Why you should care
Because even friends have to tread lightly on the world stage.
The author is a senior editor at OZY.
President Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be making lots of friends among international leaders. He does have Vladimir Putin, in addition to the European far right, like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, adding him to their Christmas lists. But if there’s anyone else that Trump truly has in his corner, it’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. By way of proof, look no further than to the social media equivalent of giant smooches that the men regularly bestow on each other via Twitter:
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) December 28, 2016
But America’s new president loves being unpredictable. He “really values uncertainty as a matter of strategy and policy,” says Miriam Elman, professor of political science and a Middle East expert at Syracuse University. Despite pledging throughout his campaign to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the White House now says it’s delaying any such decision, leaving many “flummoxed.” Then came the unexpected and unofficial White House suggestion that Israeli settlement expansion may derail chances for Arab-Israeli peace — of course, even that statement had a ”lack of precision,” as Elman puts it.
So far, Netanyahu is playing his diplomatic card wisely, reacting calmly about the embassy, and, according to some, perhaps even asking Trump to delay the decision, which plays into Netanyahu’s hand back home for keeping his far-right flank at bay, not to mention Israeli security concerns. And being reined in on settlements has similarly helped Netanyahu in the past. The logic to his White House leash? “Hey, I can’t annex the West Bank; the U.S. won’t let me.”
[Netanyahu is] pretty good at ticking off people.
Ian Lustick, University of Pennsylvania
So far, Netanyahu and Trump are playing well together and perhaps — if rumors are true — even collaborating. But the Israeli leader is coming to Washington, D.C., on February 15, and there are a few key ways Bibi could bungle this budding bromance. After all, despite his penchant for uncertainty, the 45th American president, doesn’t like to be told what to do. Netanyahu is “pretty good at ticking off people,” says Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pushing too hard, too fast for movement on the Iran nuclear deal, for example, could spell disaster. Experts say that there’s little chance of a change to the deal with the Islamic Republic. “If he pushes Trump to renounce the deal or make concrete promises … and Trump isn’t willing to,” says Dov Waxman, professor of political science and Israeli studies at Northeastern University, “then … that could end up backfiring.” The Trump administration, Elman reckons, will be looking to more closely monitor the deal’s compliance and the fine lines. The White House won’t be “turning a blind eye on insignificant violations.” The presumption? That Iran won’t stick to the agreement and will walk. Then, Elman adds, “all options are back on the table.”
Another no-no for Bibi: Embarrassing Trump. Netanyahu has done well to publicly support Trump’s position on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But what he hasn’t commented on is the executive order banning refugees from coming into the United States. Meanwhile, Jewish organizations from around the country have condemned the order, and with the vast majority of American Jews strenuously opposing it, given their memory of Jewish history, it wouldn’t be entirely out of place for the Israeli leader to share these views. If Netanyahu were to voice these concerns, Waxman says, “this is the kind of thing that Trump could respond harshly to.”
Being a problem child is also a bad idea. Pushing for settlement annexation, creating new settlements beyond the security fence, challenging Iran or doing anything else that would otherwise undermine American national security or pull the U.S. further into Middle East politics could prove problematic.
Luckily for this budding American-Israeli lovefest, most experts say Netanyahu is unlikely to misstep. He probably won’t mention the refugee ban, won’t push on Iran nukes too strenuously and won’t otherwise do anything to shed even a hint of a negativity Trump’s way. The great survivor of Israeli politics, as Elman refers to him, is simply too savvy. While he’s good at winding people up, “he’s very good at fawning over people also,” Lustick adds.
The one area where things may get sticky? Russia. While Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — a fluent Russian-speaker and Soviet native — have visited with Putin, things could get tricky if the brewing bromance between Putin and Trump turns to love. If Washington accedes to what Russia wants in Syria, “then that is going to be a problem for Netanyahu,” Waxman says. The main concern? An Iranian victory (i.e., Bashar al-Assad staying put) that could lead to the Islamic Republic becoming even stronger in the region and the dominant power in Lebanon and Syria. Elman agrees that Israelis are “concerned with whether Russia will allow more arms to come into Hezbollah … and whether Russia will allow Iran to move more into the region.” So while treading lightly, the “one thing Netanyahu will tell Trump for sure is that Russia is not your friend,” she says, and that it is an opportunistic country that should be kept out of Middle Eastern affairs.
So Trump and Bibi won’t necessarily agree on everything. But squabbles like the ones we saw between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu — their governments remained close, and U.S. military aid is flowing at a rate of $38 billion over the course of 10 years, but the men were (very publicly) not buddies — are done. Publicly, at least, this will be the greatest change in U.S.-Israeli relations: Not a green light to annex the West Bank, no immediate scraping of the Iran nuke deal or even a huge boost in military aid, but simply that the American and Israeli leaders are back to being the very best of friends.