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 his own; view more opinion articles on CNN.
We’re less than one month out from Israel’s September 17 election, which may well determine not just the political future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his personal freedom as well.
Right now, polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud Party, even with the support of various right wing factions, does not have the majority needed to provide him parliamentary immunity from a likely indictment for breach of trust, bribery and fraud – or the political support necessary to remain in office while his trial takes place. Polls, of course, can always be wrong.
But the more intriguing question at the moment is where Netanyahu’s good friend and supporter President Donald Trump is in his hour of need. At almost every turn, Trump has cast favors the Prime Minister’s way and interceded directly several times – albeit unsuccessfully – to get Netanyahu reelected. Indeed, approximately two weeks before the April 9 Israeli elections, Trump declared his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Even more striking is the President’s direct role in pressuring Netanyahu – accusing him of weakness – if he didn’t ban two Democratic lawmakers from entering Israel. Far from helping Netanyahu, this affair created an impression that the Prime Minister had flipped his decision under US pressure and acted as a Trump lackey.
Worse yet, right now Netanyahu finds himself Trump-less. And so he’s visiting Ukraine – the only other country in the world that has both a Jewish President and Prime Minister – and will later travel to India to tout his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But none of this will matter much because neither trip will impact the voting public as much as some high profile Trump gesture would.
So, what’s happening here – has the Trump-Netanyahu bromance fizzled out?
First, the bromance was always driven by Trump’s personal and political needs, and less by Netanyahu’s. It’s not that Trump isn’t himself pro-Israel. But he is first and foremost pro-Trump. During the campaign, Trump’s need to be the anti-Barack Obama drove him to say that he would be the most pro-Israel president ever. And he tried to play on fears of American Jews and evangelicals that Obama was somehow hostile to Israel.
When he entered office, he tried to live up to that promise, becoming the first president to visit Israel on his initial trip abroad; the first sitting president to pray at the Western Wall; the first US president to declare Jerusalem capital of the State of Israel and move the embassy there; and the first to declare “it is time” for the US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
All of this played into Trump’s vanity, ego and narcissism – and he bathed in Netanyahu’s description of his role as a combination of Lord Arthur Balfour, King Cyrus and President Harry Truman. All of this played well politically for Trump, of course – cementing his evangelical base, catering to conservative Republicans and helping make the Republican Party the go-to party on Israel. And Trump, in his attack on the so-called Squad – Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – has tried to depict the Democratic Party at large as hostile to the state of Israel, if not prejudiced toward Jews.
Second, much of Trump’s Israel focus has been based on another vanity exercise – Trump’s declaration of his intention to achieve an “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. This still unannounced peace plan required, based on my own conversations with US peace envoy and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a policy of showering Israel with gifts so that the Israeli Prime Minister could not say no to Trump.
But that plan, which the President talked about earlier this week in positive terms, now seems more than ever like a fantasy. Even Trump must know that the often-described “deal of the century” is one of the biggest long shots in history. Reports suggest it’s slated to be released after the Israeli elections. Yet its future seems as clouded as Netanyahu’s – a fact not lost on a President who seems to judge politicians based on their electoral success.
Third, judging by Trump’s reaction to Netanyahu’s inability to form a government after the April election, chances are some of the bloom has been taken off Netanyahu’s rose. Trump was clearly disappointed and lamented that it was “too bad” that Netanyahu couldn’t form a government, though he reaffirmed that he was a “great guy.” Trump later added that he was unhappy with the delay and the need for new elections – given the importance of his peace plan.
That same sense of frustration was also evident in the President’s clear disappointment that Netanyahu had planned to allow Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib to visit Israel, until he pressured the Prime Minister to change his decision. And Trump’s latest comments charging Jewish Democrats with disloyalty once again reveal that his priority is his politics – not Netanyahu’s. The Prime Minister’s silence demonstrates that he’s unwilling to push back against Trump and his outrageous use of an old and virulent anti-Semitic charge.
With a month to go until Israel’s elections, Trump may yet decide to intervene. Since a Netanyahu victory would be seen by Trump as a win for him, the President may well be inclined to do what he can. Options include a proposal for a US-Israel defense accord, a Trump visit to Israel to visit Jerusalem and/or the Golan Heights, an 11th hour Netanyahu visit to Washington or US support for annexation of part of the West Bank.
Still, it may be too early to conclude if Trump’s given up on Netanyahu. And from Trump’s self-centered view, it may not matter. Bottom line: If Netanyahu squeaks through, great. If not, Trump expects he’ll get on with the new guy just fine.
Besides, he’s got his political bases covered both at home and in Israel. Indeed, in 2020, Trump will run on a very strong pro-Israel record – with or without Netanyahu. Trump may express some regret if Netanyahu is sidelined or some sympathy if he’s indicted. But it won’t last long. In Trumpland, it should be pretty clear by now that only the boss really matters.