AnalysisSo far, not so good

Trouble in paradise? Trump conspicuously absent from Netanyahu’s reelection bid

US president has yet to announce dramatic steps to help the prime minister, in contrast to the weeks before April’s vote. Worse, he’s not just MIA, he’s flirting with Iran

Raphael Ahren

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

A large billboard depicting US President Donald Trump and PM Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 4, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A large billboard depicting US President Donald Trump and PM Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the Likud election campaign, at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 4, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The refrain of Likud’s new election campaign song hails party leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s close ties with the presidents of Russia and the United States.

“Yalla Putin, yalla Trump, come to us to Jerusalem,” Maor Edri sings in a tune that also compares the prime minister to God by claiming that he “neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

The catchy number is just one of many examples of how highlighting Netanyahu’s stature as global statesman has been made a centerpiece of his party’s campaign strategy, ahead of the vote on September 17. Huge billboards showing the prime minister shaking hands with Donald Trump have appeared in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and his social media accounts continue to churn out clips highlighting the US president’s appreciation and affection for the Israeli premier.

But, remarkably, so far Trump has not reciprocated — not with retweets, and, more importantly, not with important diplomatic gestures either.

During the weeks before this year’s first Knesset election, on April 9, the White House made several moves that were seen by many as obvious efforts to help Netanyahu secure reelection. By contrast, in this current election cycle, the US administration has done nothing of the sort, possibly signaling significant cracks in the Trump-Netanyahu bromance.

In early February, the US president shared on Instagram Netanyahu’s post showing a campaign billboard depicting him with the Israeli premier.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by President Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump)

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel at the time that the administration was not endorsing any candidate in the Israeli elections, and explained that the Instagram repost was merely a reflection of the “strong relationship” and ties between Netanyahu and Trump and their “mutual respect.”

There hasn’t been complete silence since April. Indeed after those elections, the president has congratulated Netanyahu on ostensibly winning; then, on June 16 he thanked Netanyahu and the State of Israel for the “great honor” of naming a town in the Golan Heights after him; and on July 21 he congratulated Netanyahu for becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, saying that under his leadership, “Israel has become a technology powerhouse and a world class economy.”

But ahead of this year’s second election, which Netanyahu was forced to call after not being able to cobble together a coalition, Trump has not shared any of the prime minister’s many posts hailing their special bond, and has not dramatically acted to boost his chances.

By the time the last elections entered their final days, the US administration had made several diplomatically significant, even historic, gestures that were likely intended to help Netanyahu’s campaign.

On March 21 — two and a half weeks before Election Day — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Western Wall together with the prime minister. It marked the first time that Washington’s top diplomat visited the Jewish holy site accompanied by a senior Israeli official, in a move that could be seen as tacit American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem’s contested Old City.

Later that day, Trump dropped an even bigger bombshell, announcing his intention to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, upending decades of traditional US policies.

Four days later — 15 days before the Israeli election — Trump welcomed Netanyahu to the White House, where he signed a proclamation stating that the US now “recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.”

The administration made a final potential election gift to Netanyahu on April 8, hours before the polls opened in Israel, when the president officially designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization.

It’s impossible, of course, to determine whether Pompeo praying at the Wall, Trump recognizing the Golan, and his blacklisting of Iranian terrorists swayed anyone’s vote in favor of Netanyahu. But few would deny that the timing of these moves, conspicuously close to the election, suggests that they were intended to tell Israeli voters that their current leader, and his close relationship with the leader of the free world, were good for his country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

But as of this writing, barely a week before the polls open again, the administration has not announced a single pro-Israel move of similar magnitude.

To be sure, the White House continues to be staunchly pro-Israel. It has certainly done nothing to undermine Netanyahu’s candidacy. And it could yet make a drastic gesture to boost his chances, for example releasing former spy Jonathan Pollard, who longs to, but is currently not allowed to come to Israel.

But so far, Trump has not only done nothing extraordinary to help the Israeli premier, he has actually made his life more difficult.

On August 15, after Israel had publicly declared that it would not bar two Muslim Congresswomen — Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — from visiting Israel and the West Bank, Trump tweeted that letting them into the country “would show great weakness.”

Unwilling to antagonize the president, Netanyahu instructed his interior minister to announce that Tlaib and Omar were indeed personae non gratae in Israel, a move that earned him a great deal of criticism, including from US-Jewish organizations and pro-Israel stalwarts in Congress on both sides of the aisle.

“Far from helping Netanyahu, this affair created an impression that the Prime Minister had flipped his decision under US pressure and acted as a Trump lackey. Worse yet, right now Netanyahu finds himself Trump-less,” Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, wrote last month in an op-ed in which he wondered whether “the Trump-Netanyahu bromance fizzled out?”

More immediately worrying, by far, for Israel is America’s apparently imminent rapprochement with Iran. Trump last week said that a meeting with the Islamic Republic’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is “possible.” Since then, administration officials have repeatedly indicated that the president is indeed inclined to agree to a meeting, perhaps already this month, at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

When the idea of a US-Iran summit first came up, last month in France, Netanyahu reportedly made hourlong “frantic” efforts to reach Trump on the phone. But the president was unavailable, which might have been the first time Netanyahu tried but failed to speak to his friend in the Oval Office.

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of speculation about a last-minute major election gift from the administration, which could take the form of a presidential visit or a bilateral defense pact, or at least an announcement about the commencement of talks about such an agreement, or some other kind of presidential statement about America’s abiding commitment to Israel’s security. No formal announcement about any of these options has been made as of this writing.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a Golan Heights proclamation outside the West Wing after a meeting at the White House on March 25, 2019, in Washington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Trump could, of course, tweet something designed to help Netanyahu in the remaining days before Israelis head to the polls. But the fact that he hasn’t done it yet, that he’s flirting with Iran, and reportedly not quickly answering the phone when Netanyahu calls, may indicate that there’s trouble in paradise.

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and persistent Trump critic, offered a possible explanation for the colder-than-lukewarm support Netanyahu has so far received from the White House.

“It’s possible that they’re just waiting for a dramatic gesture in the final phase. But it’s also possible that Trump, who likes to associate himself with winners, feels uncertain about the outcome of the elections and wouldn’t want to be heavily associated with a candidate who is not successful,” Shapiro said.

“But I have long since given up trying to read Donald Trump’s mind,” he added.

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