Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
At first glance, President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both thin-skinned egotists, seem like unlikely allies. I was convinced the two would have a falling out eventually, whether it be over a minor slight or something more consequential like a Trump peace plan.
But it turns out I was dead wrong. When Trump and Netanyahu sit down for their third meeting at the White House on Monday, it promises to be a veritable love fest – a virtual Vulcan mind meld with both leaders in sync on everything from Iran to Syria to the importance of catering to Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu’s dependence on Trump is easy to explain. All Israeli prime ministers are judged by their ability to maintain strong ties with the United States. And Netanyahu is particularly desperate for Trump’s endorsement. He faces the threat of indictment in connection to three corruption cases, although Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and insists the prosecution was politically motivated.
And with little more than two weeks before Israel’s election, Netanyahu faces the most serious opponents of his career – Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, two centrists who have teamed up in a formidable challenge. He desperately needs Trump’s endorsement to build up his image as an indispensable man – the only Israeli politician who can manage Washington and the US President.
But what explains Trump’s deep attachment and extraordinary commitment to both Israel and Netanyahu? For Trump, going above and beyond with a pro-Israel agenda is great politics – it’s an easy way to distinguish himself from former President Barack Obama and win points among key constituencies in the United States. And by fundamentally changing US policy –whether rightly or wrongly – Trump gets an easy ride into the history books.
Trump is the anti-Obama
Trump has long considered himself a close friend of Israel and a champion of the Jewish state. In 2013, Trump actually filmed a campaign commercial for Benjamin Netanyahu. He later boasted about his role as grand marshal of New York’s Salute to Israel parade in 2004 and consistently described himself as a friend to Israel during the 2016 presidential campaign. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is the lead architect of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, has clearly played an influential role in the Trump-Israel relationship as well.
While Trump initially suggested he’d remain “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he ratcheted up his commitment to Israel later on in the campaign. After a meeting with Netanyahu in September 2016, the Trump campaign issued a statement that said peace was possible only when “Palestinians renounce hatred and violence and accept Israel as a Jewish state.”
What really crystallized Trump’s pro-Israeli image was the way he positioned himself in opposition to President Barack Obama, who he said “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel.” Trump also hammered away at the Iran nuclear deal, which he repeatedly described as the worst agreement in history. That his first foreign trip as president included Israel only highlighted his commitment.
Politics, politics, politics
Politics plays a role in every administration’s approach to foreign policy. But rarely have campaign commitments and the need to appeal to political constituencies played such an outsized role in shaping a president’s foreign policy agenda.
There was no foreign policy benefit to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or opening an embassy there in advance of a negotiated peace settlement. Trump was certainly not acting in the interests of our national security when he cut off assistance to the Palestinians. And what was the foreign policy benefit to recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights this week? These actions were designed to appeal to domestic constituencies including evangelical Christians, conservative Republicans and a significant number of American Jews, even if most remain Democrats.
Trump’s policies on Israel are designed to make the Republican Party the go-to party on Israel, while casting Democrats as anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. The President has gone so far as to adopt the divisive phrase “Jexodus” to describe the phenomenon of Jews leaving the Democratic party.
All of this has helped undermine the sprit and substance of the single most important key to an enduring US-Israeli relationship – bipartisanship. Trump has had a good deal of help in this regard from Netanyahu, who has long formed an alliance with Republican politicians in the United States. In 2015, Republican House Speaker John Boehner did not consult the White House when he invited Netanyahu to deliver a speech to Congress – during which he blasted the Iran nuclear deal for being “very bad.”
And Netanyahu – who was into the conservative populist message well before Trump – has channeled much of Trump’s anti-media, anti-liberal conspiracy theories in his own politics, complete with recirculating clips from what is considered Trump’s favorite TV show, “Fox & Friends.” Playing the partisan Republican card on Israel may be shortsighted, as the Democrats will at some point regain the White House, but it has clearly worked so far for both Trump and Netanyahu.
Trump will be “the most pro-Israeli president ever”
Trump’s penchant for hyperbole, exaggeration and self-aggrandizement mixes seamlessly with his foreign policy approach to Israel, and he seems intent on distinguishing himself from all his predecessors.
All US presidents – even those who have had tense relations with various Israeli leaders – have still maintained a strong bond with Israel, especially with regards to security. But Trump took this relationship to new levels and achieved several “firsts.” He was the first president to visit Israel so early in his term; the first sitting president to pray at the Western Wall; the first to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel; the first to open an embassy there.
Trump has also virtually ignored Israeli settlement activity and launched a political and economic campaign against Palestinians by closing the PLO office in Washington. The Trump administration also cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and slashed much of the assistance the United States had traditionally provided to the Palestinian Authority. And in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2017, he began to impose severe sanctions on Iran. These were not one-offs.
While Trump has been wildly inconsistent when it comes to foreign policy, his relationship with Netanyahu and Israel has remained steadfast. When Netanyahu compared Trump to King Cyrus, the Persian leader who allowed the Jews back from Babylon to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, he was probably not far off from Trump’s conception and image of himself. During the campaign, Trump vowed to be the “most pro-Israeli president ever.”
Donald Trump would love to see Netanyahu reelected, since they share a common antipathy toward Iran, radical Islam and the media. There might actually be a bond (I hesitate to use the world loyalty) born of their common grievances.
Monday, we can expect to see Trump strengthening this bond by handing Netanyahu a wholehearted if informal endorsement. All of this will play well in Israel, where polls show Trump is more popular than in any other country.
Will Trump’s warm embrace be enough to give the embattled Netanyahu an edge? It’s anyone’s guess. But as my grandmother used to say about her chicken soup: It couldn’t hurt.