Is Trump Inching Away From Netanyahu?

By | Sep 23, 2019
Israel, Latest, Moment's DC Dispatch

Five things to know this week from the nation’s capital.
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1. Was Trump the first to see Netanyahu’s fall?

Multi-party parliamentary politics is difficult to grasp for those coming from a presidential, two-party system. But by now, it’s probably safe to assume that most Americans following the results of last week’s elections in Israel have already figured out the main theme: The winner is the candidate who secures a coalition, not necessarily the head of the party that got the most votes.

With that caveat in mind, it’s still safe to say that Tuesday’s elections dealt Benny Gantz a better hand than Netanyahu. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is down—not out, but definitely down.

The next few weeks will have ups and downs for both Likud and Blue and White. Both parties will be on the precipice of defeat, and then they’ll make a surprising comeback, only to see another setback. Right now, the most likely scenario is this drama ending, a month or two from now, with a national unity government. Will Netanyahu be part of it? That’s the big question that makes it worthwhile to stick around until the end of the show.

But at least one player isn’t going to wait.

Donald Trump, while not yet making any clear statement, has been acting since Tuesday as if the Netanyahu era is over.

Much has been said about Trump’s first reaction after election results came in. “Our relationship is with Israel,” he said plainly, not mentioning Netanyahu in a word. Spectators were quick to pounce on the statement, arguing that Trump, upon realizing that his buddy from Jerusalem was in trouble, was the first to give him the cold shoulder.

And it does seem a little unusual, given all we know about Trump and Netanyahu. While for any other American president, stressing the relationship between the two nations rather than choosing political winners and losers could come across just right, this was not the case with Trump. He had repeatedly expressed support for Netanyahu in the past and went out of his way to get him elected. Add to that Trump’s underwhelming pre-election promise for a possible mutual defense treaty, and you may see a new conclusion emerging: Trump could be losing faith in Netanyahu, or just losing interest in Bibi’s endless political struggles.

At the end of the day, the unlikely political friendship between the Fifth Avenue real-estate magnate turned entertainer and the security-minded hardliner from Jerusalem is based solely on mutual interests: Netanyahu found an ally in the White House willing to advance his hawkish nationalistic agenda, and Trump discovered a friend who can help him win a percentage of single-issue, pro-Israel Jews and strengthen his already strong support among white evangelical Christians.

These benefits have now been exhausted, at least for Trump. His title as the most pro-Likud, pro-settler American president is unchallenged. Trump will go down in history not only as the first U.S. president to recognize Jerusalem and the Golan Heights but more importantly, as the first two-state skeptic to occupy the White House. Trump’s voters already know that, and for those who will vote in 2020 based on this issue, Trump has done enough to prove the point.

The president is now all about making history as a world leader, as a dealmaker on the international stage. North Korea didn’t provide him with that opportunity. The “plan of the century” for Israeli-Palestinian peace will also not lead him to the Nobel Peace Prize podium, but there’s still a chance with Iran. Trump is eager to negotiate, and he is willing to go the extra mile to reach it. Such a deal looks like a long shot right now, but conditions might change, and when they do, Netanyahu will only be a burden on Trump.

2. Trump-Gantz—how will that work?

Sticking to the scenario of Benny Gantz either forming a center-left coalition or heading a national unity government begs the question: How will he get along with Trump?

There’s no clear answer here. Trump is used to Netanyahu’s endless flattering (he even named a town after him) and his willingness to shield Trump when Jewish Americans claimed he was legitimizing and empowering anti-Semites. 

Benny Gantz is different. His awkward public demeanor doesn’t lend itself to over the top gestures such as Netanyahu’s, so expect no gushing over Trump.

But in terms of working relations, there’s nothing in Blue and White’s platform, or in Gantz’s priorities, that should cause problems with Trump. Spending his career in the military, Gantz views the importance of Israel’s strategic relationship with the U.S. as paramount and will do nothing to shake it. He is also unlikely, especially not in a national unity government, to advance any far-reaching peace plan that could irk Trump’s voter base or his right-wing circle of Israel advisers. 

3. A non-Orthodox government could advance issues concerning U.S. Jews

The term “national unity” may be a bit misleading. It only means unity between Blue and White and the Likud. This unity, if it becomes reality, will leave most other parties outside, including the two ultra-Orthodox factions and the right-wing national-Orthodox party. 

For American Jews, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance many issues they care about, including egalitarian prayer, equality for non-Orthodox denominations and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, all without having Orthodox parties there to block any such move. 

But it won’t be that easy. The Likud, in a national unity government, will likely oppose most of these measures, viewing them as unacceptable by their more conservative base and eyeing future alliances with the Orthodox. Blue and White will have to fight for these causes, and given everything we’ve seen in recent decades, concerns of the American Jewish community are not an issue Israeli politicians are willing to fight for.

4. The role American Jews can play in legitimizing Israeli Arab parties

Even before outlines of the future coalition become clear, it is apparent that a tectonic shift has already occurred: Arab citizens of Israel have changed course. They voted en masse for the Joint List, which, for the first time in Israeli history, supported a bid by a Jewish-Zionist politician, in this case, Gantz, to form the next government.

This could mark the turning point in the way Arab Israelis are viewed, and the way they view themselves. In this long road toward equality and integration, there’s a surprising role  American Jews can play, and in fact, already are. For the past decades, many Jewish communities and organizations have been engaged in outreach efforts to Israeli Arabs. And while it’s true that the actions of American Jews rarely move the needle in Israeli society, this may be the exception. Partnering with Arab citizens of Israel could send a valuable message to Jewish-Israelis, telling them that, at least from America, they’re all viewed as one nation, with a shared destiny.

5. A word of caution

It’s too early to know anything about Israel’s political future. Keep watching, read all the smart commentators, discuss it with your friends in shul on Rosh Hashanah, but give it time.

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