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Why Trump’s Love Affair With Netanyahu Won’t Last

Aaron David Miller image

These two men are destined to clash. Bet on it.

Why Trump’s Love Affair With Netanyahu Won’t Last

As Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu prepare to meet this week in Washington, it’s hard not to conclude that the U.S.-Israeli relationship has entered a new and happier era. The Israeli prime minister’s feuds with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, were legendary—and by the end of Obama’s term, the two men were barely speaking. But amid the sounds of popping champagne corks and cheering in Washington and Jerusalem, listen carefully and you just might hear the distant rumblings of less happy times to come.

I’ve been through several administration transitions before that marked a dramatic change in the U.S.-Israeli relationship from tough to happier times. Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton come to mind, though even then there were serious U.S.-Israeli tensions. Still, rarely have I seen a transition quite like this.

The clock hadn’t even run out on Obama before the president-elect was already signaling change the Israelis could believe in. Trump’s public criticism of Obama’s December U.N. vote condemning Israeli settlements, the nomination of the pro-settlement David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel and the Trump team’s repeated statements expressing support for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem all seemed to say that this new president would have Israel’s back no matter what. During the campaign, Trump vowed to be the “most pro-Israeli president ever,” but so far it’s not entirely clear what he means by that.

Governing Isn’t Campaigning

No American president—not even the galactically idiosyncratic Donald Trump—can escape the political laws of gravity that govern the transition from the campaign trail to the White House. I’ve seen these laws in action under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Several factors—the cruel realities of governing; counsel from new advisers; demands from foreign leaders; regrets about making the commitments to begin with; and the terrifying realization that there’s now no net if you lose your balance and fall—all temper the timing and substance of what was promised.

This is especially true on a highly emotive and political issue like Israel, where candidates can get carried away and tend to promise more than they can and may want to deliver. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, after all, both promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and they ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the risk. And even in Trumpland, that walkback is occurring: In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Hayom—his first as president—Trump sounded like any of his predecessors: dodging the embassy issue and criticizing settlements as not good for peace.

No American president—not even the galactically idiosyncratic Donald Trump—can escape the political laws of gravity that govern the transition from the campaign trail to the White House.

Trump may end up moving the embassy, but clearly he’s coming to realize the idea is more fraught than he first imagined, and he appears to have put it on hold. To the surprise of many, myself included, his administration has issued a statement on Israeli settlements that would have been recognizable and acceptable to its predecessors. It’s hardly a James Baker-like blast on the settlements enterprise, and I’d bet that it was cleared with the Israelis. But it did caution Israel not to build new settlements or expand existing ones beyond their current borders. It signaled, particularly in the run-up to the Netanyahu visit, that there are limits to the administration’s new love affair with Israel.

Other, more sober voices are also being heard— Jordan’s King Abdullah, who wasn’t scheduled to meet with the president but did before the settlements statement was issued, may have weighed in on the Jerusalem issue. Trump and his team have also held a series of calls with Gulf leaders who probably delivered the same message. We don’t know what role, if any, Secretaries of Defense and State James Mattis and Rex Tillerson have played. But in the case of Mattis, who has strongly opposed the settlements enterprise—even opining that it could lead to apartheid—we can expect red, not green lights on early moves that are gratuitously “pro-Israeli.” And as an oilman with long experience in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Tillerson is also likely to urge restraint when it comes to adopting positions that might undermine U.S. equities with key Arab states.

So it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that the Trump administration is going to let Bib do whatever he wants, particularly when it comes to settlements, or morph into the U.S. branch of the Likud party. In fact, if reports that the Trump administration is considering an approach on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that accords a central role to key Arab states are true, then the administration has no intention of alienating the Arabs by tilting all the way over to Israel’s side.

Israel’s Right Overplays Its Hand

If the realities of governing may toughen up Trump’s views of Israel, then the current dynamic of Israeli politics will reinforce them. Henry Kissinger famously remarked that Israel had no foreign policy, just domestic politics. This is a bit of an overstatement, but when it comes to Netanyahu, not by much. Assuming he survives the rumors of indictment now swirling around him, next year Netanyahu will surpass David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s founding leader and greatest statesman) as Israel’s longest-governing prime minister. Often perceived abroad as a bold, risk-ready ideologue, the real Netanyahu is a cautious, risk-averse political survivor. And his longevity and the absence so far of a compelling challenger in the rough and tumble world of Israeli politics bears this out.

Netanyahu fears not a hollowed out and discredited Labor Party or some popular ex-general, but an emboldened and empowered Israeli right. To guard his right flank, in 2015 he assembled the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. In so doing, he solved a short-term political problem and created a governing problem: Far from leading it, let alone dictating to it, the prime minister finds himself at times a veritable hostage, the most moderate member of his own Likud Party and vulnerable to a challenge from the right. His current nemesis is Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of Jewish Home, an avowedly pro-settler party that rejects a two-state solution. Bennett, a charismatic tech executive who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, aspires to lead the Israeli right, if not the country itself. And given the unpredictability of coalition politics, Netanyahu’s strategy has never been to confront the opposition’s hardline pro-settlement policies but to try to delay, coopt or simply endorse them.

We saw this dynamic play out last week with the passage of legislation pushed by Bennett to enable the government to expropriate private Palestinian land—a move that would invite international censure and could be thrown out by Israel’s Supreme Court. Netanyahu had warned Bennett of the risks of moving now, particularly ahead of his meeting with Trump, yet he proceeded to support the legislation, arguing he had never tried to delay the vote. This pattern is likely to repeat itself as it has so many times during the prime minister’s career. An emboldened Israeli right is likely to push hard for its agenda, energized by a Trump administration whose putative nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel espouses annexation of parts of the West Bank and contributes financially to settlements.

The odds that the right-wing elements of the current Israeli government might push to do something that will annoy and anger even a solidly pro-Israeli Trump administration are quite high. For example, Bennett has advocated annexing settlement blocs and uninhabited parts of the West Bank under Israel’s control. In fact, Trump’s seeming friendliness has put Netanyahu in a tough position by removing a compelling talking point for restraining the Israeli right. But there’s a problem for Trump here, too: If forced to choose between peace with the United States and peace within his ruling coalition over some crisis provoked by the right wing, it’s clear which way Netanyahu will go. Remaining prime minister is his prime directive.

Don’t Diss My Son-in-law (or Me)

In one of the strangest twists in the saga of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Trump has opined publicly on several occasions that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would be his point man on negotiating a peace deal. I only wish my father-in law-had that much confidence in me. If this suggestion is really serious (and like so many other aspects of the Trump presidency, it’s hard to know), it puts the peace process squarely in the White House and in the hands of Kushner—not just a member of the Trump family; but someone who by all accounts is one of the president’s closest advisers.

Whatever role Kushner plays (he’s said to be meeting with Arab ambassadors) and regardless of the chances of a breakthrough (right now near zero), Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is clearly on this president’s radar screen. Trump sees himself as a master dealmaker, and Mideast peace is the ultimate deal—it calls to American presidents like a siren from the rocks.

What kind of priority Trump attaches to the Israeli-Palestinian issue right now is really beside the point, however. What matters is this: In the past, when you put Netanyahu, the peace process and the U.S. in the same sentence, things usually got messy, awkward, and unpleasant and they rarely worked out. (There’s plenty of blame to go around here—the Palestinians screw things up big time, too.) But Netanyahu knows that the farther the peace process goes, the greater the danger to his own deeply held views on avoiding concessions on Jerusalem and the greater the threat to keeping his base and coalition intact and thus staying in power.

The administration is said to be looking at an Israeli approach long pushed by his close confidant ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. Dubbed “inside out,” the strategy would put the Arab states in a central role, using their leverage and influence to lean on the Palestinians to make concessions. The Israelis have been whispering for some time now that a shared fear of Iran is pushing Israel and Arab states together, and they’re eager to test the limits of this tacit alliance.

Still, hard-won experience teaches us that for this regional strategy to have any chance, Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas would have to make tough decisions—on borders, on security arrangements, on the settlements, and more—at a time when both have been avoiding them. This is a certainty. What we don’t know is where the unpredictable Trump is.

It’s fascinating, however, to consider the early statements of candidate Trump on this issue, before the March 2016 AIPAC speech where he pivoted to generic pro-Israeli talking points. Before that speech, candidate Trump was saying things that prompted me to quip that if he lost to Hillary Clinton, he could have easily been her secretary of state. The ideas that came through in those early days—I’ll be neutral between the Israelis and Palestinians; I’m not going to respond to questions about moving the U.S. Embassy; settlements are a problem; good negotiators don’t show their hand—reflect the real Donald Trump, or at least the dealmaker, not presidential candidate trying to win an election.

Might we see those qualities and the negotiator’s temperament they reflect again? The president keeps talking not just about his son-in-law’s peacemaking skills; but also about his own and how honored he’d be to try his hand. Right now, the entire proposition seems pretty fantastical, a kind of ego throw-away line.

But let’s be clear: In Trump and Netanyahu we are dealing with two difficult and combustible personalities who, despite their radically different backgrounds, have much in common—and that may not be such a good thing.

But should the Israeli-Palestinian impasse—either through crisis or perhaps via some opportunity involving key Arab states—offer up real urgency and prospects for success, Netanyahu might find himself squaring off against a U.S. president that will ask him to do things he may not want to do and that run against his domestic political constraints. To have any chance of getting Palestinian or Arab state buy-in, Washington would have to be credible, and this means addressing Palestinian needs by pressing the Israelis to do or commit to something serious. Even more troubling from Netanyahu’s perspective would be a U.S. proposal with the Trump name on it that the prime minister rejected or said “yes, but.” Trump is not as easy to demonize within Israel and on the American right as Obama was—the prime minister can ill afford to get in his way, lest he get run over by him.

Clashing Personas?

And this brings us to the intriguing question of how Trump and Netanyahu will actually get along. In his Israel Hayom interview, Trump said the two had good chemistry and that Netanyahu was a good man. It’s hard to see Netanyahu or any foreign leader as best friends with Trump, however—he’s a man who trusts few and never forgets a perceived slight. Just take a look at his recent decision to reject his own secretary of state’s pick of Elliot Abrams as his deputy because of criticism of candidate Trump during the campaign. Given the bond between Israel and America, estrangement isn’t an option. Even the tense ties between Obama and Netanyahu didn’t come to that.

This week’s visit is certain to be all smiles and happy talk. Both leaders have a stake in demonstrating that a new day in U.S.-Israeli relations has dawned. And what I call the buffer team—of Dermer on the Israeli side and Kushner and Friedman on the U.S.—will serve as an important channel of communication that will seek to smooth out the bumps.

But let’s be clear: In Trump and Netanyahu we are dealing with two difficult and combustible personalities who, despite their radically different backgrounds, have much in common—and that may not be such a good thing.

Netanyahu is willful and brash. After his first meeting with Netanyahu in the summer of 1996, President Clinton, annoyed by Netanyahu’s assertiveness, wondered aloud: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Netanyahu is by nature and given his experience in Israeli politics, suspicious and mistrustful too. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was fond of saying that all Israelis prime ministers sleep with one eye open. If it were possible, Netanyahu would sleep with both open. And American presidents are high on the list of those keeping him awake, both because like many Israeli prime ministers he fears U.S. pressure and because he has worried that specific U.S. administrations have somehow been out to undermine him personally, sometimes with justification. Jim Baker temporarily banned then deputy foreign minister Netanyahu from the State Department for accusing the administration of lying. And during the 1996 Israeli elections, the Clinton administration clearly signaled its preference for a win by the late Shimon Peres, whom he rightly judged to be more flexible on a deal with the Palestinians. The U.S. would go on to broker a couple of Israeli-Palestinian agreements during the Clinton years, but the Netanyahu relationship with the administration would remain a testy one.

Now, put Netanyahu together with what we’ve seen of Trump as candidate, nominee and president. The need to win. The hypersensitivity to criticism. The compulsion to hit back when criticized. Add a touch of tension, some suspicion over a promise undertaken and not kept, or an Israeli no when Washington wanted a yes, and there’s no telling what might happen. One can only imagine how a President Trump would have responded to Netanyahu’s 2015 end run around the White House over the Iran deal. Working together, these two might constitute a formidable pair. But at odds with one another, they’d make Obama and Netanyahu look like pussycats. And in any contest of wills, my money would be on Trump.

One might argue that with Obama gone, there’s nowhere for the U.S.-Israeli relationship to go but up. Tensions over the Iran issue will abate; the administration may well be inclined to try to coordinate with Israel on some kind of regional approach on peacemaking; and right now there just isn’t anything to fight over.

But the Middle East is full of surprises. And while Israel and the U.S. share a remarkable degree of shared values as fellow democracies, they do live on different planets and are driven by different sets of security risks and threats that will make it hard to produce—either on Iran or the peace process—a coincidence of interest across the board. And this is particularly the case with a an always-suspicious Israeli prime minister, hypersensitive to his domestic politics, presiding over a right-wing government, and leading a country that faces so many threats still in a dangerous, angry and dysfunctional region of the world.

We’re not necessarily heading for the sequel to the Obama-Netanyahu soap opera; but there’s no guarantee of a new honeymoon in U.S.-Israeli relations either. Indeed, for all the reasons identified above, I’m betting that within a year or so—and it might not take that long—Trump and Netanyahu will be annoying the hell out of one another. And then what?

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in Politico Magazine.

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more