How Netanyahu Will Use Trump to Save His Hide
Source: Politico Magazine
By AARON DAVID MILLER
Published March 01, 2018
Israel’s prime minister is in great political and legal peril. He’s hoping his visit to Washington will prove to the folks back home that there’s nobody else who can keep his country safe.
The cemeteries of Europe, Charles de Gaulle once quipped, are filled with indispensable people. And the caustic French nationalist leader believed it, but surely not about himself.
Like de Gaulle, Benjamin Netanyahu, who will arrive in Washington over the weekend for a Monday meeting with President Donald Trump, believes himself to be indispensable, too—paradoxically, more so now than ever as his political woes and prospects of dispensability mount.
As the shadow of a possible indictment and trial loom large, the Israeli prime minister doesn’t intend to go quietly into the night. Ever the indispensable man, he intends to demonstrate that indispensability in every way he can. And nowhere is that opportunity greater than in showing that he alone has the capacity to not only manage the unpredictable and mercurial Trump but to take the U.S.-Israel relationship to new and unprecedented heights.
And it’s Netanyahu’s good fortune that Trump is determined to help.
This visit, made possible thanks to the AIPAC summit, may last only a Washington minute, but by the time Netanyahu departs the two leaders likely will have made it unmistakably clear that they are attached to one another like barnacles to the side of a boat. In Netanyahu’s case, whether that boat is listing or sinking remains to be seen.
Neither Trump nor Netanyahu’s visit to Washington will save the prime minister from an indictment. Indeed, the Israeli press is reporting that Netanyahu will be questioned by the police the day before he leaves for the U.S. Bibi is quickly learning that he may have used up 13 of his nine lives and is now in the fight of his political life. As his convicted predecessor, Ehud Olmert, observed, “Bibi seems to be over … But it will take time, it will be ugly. The Netanyahus will fight. This is their life.”
I never believed Olmert would go to prison; he ended up serving 16 months. So there’s a precedent that should worry Netanyahu, who stands accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Bibi will do everything he can to hang on but also try to demonstrate he, and only he, can lead Israel at a time of great regional peril. A recent poll revealed that if elections were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud Party would garner the most seats in the Knesset, Israel’s rambunctious Legislature. No wonder Bibi seems determined to fight it out.
I’ve been watching Netanyahu in action since the early 1980s, and met him numerous times over the years in my capacity as a peace negotiator for the State Department. What his critics dismiss as arrogance, hubris and a determination to hang on to his seat at almost any cost, Bibi sees as a kind of destiny, vainglorious though it may be. He sees himself on a historic mission—to lead Israel out of the shadows of the Iranian bomb and Sunni jihadism and to prevent a return to what even the dovish Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once called the “Auschwitz borders” of pre-June 1967 Israel. Much like Trump’s winning the presidency against a double-digit field of experienced challengers, Netanyahu’s longevity is self-validating and empowering. Bibi is now on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history should he survive into 2019. And he wants to make that date.
That’s why this meeting with Trump offers Netanyahu such a welcome opportunity to save his neck. He excels at the global political theater of such moments. Last month at Davos, the prime minister made huge headlines when he held up a piece of an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israel’s air space, just as he had held up a cartoonish picture of a ticking bomb two years earlier at the United Nations. Israelis may be tired of Netanyahu, but they are hard-pressed to come up with an alternative figure who has his experience and his skill in balancing tough talk with risk-averse action to manage those threats and to keep Israel out of new wars. As Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev put it, the Iran challenge gives Bibi “valuable armor” in his fight with the police and prosecutors—and he won’t be afraid to flaunt it with Trump at his side. A little petty corruption pales in comparison to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, many Israelis will think, as they watch him cozy up to the most powerful man in the world.
To say that Trump has already opened the door to Netanyahu would be the understatement of the century. Driven by a need to be the un-Obama and to shore up his domestic base, including evangelical Christians, Trump has acquired a set of impressive firsts: first U.S. president to visit Israel so early in his term; first to pray at the Western Wall; first to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel; and, in the ultimate gift to Netanyahu, first to open a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
In fact, it’s hard not to see the recent decision to speed up of the embassy opening—now set for May to coincide with Israeli Independence Day, as opposed to sometime next year—as related to anything other than Netanyahu’s fraught politics and Trump’s desire to help him. Bibi will likely invite Trump to the embassy opening, and the president might even accept. (Barack Obama went to Cuba, remember?)
None of this is abnormal as you might think—to say that the U.S. doesn’t meddle in Israeli politics is about as absurd as asserting that they don’t meddle in ours. But in Trump, Netanyahu is likely to find an unusually kindred spirit. Under pressure from assertive police investigators; pressed by an attorney general weighing the possibility of indictments, and hounded by the media, Trump is going to give Netanyahu a port in the storm.
As for the substance of the visit—what to do about Iran, Syria and the fate of Trump’s mysterious peace plan—all of that can wait. There are differences, to be sure. Trump is too risk-averse on confronting Iran in Syria for Bibi’s taste, and Bibi is likely to prove too risk-averse on Israeli-Palestinian peace. But why fight about or air any of that stuff now? Bibi’s Indispensability Show is all that counts—and if there is anything that binds these two leaders, it is that they both know how to put on one hell of a performance.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
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