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Analysis

Leaders like Netanyahu and UK’s Johnson who wooed Trump face tricky reset

Israeli PM chose not to criticize his good friend following the deadly Capitol riots; like the US president, he attacks the media and lashes out at democratic institutions

US President Donald Trump (right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to Trump's departure to Rome at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017. (Kobi Gideon / GPO via Flash90)
US President Donald Trump (right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to Trump's departure to Rome at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017. (Kobi Gideon / GPO via Flash90)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said a lot of nice things about Donald Trump over the years, from expressing admiration for the US president to suggesting he might be worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But after a mob of Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol on January 6, Johnson has changed his tune.

Trump, he said, had encouraged the violent insurrection, had disputed the result of a “free and fair election,” and was “completely wrong.”

It was a dramatic pivot for someone who has often been compared to Trump and refrained for years from openly criticizing him. Other world leaders also have faced dilemmas in dealing with the volatile and unpredictable president who trashed international agreements and institutions with abandon. But Johnson’s critics say his years of flattering — and, some say, imitating — Trump have harmed Britain’s international authority and poisoned its political culture.

In this August 25, 2019 file photo U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attend a working breakfast at the Hotel du Palais on the sidelines of the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and the Americas program at the Chatham House think tank, said the issue of how to deal with Trump has been “the biggest question in Western diplomacy for the past four years.”

“And I would say that the UK was on the wrong side of it,” she said.

Johnson is not the only Western leader who sought to befriend, persuade or placate Trump. French President Emmanuel Macron had an early bromance with the US president, inviting Trump to Paris in 2017 for a Bastille Day military parade and dinner at the Eiffel Tower.

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, visited the White House just days after Trump’s inauguration and was photographed holding the president’s hand.

Both relationships soon turned sour, but Johnson was more successful in keeping on the good side of a president who praised him, ungrammatically, as “Britain Trump.”

“The dirty open secret of Europe during the Trump era was that everyone thought he was a menace,” said Brian Klaas, associate professor of global politics at University College London. “It’s just that Boris thought he was a menace who could potentially serve his own interests.”

In this May 25, 2017 photo US President Donald Trump jokes with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister Theresa May walks past during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit of heads of state and government in Brussels. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool, File)

Johnson supporters argue that he had no choice but to woo the leader of the UK’s most important ally — especially as Britain left the European Union and sought a key trade deal with Washington.

Johnson did try to change Trump’s course, attempting unsuccessfully to coax him back into the Iran nuclear deal. He also initially resisted US pressure to ban the Chinese technology company Huawei from Britain’s 5G telecommunications network —- although he eventually caved. Meanwhile, the coveted UK-US trade deal has yet to emerge.

Critics say Johnson took his courting of Trump too far, and got little in return.

Emily Thornberry, a senior lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party, said the Conservative government’s indulgent attitude to Trump had been “humiliating and unnecessary.”

“We did everything that we could in order to charm him,” she told The Associated Press. “There was no charming this man. … He was a bully and the way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.”

“It was wrong in principle. It didn’t forward our interests in any way, and it gave some sort of credibility to Donald Trump that he didn’t deserve,” she said.

Like Trump, Johnson has engaged in populist stunts, exaggerated promises and, at times, racist and inflammatory language. But on most big policy issues, Johnson is closer to US President-elect Joe Biden than to Trump. Johnson, leader of Britain’s Conservative party, believes in international alliances such as NATO and thinks the fight against climate change should be a government priority.

Some UK politicians and officials are concerned that the government’s relationship with Trump, who was impeached Wednesday by the US House of Representatives for a historic second time, could hurt it with Biden’s new administration.

Biden mistrusts Johnson, who once insulted US president Barack Obama by saying the “half-Kenyan” leader had an ancestral dislike of Britain. Biden criticized Johnson in the fall when the British leader threatened to breach an international Brexit treaty that he himself had signed.

Kim Darroch, who lost his job as UK ambassador in Washington after his candid confidential comments about Trump were leaked in 2019, wrote in the Financial Times that “there will be a price to pay, somewhere down the track, for our obsequiousness to Mr. Biden’s predecessor.”

The change in American leadership is also awkward for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch ally who didn’t even mention Trump’s name when he condemned the “disgraceful” Capitol riot.

In this January 6, 2021 photo Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepared to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, thousands of people gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Netanyahu’s reluctance to criticize his good friend was not surprising. In the past four years, Trump has showered Netanyahu with diplomatic gifts, from recognizing the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to delivering a series of diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab countries.

But Netanyahu may also have been wary of criticizing tactics that he himself uses against his enemies. Like Trump, Netanyahu frequently rails against the media and belittles opponents with language seen as racist or incendiary. On trial for corruption charges, Netanyahu also lashes out at the country’s democratic institutions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu arrived at the opening of his trial last year with an entourage of lawmakers and Cabinet ministers, who stood behind him as he accused the media, police, prosecutors and judiciary of conspiring to oust him in a coup. More recently, Netanyahu has remained silent as supporters have been accused in attacks on anti-Netanyahu demonstrators.

Israel’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin, implored citizens to learn lessons from the US turmoil and remember that democracy “is not to be taken for granted.”

US President Donald Trump (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after giving final remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before Trump departure, on May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

“The right to vote, the voice of the citizen exercising their democratic rights, alongside the strength of the judiciary and maintaining the rule of law, must be principles shared by us all,” he said.

In Britain, there are also warnings that authoritarianism and “post-truth” provocation have seeped into the country’s political bloodstream.

Neil O’Brien, a Conservative lawmaker who debunks anti-science posts online, said Britons would be wrong to see events in the Capitol as a uniquely American crisis.

He said Britain, too, has conspiracy theorists who have clashed with police at demonstrations against coronavirus lockdowns — and politicians who “flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.”

O’Brien wrote that the mayhem in Washington “happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-term decisions to feed the beast, and play along.”

“Don’t think it couldn’t happen here,” he said.

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