On January 20, 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally have a Republican president sitting in the White House.
Netanyahu has often been called a Republican himself, and many observers of US-Israel relations believe he is eagerly awaiting Inauguration Day, when for the first time in his 10 years at the helm of the Jewish state there will not be a Democratic president of the US.
On the face of it, Donald Trump’s victory seems to be a dream come true for the Israeli prime minister. The president-elect has repeatedly vowed to unconditionally back the Jewish state in any possible way: he promised not to try to force a solution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; slammed the Iranian nuclear deal; pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and removed the two-state solution from the Republican party platform.
Netanyahu also knows and appreciates the vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, who has a long record of support for Israel.
Some of the names rumored to be part of Trump’s future cabinet will be music to Netanyahu’s ears. Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, for instance, are thought to have a good chance of becoming the next secretary of state, and Rudy Giuliani expects to be appointed attorney-general. Many others in Trump’s inner circle have long records of outspoken and unconditional support for the Jewish state and Netanyahu’s policies.
On the other hand, Netanyahu knows that Trump is unpredictable and might change his Middle East policies on a whim. The prime minister surely hasn’t forgotten that Trump said he wants to remain “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or that he contemplated asking Israel to repay the billions in military aid it received from the US.
In December, Netanyahu issued a statement rejecting Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, stressing that “Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects Donald Trump's recent remarks about Muslims.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) December 9, 2015
On Wednesday, several hours after Trump’s upset victory, Netanyahu released a videotaped congratulatory message in which he called the president-elect his “friend.” In a statement issued after their phone call later in the day, the Prime Minister’s Office said the two men “have known each other for many years.”
There is no publicly available evidence for this claim. True, ahead of the 2013 Knesset elections, Trump taped a 35-second clip endorsing Netanyahu and calling him a “terrific guy.” The producer of that video, British-Israeli PR professional Jonny Daniels, said the two men spoke after the video was published, but that he was not sure they had ever met in person.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu and Trump had met before their September 2016 meeting, but could not provide more detail.
But even if the professed Netanyahu-Trump “friendship” amounts to more than a handful of phone calls and one meeting, it cannot come close to the 20-year, deep and resonant — though certainly complicated — relationship the prime minister has with Hillary Clinton.
Netanyahu first met the former first lady, senator and secretary of state in 1996, when her husband was president. Since then they have met on countless occasions, sometimes yelled at each other, but eventually found a modus vivendi and even developed an amicable relationship.
“Despite our policy differences, Netanyahu and I worked together as partners and friends,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir. “We argued frequently, often during phone calls that would go on for over an hour, sometimes two… I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance you could get something done together.”
To be sure, Netanyahu is deeply troubled by some of Clinton’s policy positions, such as her lukewarm support for the nuclear Iran deal and her belief in the urgent need for a Palestinian state.
And yet it stands to reason that Netanyahu thought he would have gotten along just fine with a Clinton administration. In an email leaked to Wikileaks, a “senior Israeli official who is very close to the Prime Minister, and knows his thinking” is quoted saying that Hillary is “more instinctively sympathetic to Israel” than President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu always had a “surprising good relationship” with Clinton, the Israeli official revealed, and considered her “easy to work with.”
Clinton herself signaled a strong desire to create a positive working relationship with Netanyahu had she been elected president. Inviting him to the White House to patch up US-Israel relations — which suffered greatly last year in the wake of the Iran deal — was “near the top” of her list of priorities, she had said.
Would Netanyahu have preferred Clinton over Trump? We might never know.
But already, Israeli politicians to Netanyahu’s right, such as Naftali Bennett, are seizing on the Republican platform’s omission of a two-state solution — essentially trying to push Netanyahu into formally abandoning the idea, and preparing to undermine him from the right if he doesn’t. He can expect more pressure from the right, too, to expand settlements — once Trump is in the White House and such building may not be criticized as it routinely was under Obama. Netanyahu is wary about Palestinian statehood, and is a supporter of the settlement enterprise, of course, but he benefited, in the complex dance of domestic politics and regional diplomacy, from being able to find a middle path between the pro-peace-talks, anti-settlement US administration and the opposite stance of the political hawks at home. A president Clinton would have enabled him to chart a similar course, albeit with slightly greater empathy from Washington. A president Trump will likely give Netanyahu a freer hand — which, however paradoxically, might make life more complicated for him.
On Wednesday, the president-elect and the prime minister spoke on the phone for about 15 minutes. They exchanged pleasantries and discussed “regional issues,” according to Netanyahu’s office. Trump also invited Netanyahu to the White House “at the first opportunity.” Netanyahu gladly accepted.
Pretty soon, then, we might find out more of what Trump plans for the Middle East — if anything. We’ll also see how well the two men get along. And Netanyahu will have a better idea of whether president Trump is as “easy to work with” as Hillary Clinton would have been.