U.S. President Donald Trump set up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s punch line perfectly: “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi? Sleepy Joe? Do you think he would have made this deal somehow? I don’t think so.” The president looked at his Oval Office phone with delighted anticipation.
“Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from ANYONE in America,” Netanyahu replied.
The smile on Trump’s face morphed into an astonished scowl. Netanyahu had failed to deliver. Given that hell hath no fury as a Donald Trump scorned, Netanyahu should properly be quivering in his pants.
Netanyahu’s unanticipated rediscovery of electoral etiquette for foreign leaders belied his four years of pro-Trump partisanship, but his rejoinder did not seem off the cuff.
“Netanyahu knows how to read the polls better than anyone,” the pundits opined. “He realizes Trump’s days are numbered and Joe Biden is on the way.”
The same was said of Vladimir Putin, who must have crushed Trump’s heart on Monday by vouching for Biden and proclaiming the Democratic candidate innocent of the GOP’s allegations of Ukraine corruption.
Netanyahu’s cheek was doubly surprising given that the Oval Office phone call marked the conclusion of the new normalization deal between Israel and Sudan, the third such breakthrough brokered by Trump over the past three months. Netanyahu’s celebration of the dramatic thaw in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, which helps him politically, was tempered however by his concurrent affirmation, together with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, that Israel no longer opposes the sale of F-35 aircrafts to the United Arab Emirates, which harmed him considerably.
Netanyahu must have realized that no one would believe that he hadn’t given tacit agreement to the proposed aircraft sale from the outset, before the normalization accord with the UAE was concluded in August, as reported in real time by Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea. Netanyahu’s statement of acquiescence was widely interpreted as corroborating Barnea’s report and exposing the prime minister’s earlier denials as a lie, not that anyone gets excited about that anymore.
After hiding a multi-billion-dollar Israeli purchase of German submarines and other navy vessels from the national security establishment, the sale of advanced F-35s to far flung and newly friendly Gulf sheikhdoms was small change.
Gantz’s assertion that Netanyahu had concealed news of the impending F-35 deal from the defense establishment was shrugged off by most Israelis, who’ve come to expect no less of their leader.
Netanyahu’s refusal to endorse Trump’s condescending remark about “Sleepy Joe” Biden was meant to offset the impression that he had capitulated to Trump on the F-35s. Moreover, it may have been Netanyahu’s own subtle protest against the fact that he had, indeed, capitulated, not that he’d had any other choice.
Trump didn’t ask for Netanyahu’s permission to go ahead with the F-35 deal; he took it for granted. Once Netanyahu had indicated that he would not “go to the mattresses” against the proposed sale, a move that might have scuttled Trump’s entire peace push, the F-35 sale to the UAE and other Gulf countries was more or less a done deal other than the framing and the timing.
Rather than the “peace for peace” formula Netanyahu is falsely touting, the actual equation that underpinned Israel’s accords with three Arab countries – UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan – was normalization or peace in exchange for shelving annexation and swallowing the F-35s.
Right-wingers may lament Netanyahu’s “sell-out” of sacred West Bank territories, and national security experts can debate whether the aircraft deal threatens Israel’s military and technological superiority, but the details and merits of the Trump-Netanyahu deal are largely irrelevant: After four years of milking the U.S. President for all he’s worth – Jerusalem embassy move, Golan sovereignty, Iran deal and Gulf breakthrough, to name the highlights – Netanyahu is up to his neck in political debt to Trump. He has maneuvered himself into a corner where saying “no” to his White House benefactors is simply not an option.
If Trump defies expectations and wins the November 3 election, one could theoretically posit that Israel would be better led by a prime minister who wasn’t so deeply entrenched in Trump’s pocket. Right-wingers should worry that a second-term Trump, no longer dependent on the support and goodwill of Israel-loving evangelicals, could decide to go for broke and try to secure what he’s dubbed the hardest deal of all, between Israel and Palestinians. Of all potential Israeli prime ministers, Netanyahu would be the most hard-pressed to just say no.
In practice, however, a Trump triumph would be seen in Israel as a victory for Netanyahu as well. His stature would be enhanced accordingly. Most Israelis view Netanyahu’s ties to Trump as a singular strategic asset and would assume, rightly or wrongly, that four more years with the dynamic duo at the helm would be just as beneficial as the first, if not more so.
That would not be the case, of course, if Biden and the Democrats win the election. A Biden victory would be perceived as a slap in the face for Netanyahu and would weaken his internal political position considerably. Instead of being viewed as a unique asset, Netanyahu would now be portrayed as a distinct liability.
Even if one assumes that Biden and his administration would have bigger fish to fry than settling scores with Trump’s Israeli BFF – or pushing him towards Palestinian peace, for that matter – there’s no denying the oceans of bad blood between Netanyahu and both the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. The two groups may differ sharply about Israel and its policies, but they are united in their personal aversion to Netanyahu – and are unlikely to either forgive or forget.
In Democratic eyes, Netanyahu is guilty of two most cardinal sins: Bitter clashes with Barack Obama the saint, and intimate bromance with Donald Trump the villain.
No other foreign leader, not even Putin, is so closely identified with the President Democrats so violently detest.
If Biden wins, Netanyahu will be viewed as an annoying remnant of the Trump era that cannot be expunged, perhaps, but can certainly be ignored, humiliated or punished whenever the opportunity arises.
Every statement Netanyahu makes and every U.S. visit he conducts will necessarily evoke bitter memories of his good friend Trump. Netanyahu’s very presence will be like a red flag in the eyes of bullish Democrats, itching for payback.
Netanyahu’s fans will easily pivot from touting the prime minister’s masterful cultivation of Trump to extolling his experience and knowhow as the best possible defense against Biden’s supposedly nefarious designs. But while Netanyahu may indeed craft a reasonable working relationship with the President and his administration, Democratic legislators will be less forthcoming.
Rather than smoothing the way to a recalibration of U.S.-Israeli ties, Netanyahu will be a constant thorn in their side, the main obstacle in its path.
Israel will be the first to suffer. The Democrats personal antipathy to Netanyahu will inevitably be translated into measures and statements detrimental to Israel’s interests.
If he is replaced, however, the toxicity would recede instantaneously. Democratic moderates, led by Biden as well as Kamala Harris, would welcome most if not all of his potential successors with sympathetic ears and open arms. Progressives on the far left along with anti-Israel radicals will still fight the occupation and try to constrain Israel, but without Netanyahu they will lack the rallying cry that would otherwise unite the entire party behind them.
If Netanyahu is prime minister, the development of U.S.-Israeli relations in the post-Trump era will be all about him, as it was during Trump’s four years in the White House. Energies better spent on reestablishing rapport with the Democratic Party and reforging bipartisan support for Israel will be wasted on Netanyahu’s personality and past record. Just as his legal entanglements and efforts to escape them have overshadowed government decisions, parliamentary procedures and the rule of law, Netanyahu’s efforts to overcome his Trumpian past will dominate U.S.-Israeli ties, to their lasting detriment.
In the eyes of his opponents, Netanyahu should have been ejected from politics in the wake of his criminal indictments.
In recent months, as Israelis have come to view Netanyahu’s efforts to contain COVID-19 and its economic repercussions as an abject failure, others have joined the ranks of those who believe Israel would be better off without him.
A Biden win would provide one more imperative for a changing of the guard. The crucial importance of Israel’s special relationship with the United States, should, in fact, make it the clincher.
When the prime minister personally imperils vital national security interests, when his presence is an albatross around his country’s neck, it’s probably time for him to move on.
Header: Benjamin Netanyahu and Joe Biden meet on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 21, 2016. Credit: Michel Euler/AP
Original: Chemi Shalev – HAARETZ