Trump quotes confirm what we saw: He never quite bought Netanyahu’s Palestinian line

In bombshell interviews with journalist Barak Ravid, candid, ruthless ex-US president shows how readily he could be won over… and how swiftly he could turn from ally to adversary

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to the press on the West Wing Colonnade prior to meetings at the White House in Washington, DC, January 27, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to the press on the West Wing Colonnade prior to meetings at the White House in Washington, DC, January 27, 2020. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Donald Trump’s astoundingly candid interviews earlier this year with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, excerpts from which were broadcast on Israeli television over the weekend, confirm how thoroughly the former US president led from the gut, how readily he could be won over and, equally, how swiftly he could turn from ally to adversary.

The nastiest and most dismissive comment broadcast to date was Trump’s “Fuck Bibi” rejection of the Israeli prime minister with whom he was ostensibly so closely aligned during their shared years in power — an ally cast aside for the ostensible crime of having too quickly congratulated Joe Biden on his campaign victory.

In fact, Netanyahu was hugely invested in Trump’s reelection: his thwart-Iran strategy depended upon it; the US president was looking to bolster Israel’s regional legitimacy by expanding the Abraham Accords, and the prime minister was buoyed politically by his purported personal chemistry with the American leader.

The taped Netanyahu congratulation message to Biden that so infuriated Trump must have been deeply discomfiting for the prime minister to issue, and it was far from immediate. Indeed, his initial tweet did not call Biden the president-elect and didn’t actually specify that Biden had won. As Netanyahu’s office noted this weekend, however, ultimately he simply had to praise Biden’s victory, regardless of the fact that Trump has never accepted it, for the wider sake of US-Israel relations.

While Trump’s fury at Netanyahu boiled over at the sight of the prime minister daring to acknowledge the presidential election result he continues to deny, Ravid’s interviews underline that everything was far from rosy in the Trump-Netanyahu garden a long, long time earlier.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, indeed, Trump had indicated from the very start of his presidency that he was no supporter of Netanyahu’s determined policy of settlement expansion, telling his great financial backer Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom newspaper, jaw-droppingly, back in February 2017: “They [settlements] don’t help the process… Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”

US President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)

That attitude never changed, with Trump vouchsafing to Ravid that he had personally blocked Netanyahu’s bid to annex much of the West Bank after his 2020 peace plan was unveiled: “I got angry and I stopped it, because that was really going too far. That was going way too far, you know, when [Netanyahu] did the big ‘Let’s build. Let’s take everything and just start building on it.’ We were not happy about that.”

Similarly, the ex-US president’s gentle remarks hailing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as “so nice,” “almost like a father,” and “definitely” a partner for a deal, reflect precisely what he indicated publicly on the final day of his 2017 visit to Israel, when he spoke at the Israel Museum hours after Abbas had hosted him in Bethlehem.

Trump had quite evidently decided that the courteous Abbas was a potential peace partner, while coming to believe that it was actually Netanyahu who might not be. “I know you’ve heard it before,” he said that day in May, when discussing the Palestinians and their leadership, in a departure from his prepared text. “I am telling you. That’s what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.”

Flash forward to Ravid’s interviews, and Trump repeats time and again that he became convinced Netanyahu “did not want to make peace. Never did.” And then he adds, in perhaps the most devastating single sentence of the interviews excerpted thus far: “I [had] thought the Palestinians were impossible, and the Israelis would do anything to make peace and a deal. I found that not to be true.”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stand for their national anthems during an arrival ceremony ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Trump the impulsive, Trump the dealmaker, Trump the president of instant action, makes clear in the interviews that he quit the Iran deal because he decided the maximum pressure path was the right way to tackle the ayatollahs and prevent Israel’s destruction. Ahead of endorsing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights in 2019, he says he asked then-ambassador David Friedman for “a five-minute lecture on the Golan” but cut it short after one minute because he got the picture: “It’s up high, strategically so important, right.”

Evidently, nobody gave Trump the five-minute lecture on why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fairly complicated — that the Israel to which he stressed his attachment indeed needs a deal to separate from the Palestinians and maintain its Jewish and democratic nature, that expanding settlements deep in the West Bank undermines this, but that relinquishing adjacent territory has proved a recipe for disaster in Gaza and southern Lebanon, and that Abbas, however nice or fatherly, has done nothing to prepare his people for the compromises essential to an accord.

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

Indeed, it must be a blow to the articulate, persuasive Netanyahu to hear that the president he liked to think was firmly in his corner was apparently unconvinced of even a centrist Israeli approach to the Palestinian conflict, much less the right-wing stance.

It’s really quite the curveball, that line: “I [had] thought the Palestinians were impossible, and the Israelis would do anything to make peace and a deal. I found that not to be true.”

It’s a devastating jolt to those who supported Trump because of his ostensible Israeli right-wing instincts, and a veritable bombshell for the blame-Israel camp, who loathed Trump as an ideological enemy and now hear that, actually, instinctively, in his gut, maybe he wasn’t.

But then again, maybe Trump would be saying something different if he cared to remember that Abbas boycotted his administration for its final three years in protest of its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, preemptively rejected his peace plan, and condemned the nations signing on to the Abraham Accords. And that Abbas indicated the boycott was immediately over in his congratulatory message to Biden, as some Palestinians celebrated Trump’s defeat with dancing in the street.

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