it might not be great but it probably wouldn’t be disastrous. As for a president Trump, they figured he might turn out to be the best of allies, far more supportive than Clinton, but they couldn’t be sure. And the unpredictability surrounding a would-be president with no track record, who as far as is known has never set foot in Israel, evidently worried them. When you’re a small country trying to plot a stable course through a region in perpetual, vicious turmoil, knowing exactly where things stand with your key ally, your existentially critical ally, is absolutely vital.
America’s international challenges cannot be fixed with the dramatic flourish of a presidential pen on an executive order
Three weeks in, President Trump is attempting to deliver the rapid remedies for America’s perceived ills that he promised on the campaign trail. But he’s finding it predictably frustrating. No matter how vigorous and determined you may be, protecting America and the free world from radical Islamic terrorism cannot be achieved overnight by imposing a ban on a dubious selection of Muslim countries. Islamic State cannot be destroyed in a month. Iran will not go meekly back into its box because you changed America’s tone and reimposed minor sanctions. Fresh thinking was long overdue, but many of America’s international challenges, just like its domestic difficulties, cannot be fixed with the dramatic flourish of a presidential pen on an executive order. The devil is in the detail. Wisdom lies between the extremes. And while Trump might want to believe that the complexities he has so quickly encountered are being manufactured by lying, dissembling, unpatriotic judges and legislators and journalists, those complexities are real, many of them defeated his predecessors, and they will need to be solved, not griped about, if he is to succeed.
Which brings us back to Netanyahu and Israel.
One would expect and hope that our prime minister’s first meeting with President Trump will indeed be conspicuously warm and friendly, quite the contrast with many of those tense encounters between Netanyahu and president Obama, with the rigid smiles, the awkward body language and the occasional wars of words. But away from the cameras, there needs to be intimate, detailed, coordinated strategizing.
Both sides worry about the Iran deal, but America was not the only signatory, and the Iranians are wily adversaries. How, with that inadequate accord in place, can Trump’s America thwart the ayatollahs’ undimmed nuclear ambitions?
Dealmaker Trump relishes the idea of brokering the toughest deal of all, between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu wants to avoid a single binational state between the river and the sea, but believes in the settlement enterprise, knows the Palestinian narrative is becoming ever more hostile to Israel, fears terrorism and worse taking root in any territory from which Israel withdraws, and, centrally, does not wish to be unseated by far-right Naftali Bennett or lite-right Yair Lapid for many years yet. How to reconcile all those conflicting ambitions, and to secure the best interests of Israel and America? On settlements, the George W. Bush understandings with Israel (essentially endorsing the settlement blocs, but not building outside them) might be an instructive model. On obstacles to a peace deal, the UN’s artificial inflation of Palestinian refugee numbers might be an area on which Trump, determined to remake America’s dealings with the world body, might want to focus.
Much more broadly, the two administrations should urgently begin to work together, and reach out to other nations, on a strategy to marginalize extremist Islamist narratives — disseminated by political leaders, spiritual leaders, educators and social media exponents — that are producing the next waves of terrorists, afflicting Israel, America and most everywhere else.
There is real work to be done. Not just mutually effusive rhetoric to spout, or critics to demonize.
The fear, though, is that short-termism, superficiality, and narrow political concerns may prevail, in what could prove a reckless gamble when it comes to long-term support for Israel across the political spectrum in America. Because the early signs are that Netanyahu, far from moving to fill the role of experienced statesman-adviser to the impetuous, novice president, is allowing himself to be dazzled by Trump’s against-all-odds success, seeking to emulate the president’s tactics, and most dramatically, throwing in his and Israel’s lot with the Trump administration. So now we have Netanyahu tweeting a la Trump about “great ideas” in wall building, savaging the media for accurately reporting what he has to say, and manufacturing absurd conspiracy theories about a leftist, Bolshevik, character-assassinating press seeking to have him indicted for corruption (while expecting Israelis to forget that predecessor Ehud Olmert, serving time for corruption, was a darling of the left when he fell).
Far more damagingly still, we have Netanyahu’s ambassador to the US giving a kosher stamp of approval to the problematic Steven Bannon, the prime minister murmuring not a word about a US entry ban on entire citizenries, and a shameful refusal to seek the correction of a presidential Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to highlight the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people.
Pendulums swing in politics. And oh, how the pendulum has swung in the United States of America. Israel’s well-being, however, relies on a stable, dependable relationship with the US no matter who was in the White House last year, who is there this year, or who will be arriving next year. Allowing Israel to be perceived as the cheerleading, uncritical ally of any administration, least of all one so divisive for Americans, would constitute an error of generational proportions.
When the American political pendulum swings again, as swing it surely will…
In his first three weeks in office, Donald Trump has become the most shocking American president in memory, and the country is roiling. He has demonstrated a readiness to misrepresent facts, a contempt for the media’s vital role as a watchdog of democracy, and a disrespect for the judiciary, on a scale that is plunging part of America into horrified dismay and that, it should be stressed, outstrips anything attempted along those lines, thus far at least, by senior politicians in Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu may think Donald Trump is his American presidential dream come true. Trump may defy the critics and surpass even his supporters’ expectations; but he could also turn out to be America’s absolute nightmare, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. And a unifying figure, a consensual president, Trump most emphatically is not.
If Netanyahu places Israel fawningly and uncritically in Trump’s corner, he will risk alienating Israel from subsequent American leaderships. He will have deeply undermined US bipartisan support for Israel on a scale that dwarfs the impact of his Obama-challenging, anti-Iran deal speech to Congress in March 2015. He will also, not incidentally, deepen the alienation from Israel of a sizable chunk of America’s Jewish community.
And when the American political pendulum swings again, as swing it surely will, the consequences for American-Israeli ties will be devastating. To use the simple word that Netanyahu most shrinks from, the one he rightly fears the most, Israel will be weakened.