Israeli Elections Reveal Netanyahu and Trump’s Love-Hate Relationship
1. Trump’s not-so-special pre-election gift
It’s the season of giving—political giving. With three days to go until the Israeli elections, Donald Trump finally delivered his traditional pre-election present to Netanyahu. It was a modest, some would say disappointing, gift from a president known for his larger-than-life gestures.
After showering Netanyahu in the past with the crown jewels of American diplomacy—the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—this time around, all Trump could offer was a promise, wrapped in an unceremonious Saturday morning tweet.
“I had a call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries. I look forward to continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month!” Trump tweeted.
That’s it? A phone call, to “discuss the possibility” of a treaty? To be continued after the elections?
There wasn’t much to chew on in Trump’s offer. A mutual defense treaty could be a valuable gift to an ally. It cements the military relationship, secures support in times of need and can serve as the ultimate insurance policy for a small nation in a tough neighborhood.But for that to happen, the offer needs to be serious, and the sides need to be willing to accept.
Trump’s tweet is anything but serious. A mutual defense treaty requires lengthy negotiations, detailed understanding and Senate approval. An announcement regarding the “possibility of moving forward” with a treaty means just that—there’s a possibility the sides will move forward on this issue. Given Trump’s track record on international agreements and his tireless efforts to get America out of treaties it has already signed and ratified, it’s even harder to see these discussions ever reaching an actual treaty.
Even more important is the deeper question: Does Israel want such a treaty?
A strict mutual defense treaty could, on the one side, tie Israel’s hands when dealing with its adversaries and could, on the other side, draw Israel into U.S.-led conflicts that it has no interest in. As former Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin summed it up: ”A defense treaty with the US would strengthen Israel’s deterrence, but its costs will outweigh its benefits.”
2. But can Bibi make use of it?
No gesture from the president of the United States is too small to ignore or too insignificant to use in a tight political race. Netanyahu did just that in his Saturday night tweets and his interview blitz across Israeli TV studios. He praised the gesture, mocked his rivals for not having strong allies and scolded the media for not reporting on his latest achievement.
And even though Trump’s gesture may be an empty one and carry zero practical significance, the fact that the American president feels the need to intervene in favor of a candidate in a foreign country does help drive home Netanyahu’s main campaign line, which is that his close relations with Trump are an asset unmatched by his rivals.
The voters may not care much about the intricate questions involving a potential future mutual defense treaty, but they do care about a prime minister who has the backing of the U.S. president.
3. Bibi’s new take: Only I can save Israel from Trump
And this is where Netanyahu’s tactics take an interesting turn.
In the past, the Israeli prime minister boasted that his close friendship with Trump (remember those giant banners of the two leaders shaking hands?) is the reason Trump has adopted and maintained a strong pro-Israel, pro-Likud stance. It is this friendship that secured steps such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Now, with Trump waffling on the Iran issue (and possibly heading toward a one-on-one with Iranian president Rouhani and a partial lifting of the sanctions) and with the imminent rollout of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, the narrative has changed. Netanyahu’s close friendship with Trump is no longer presented to the Israeli public as the force behind the American president’s pro-Israel approach, but rather as the only force that can stop Trump from going ahead with his plans. “If, as you say, Trump wants to change his direction,” Netanyahu said in an interview with IDF Radio last week, “who will influence him more? [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz?” He then added: “There’s no one who has influenced and still influences on the tough [U.S.] policy against Iran, than yours truly.”
In other words, what Netanyahu is telling voters is that only a close friend of Trump, like himself, can stop Trump from being Trump.
4. Countdown to the “deal of the century” launch
The clock is ticking with the latest deadline for the most postponed peace plan in history quickly approaching. The Trump administration still insists that the “deal of the century” (also referred to as a “vision” by outgoing peace negotiator Jason Greenblatt) will be rolled out “after the elections in Israel.” Does this mean Wednesday morning? Or after the official results are declared a week later? Or after a new coalition is formed anywhere between two weeks to two months from now? There’s a lot of wiggle room. Reason has it that the plan will be revealed only after Israel has a new government, but reason hasn’t always been the guiding rule for peace negotiations.
5. Israel spying in the U.S.? Again?
A bombshell story in Politico last week accused Israel of running a bold spying operation in the heart of Washington by using cell phone towers to track calls and messages of Trump administration officials.
Everyone, from Netanyahu to Trump, denied there was any truth to the story, and many experts doubted the plausibility of the spying scenario it describes. At JTA, Ron Kampeas provided valuable background and analysis on Israeli spying in America.
But even though the consensus is that Israel may be in the clear, at least this time, there’s a nagging truth that creeps up every time such an allegation is raised: There are people in U.S. intelligence agencies that still see Israel as the immediate suspect whenever a spying scandal breaks out. Some of it has to do with Israel’s troubling past on this front, some has to do with its capabilities in the field and some may have to do with a deep-rooted belief that Israelis (and by extension, American Jews) cannot be trusted.