Analysis

Meeting with candidates, Netanyahu leaves another enigma in his wake

It’s not clear why the PM was so keen to have sit-downs with Trump and Clinton, and whether it will help the GOP candidate as some pundits surmise, or even if that’s what the riddle-master on Balfour Street wants

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Democratic president candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, September 25, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Democratic president candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, September 25, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In early March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned even veteran analysts of the US-Israel relationship when he declined an invite to the White House for a meeting with the most powerful man in the world.

The prime minister had planned to address the annual AIPAC conference in Washington and so his aides asked for a meeting with President Barack Obama. Subsequently, Netanyahu canceled the visit, citing scheduling issues, an upcoming meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and the desire to stay out of the US elections. Several presidential candidates were expected to speak at AIPAC as well and would likely seek meetings with a visiting Israeli prime minister, his aides said, adding that Netanyahu would rather avoid being placed in such potentially awkward situations.

Netanyahu’s move was unprecedented — there is no public record of an Israeli prime minister ever previously rejecting an invitation to meet the president of the United States — and defied explanation, since he could have easily decided to skip the AIPAC conference or simply to decline any meetings with presidential hopefuls. But Netanyahu stayed home, giving birth to yet another (albeit minor) crisis in the US-Israel relationship.

Fast forward seven and a half months. Last week Netanyahu flies to New York for his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly and a meeting with the president. Hours after Netanyahu and Obama shake hands at what is presumably their last official meeting, a senior member of the prime minister’s delegation tells reporters that while so far neither presidential candidate has requested a meeting with Netanyahu, he would be glad to meet with whoever wants to see him.

The comment/offer was not prompted by the gaggle of reporters accompanying the prime minister to New York; it came out of the blue as they were being briefed by the senior official on the nature of Netanyahu’s just-concluded talks with Obama. After the last question had been asked and the journalists were closing their laptops, the senior official wondered, quite audibly, why nobody had asked about the presidential campaign. It was almost as if the prime minister was soliciting the meetings.

Why Netanyahu was so keen on meeting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is as unclear as why he chose to cancel the Obama meeting back in March. Was he trying to establish a deeper channel of communications with the next leader of the free world, whoever he or she will be? Was he feeling short of media attention?

A boost for Trump? Not necessarily

As it turned out, and amid anonymous reports from the PM’s circle that it was Trump’s camp that had sought the closed-door talks, Netanyahu insisted on meeting both candidates lest it be said he favored one over the other. His aides released nearly identical statements after each of Sunday’s meetings — the only differences being that the chat with Trump lasted for “more than an hour” while the one with Clinton was “nearly an hour” but included a discussion of the “potential for economic growth through technological innovation.”

Despite the ostensible balance, some pundits accused Netanyahu of seeking to help the Republican candidate. A meeting with the Israeli prime minister gives Trump international legitimacy and respectability, they argued.

“Only Donald Trump will benefit from Netanyahu placing him on an equal footing with his rival. Only he will require the stamp of kashrut that Netanyahu can give him,” Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz.

Netanyahu “interfered,” agreed Channel 2’s Udi Segal. “Not openly, but he interfered since the meeting with Trump gave the lesser known, less experienced, less statesman-like candidate the opportunity to trip up Hillary Clinton regarding Israel.”

And indeed, although most American Jews are solidly in Clinton’s camp, meeting with Netanyahu gave Trump a chance to highlight his pro-Israel positions and thus the opportunity to make inroads with an important part of the electorate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

While the statements from Netanyahu’s office said nothing substantial, the candidates’ press releases detailed some of their views on Israel and the Middle East. Trump, for instance, promised to “finally accept the long-standing Congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel,” a position sure to endear him to Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and other right-wing friends of the Jewish state who might still be skeptical about the brash business magnate.

Clinton, in her meeting with the prime minister, reiterated her opposition “to any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the UN Security Council,” and vowed to “aggressively counter Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region.” Still, she also promised to implement the nuclear agreement with Iran, a deal Trump has promised to nullify if he becomes president.

The nuances of such statements notwithstanding, it is by no means clear that many, if any, American voters will be influenced by the candidates’ meetings with Netanyahu.

In fact, although Trump’s positions sometimes appear closer to Netanyahu’s heart than Clinton’s, there is some reason to believe that in the upcoming election the prime minister is actually rooting for the Democratic candidate.

Some Republicans say a Clinton presidency would be a third Obama term, which is the last thing Netanyahu wants. But Netanyahu knows the former first lady and ex-secretary of state quite well and might prefer someone with whose policies and character he is familiar, over an unpredictable and often erratic newcomer who publicly toyed with the idea of having Israel pay the US back for its billions in military aid.

The fact that Netanyahu rushed to sign the $38 billion military aid agreement with the outgoing administration earlier this month, rather than holding out for the next president in the hope of more cash, is one indication of Netanyahu’s skepticism of a possible Trump White House.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

Didn’t he want to stay out?

And yet, it remains an enigma why Netanyahu so keenly wanted to insert himself in the US election campaign less than 50 days before Americans head to the polls.

Four years ago, he warmly embraced Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Jerusalem in what was widely regarded as an endorsement. Many analysts considered the friendly meeting as one of the main early reasons for the frosty relationship with Obama, Romney’s rival, although Netanyahu has always denied favoring one candidate over another.

Given the awkward consequence of his meeting with Romney, one would have expected Netanyahu to painstakingly avoid any move thereafter that could be interpreted as meddling in US elections. Only weeks ago, Netanyahu said he was being very careful not to be seen as taking a stance.

But then again, as his odd decision to cancel the Obama meeting in March showed, when it comes to US politics, Netanyahu is playing by his own set of rules.

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