Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, left, with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York. (photo from Israel’s Government Press Office via Ashernet)
A great deal of diplomacy depends on intangibles like whether the parties involved like or dislike each other. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made little effort to hide his frustration with Barack Obama, the former U.S. president. The feeling was blatantly mutual, as even the most obtuse reader of body language could interpret from photographs of the two men together. Netanyahu and the current resident of the White House … this is whole new meeting of minds.
There are similarities and differences of style and substance between Bibi and Donald Trump. One thing worth noting is that each has their core of stalwart domestic supporters and another, possibly even more virulent, bloc of detesters.
Seeing the two leaders together in New York this week, present for the annual United Nations General Assembly, was a reminder of how big a role mutual affection or irritation between two leaders can affect international relations.
The Israeli prime minister engaged in a Trump-like tweetstorm Monday morning, including this one: “Under your leadership, @realDonaldTrump, the alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”
This may not be true – the relationship has always been extremely tight – but it is certainly true that the alliance between the two countries’ leaders is strong.
It’s always wise for Israeli leaders to seek good relations with the American president, but this particular relationship is double-edged. A recent poll indicated that 21% of American Jews view Trump favourably, while 77% view him unfavourably. This puts Netanyahu in a difficult position of his own choosing – hitching his wagon to a politician who is deeply distrusted by the largest population of Diaspora Jews.
There is also something odd about Netanyahu’s interpretation of the Israel-U.S. relationship. Just a couple of years ago, at the depths of the Netanyahu-Obama snit, commentators wondered if the bilateral relationship had ever been lower. (Calmer heads insisted that, despite the childishness at the top, on every issue of bilateral substance, everything remained tickety-boo.) Now, just 10 months into a new administration, the Israeli leader alleges that the alliance has never been better. Was a change in the White House all it took for things to go from bad to super-awesome? If so, upon what kind of a foundation does this relationship rest? And, what are the metrics?
The reality is that, for reasons pragmatic and ideological, the Israeli-American bond is strong and indivisible. What Netanyahu did in New York this week is simply the flip side of the coin he tossed when Obama was in office. Then, he betrayed diplomatic processes to accept an invitation from U.S. congressional leaders. Now he’s got a man he likes in the White House and he’s throwing bouquets at him. In both instances, he is crudely poking around in the internal politics of the United States, a strategy that has (in ordinary times) about a 50-50 chance of blowing up in a foreign leader’s face. And these are not ordinary times. Trump is a divisive and potentially dangerous figure who is supported by the worst elements in American society, including racists and antisemites. By wrapping himself in Trump’s flag, Netanyahu is playing a risky game.
Even so, coming just hours after the Emmy awards, the Donald and Bibi show had its fleeting moments of humour, if unintentional. To wit, Trump lent his inimitable erudition to the promise of Mideast peace.
“Most people would say there’s no chance whatsoever. I actually think with the capability of Bibi and frankly the other side, I really think we have a chance,” Trump said. “I think Israel would like to see it and I think the Palestinians would like to see it. And I can tell you that the Trump administration would like to see it.”
Apparently we’d all like to see it. Yet every administration since Truman has tried, to one extent or another, to facilitate peace between the Israelis and their neighbours. The best and brightest among the presidents have proved incapable of the task. Is it possible that this one will counterintuitively succeed? The definition of insanity is said to be doing the same thing again and again and anticipating a different outcome. President after president has taken a similar approach to this problem and failed. No one can accuse Trump of doing things the conventional way. And, he’s put his best man on the job – son-in-law Jared Kushner – whose qualifications appear to be, well, mostly matrimonial.
Trump, the self-proclaimed great deal-maker, has repeatedly failed to find any common ground with a House and Senate led by his own party and has so far been able to achieve none of his signature initiatives. A modest achievement like solving the Israeli-Arab conflict would be something worth bragging about. As Trump and Netanyahu plot that little rabbit trick, we will watch with interest or, if you’re a praying person, maybe do that.