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Does Israel's Netanyahu have a Donald Trump problem?

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For opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, 2019 was a simpler time. He was still prime minister after a decade in office, and it seemed inevitable that he would remain that way after the election set for March of that year. Every poll indicated a clear-cut right-wing majority in the Knesset. There had never been two elections in a row without any government formed in between, let alone three.

The campaign was simpler, as well. There was no global pandemic or Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent supply chain disruptions and inflation messing up the economy. Netanyahu could campaign as Mr. Security, as always, and this time, he had a not-so-secret weapon, then-president of the US Donald Trump. After all, Netanyahu and Trump made sure everyone knew that they were best buddies; no Israeli prime minister had ever worked so closely with a US president, and no president had ever been so pro-Israel, was the message.

As such, Trump featured prominently in the Likud campaign. He was with Netanyahu on billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, proclaiming that the latter is in “another league.” He was featured in Likud campaign videos, as well, declaring US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

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Fast-forward to 2022. Israel is on the way to a fifth election in less than four years. Netanyahu is no longer running from the position of strength in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Israel’s economy is doing relatively well compared to others in the OECD, but it has been bruised by the pandemic and war in Ukraine, and prices are sharply rising.

A LIKUD CAMPAIGN poster in Jerusalem featuring the Trump- Netanyahu bond. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

And the honeymoon with Trump is long over.

With former senior adviser to the US president Jared Kushner strategically distributing unflattering excerpts from his highly anticipated Breaking History: A White House Memoir to the media, it is no longer clear whether Trump is an asset or a hindrance to Netanyahu.

For nearly a year, it seemed that the Netanyahu-Trump bromance was over because Netanyahu congratulated President Joe Biden on his election win in 2020. That was the reason Trump said “f*** him” to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid; Trump falsely claimed Netanyahu was one of the first to celebrate Biden’s win, and made it clear he felt personally betrayed.

That was easily excusable from Netanyahu’s end. Netanyahu waited until the morning after the election was called for Biden, facing criticism from some of the Israeli media for the delay. And the US-Israel relationship is too important to snub the president, even if it was clear to all that Netanyahu would have liked Trump to win.

But now the story is not about Trump’s election denial and bruised ego; it’s about strategic decisions relating to Israel’s future, its security and its strategic alliance with the US.

Trump, Netanyahu, annexation and Palestinians

Trump presented his peace plan on January 28, 2020. In brief, the plan included Israel extending its sovereignty – annexation – over the parts of the West Bank in which Israelis already live, plus the entire Jordan Valley, which would serve as a security buffer. The rest would be reserved for the Palestinians, which would have a four-year period to develop into a democratic society before the US would support statehood.

Netanyahu announced in his speech in the White House that Trump “became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria” and that “Israel will apply its laws to the Jordan Valley, [and] to all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.”

This angered Trump and Kushner, who expected Israel to annex only along with steps advancing Palestinian statehood. Trump also said he felt “dirty” because “Bibi gave a campaign speech,” Kushner wrote.

In the ensuing hours, Netanyahu’s spokesman tweeted that they would annex the relevant parts of the West Bank within days, and Netanyahu and then-ambassador to the US Ron Dermer confirmed that to the Israeli press gathered at Blair House. The US ambassador to Israel at the time, David Friedman, said Israel can start work toward annexation the moment it completes its internal process, which, together with the statements from Netanyahu’s side, was taken to mean a cabinet vote five days later.

“As it turned out, Friedman had assured Bibi that he would get the White House to support annexation more immediately. He had not conveyed this to me or anyone on my team,” Kushner wrote.

“As it turned out, Friedman had assured Bibi that he would get the White House to support annexation more immediately. He had not conveyed this to me or anyone on my team.”

Jared Kushner

Friedman described a “difficult and unpleasant meeting” with Kushner and Netanyahu in his book, Sledgehammer, released earlier this year. Kushner said a joint US-Israeli committee has to map out the territory first. Netanyahu said the Jordan Valley didn’t need more mapping. Kushner said “we never discussed that.”

“Everyone was telling the truth,” Friedman wrote.

Friedman and Netanyahu walked back their earlier statements, but days later, Trump was still “fuming” and considered endorsing now-Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Kushner wrote.

When Netanyahu and Dermer pushed to rush annexation, Kushner said, he gave the ambassador the following speech: “Don’t take us for granted. We worked our asses off for three years to get to this point. For the first time, Israel has the moral high ground. You’re offering the Palestinians a state and a map that Arab countries actually support as a starting point for negotiations. But now it’s all screwed up. You guys think you have been so effective with this administration. I hate to break the reality to you, but we didn’t do any of these things because you convinced us to. We did them because we believe they were the right things to do.”

“Don’t take us for granted. We worked our asses off for three years to get to this point. For the first time, Israel has the moral high ground. You’re offering the Palestinians a state and a map that Arab countries actually support as a starting point for negotiations. But now it’s all screwed up. You guys think you have been so effective with this administration. I hate to break the reality to you, but we didn’t do any of these things because you convinced us to. We did them because we believe they were the right things to do.”

Jared Kushner

Once the mapping process was completed, Kushner and then-special representative for international negotiations Avi Berkowitz would not give Netanyahu the green light to proceed with sovereignty moves, because the prime minister would not offer any concessions to the Palestinians. Friedman wrote of Netanyahu agreeing to a moratorium on Israeli construction in the areas of the West Bank that were not within the sovereignty map, but Kushner seems to have thought so little of that idea that he did not even mention it in his nearly 500-page book.

Kushner and Berkowitz were so frustrated and so concerned that Netanyahu might unilaterally declare annexation that they said they would not protect Israel from the inevitable backlash, threatening that “there was no guarantee that our administration would block the international sanctions against Israel that might follow.”

The book also describes Netanyahu as being difficult in the Abraham Accords process. Netanyahu twice almost gave up on the accords.

At one point, Netanyahu said he would drop annexation plans only if three Arab countries normalized ties with Israel.

“Remind him that he doesn’t have annexation without us,” Kushner said.

Another time, Netanyahu almost called off the Abraham Accords because a bill banning someone indicted of crimes from becoming prime minister was heading to a vote to the Knesset, and he was ready to call an election to stop it from becoming law.

“I know Bibi will put what’s best for Israel before his political situation,” Kushner said he hold Dermer. “We’ve come too far; we’re so close. This deal is happening.”

Trump and Netanyahu: A far less rosy picture in reality

ALL OF this adds up to a much less rosy picture than what Netanyahu would like of his relationship with Trump, who was exceedingly popular in Israel during his presidency – though there have not been polls since Trump left office.

Netanyahu sent a response to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday unequivocally denying that he surprised Kushner and Trump by announcing that he planned to extend Israeli sovereignty to 30% of Judea and Samaria.

Trump and Netanyahu exchanged letters, Netanyahu said via a spokesman. Trump’s letter said the US would support a declaration of sovereignty, and Netanyahu’s response said he would move forward with that declaration “in the coming days.” The spokesman would not provide copies of the letters.

The spokesman also pointed out that Trump said in his speech that the US and Israel “will form a joint committee with Israel to convert the conceptual map into a more detailed and calibrated rendering so that recognition can be immediately achieved” (emphasis added).

Trump also said that “the United States will recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory that my vision provides to be part of the State of Israel. Very important.”

Netanyahu’s denial is interesting not only for the factual record, but because it indicates that he is likely to continue to maintain that he and Trump have a good relationship.

It seems the prime minister will not adopt his Obama-era tactic of saying that he is tough enough to stand up even to Israel’s most important ally if he needs to. When it comes to Trump, he could theoretically add that he is willing to go head-to-head even with the president that he worked with best to eke out an advantage for Israel.

Instead, Netanyahu is saying that he and Trump were, in fact, in sync. And that is wise, since Trump is still considering a 2024 run, which means he and Netanyahu can overlap as leaders of their respective countries again, plus Netanyahu’s base probably still likes the former president.

Still, the Netanyahu-Trump lovefest balloon has been dramatically punctured. The Likud campaign will find other ways to say Netanyahu is in “another league” without splashing his face next to Trump’s across tall buildings before the election in November. •