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For Netanyahu, a Trump Win Could Be a Double-edged Sword

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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U.S. President Donald Trump (L) embraces Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) embraces Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem May 23, 2017. Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Despite the never-ending count of the carriers and fatal victims of COVID-19, despite the latest scandal in one parliament or another, and the new and trenchant dispute over culture and representation – despite all of that, the eyes of the entire world will be turned next week, as the papers used to write, to one place alone: the United States and its presidential election.

The worn cliché, 'There never has there been a more critical election,' actually sounds credible this time. The entire international arena lies in wait, as political analysts try to figure out whether public opinion polls can be trusted this time.

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Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, has apparently not garnered much more support in his latest public appearances. At 77 and showing it, Biden does indeed project low energy, as his rival, President Donald Trump, reiterates endlessly to ridicule. When Biden does emerge from the basement of his home in Delaware, he looks pale, tired, occasionally bewildered. His chief concern seems to be that he will suffer a health event, coronavirus-related or otherwise, before next Tuesday. Listening to Biden speak, one can only wonder how the Democratic Party’s well-oiled machine managed once again to run such an unattractive candidate after the Hillary Clinton disaster in 2016.

Trump, four years younger than Biden, continues to wage an aggressive campaign, rife with mass rallies that leave behind new coronavirus victims across the United States. Maybe it’s the steroids speaking, but the man truly shook off the virus as though it were, well, yes, the flu. Despite the polls, which augur well for Biden, there’s a lurking suspicion that we’re about to see another major snafu by the pollsters.

Irrespective of the clear flaws of Biden’s candidacy, this is in fact a crucial election for the United States and for the world. To begin with, it’s of significance for the struggle against the pandemic. The White House had the temerity to claim this week that the president’s policy had triumphed over the virus – but in the real world the number of daily cases continues to soar, and with it the mortality rate, while the economy sputters.

Trump’s battle against the coronavirus was a failure. He never developed a clear policy, ignored and disparaged the scientists, got into petty political spats with Democratic governors and scattered false promises that the virus would simply disappear by itself. His personal irresponsibility was flagrant in the event at which he himself was probably infected, together with many of his supporters and White House staffers a month ago.

Second, the election is fateful in terms of restoring a measure of decency and sanity into the conduct of political and diplomatic life, in the United States and elsewhere. The author Amos Oz once likened the incessant noise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu creates around himself to a compressor. If Netanyahu’s rule is a compressor, Trump’s term in office has been an endless series of nuclear explosions. Basic decorum, equality, truth telling, playing by the rules of the game – are only a few of the conventions (void of content, some will say) that Trump has never abided by. In fact, he is fundamentally contemptuous of them.

Third, the election result is important on the international stage. Trump undermined the United Nations, NATO and the world struggle against the effects of climate change, squabbled with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and with many of Europe’s leaders, displayed weakness and lack of strategic thought with regard to China (his militant rhetoric notwithstanding) and toadied to and was self-abasing to dictators in Russia and North Korea.

In an article he published this week in Foreign Affairs, Prof. Eliot Cohen, a former senior Pentagon official who was identified with the Republican establishment until Trump’s ascent, looked at the likely consequences of a second Trump term. His behavior, he wrote, will remain unchanged: his “narrow worldview,” “fondness for dictators,” “self-pity,” “belligerent narcissism” and “fecklessness.”

But in terms of the effect, Cohen avers that another four years of Trump in the White House “would mark a sea of change for the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world. It would signal to others that Washington has given up its aspirations for global leadership and abandoned any notion of moral purpose on the international stage. It would usher in a period of disorder and bristling conflict, as countries heed the law of the jungle. … And a second Trump term would confirm what many have begun to fear: that … American power is but a thing of the past.”

A world in need

Israel’s viewpoint on the election is complicated. Trump views Netanyahu as a personal friend, and the Israeli leader has taken full advantage of that. A genuine cult has sprung up on the right-wing fringes, which sees Trump as something of a messiah, if not the “messiah’s donkey” – the person who does the dirty work for someone else. But the average Israeli, too, can see that Trump is fond of us and frequently demonstrates his public commitment to Israel. A Trump victory, against the pollsters’ almost universal predictions, will put new wind into Netanyahu’s sails, both because of the ties between them and also as a harbinger of what might ensue in an Israeli election.

In the Middle East, Trump conducted an aggressive policy, frenetic and rife with contradictions, based on a projection of power. He withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran and ordered the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The latter move was the more surprising one, but both developments gladdened Netanyahu. In Syria and Iraq, Trump lurched between displays of might and hesitancy. On the one hand, he initiated a punitive attack on the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons and he continued to pursue the war of his predecessor, Barack Obama, against ISIS. On the other hand, he declared repeatedly his intention to withdraw American troops from the region – but, on the third hand, he never did so.

A man waves the Israeli flag during a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu, backdropped by a billboard supporting President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, in Tel Aviv, October 3, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

Biden is no less friendly to Israel than Trump. Despite the frequent rebukes of Israel uttered by the left wing of his party, those activists are far from taking control, and even less so if Biden wins. It’s actually Israel’s near total identification with Trump and the Republicans that is dangerous for this country, because it loosens a basic anchor in the relations between the two countries: the bipartisan support for Israel in the administration and in Congress.

Over time – though this is a matter to which Netanyahu is completely indifferent – a second Trump term would be liable to lead to a deep rift between Israel and American Jewry, most of whom will be voting for Biden next week. They will do that as Americans, but also as Jews: Trump has coarsely and constantly flirted with white supremacist groups and antisemitic organizations, despite his Jewish family members.

A second Trump victory would have broad social implications, from the intensity of racial frictions in the United States, to the way we accept bullying in schools. It’s not only young bullies who will draw inspiration from Trump. With him at the helm in Washington, lots of little Trumps will crop up in other countries, which don’t enjoy the system of checks and balances created by America’s founding fathers. Signs of this were more than apparent across the world in his first term. When all the factors are weighed, the world needs Biden, even if he’s well past his prime.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) speaks with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting on Middle East security in New Orleans, Louisiana, November 7, 2010.Credit: REUTERS

Twisting history

The Trump effect is also visible in the way Netanyahu conducts himself on the domestic front. That was vividly shown last weekend in connection with the deal in which the United States will sell the United Arab Emirates F-35 stealth planes. After a two-month campaign of denials, what could have been foretold became clear: Netanyahu knew about the deal in advance, and accepted the sale of the aircraft to the UAE as an expected adjunct to the normalization agreement between that country and Israel.

What’s interesting is that even when the media explicitly accuse the prime minister of lying, he no longer bothers to dispatch his spokespersons to deny it. That connects with the absolute scorn he has shown for getting the economy and the education system back on track following the second coronavirus lockdown. If Trump can brag of having “saved two million people” in the United States from dying of COVID, Netanyahu can twist recent history as he wishes and trust his supporters’ short memories.

The giveaway newspaper Israel Hayom, which is run at a loss by Netanyahu and Trump donor Sheldon Adelson, enthusiastically echoed Netanyahu’s denial of his knowledge of the F-35 sale in August, but was quick to change its tune to fit with the interests of the prime minister. Two months was all it took for them to move from denial to embrace. On Wednesday, Israel Hayom ran an article arguing that the criticism of the F-35 deal reflects “strategic blindness.”

Likud party supporters wave a Trump 2020 electoral banner supporting the incumbent US president in the upcoming election, Tel Aviv, September 18, 2019.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

George Orwell’s “1984” is a very useful book these days. “Oceania ha[s] always been at war with Eastasia,” the government’s mouthpieces explain to the country’s subjects, though the truth is the exact opposite.

The agreements Netanyahu obtained with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan are good news for Israel, which is in dire need of additional relations with Arab states. But after all the superlatives, the suspicion arises that one major rationale underlying the breakthrough in the Gulf is the desire of the American military industry for fat new contracts in the midst of an economic crisis. And there’s also the likely windfall for the Trump family, just as the patriarch is concerned about losing his job.

The agreements also provide the president with an honorable exit, after the failure of his efforts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the so-called “deal of the century.” In this story Netanyahu may not be the omnipotent figure his supporters want to believe he is, but more of a supporting actor, driven by pressures and constraints wielded by forces stronger than him.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the security cabinet, let slip this week that the sale of the F-35s to the emirates may bring in its wake similar deals with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Until a few months ago, a development of that magnitude would have been seen in Likud as the crossing of every red line and as a total nonstarter for Israel. The defense establishment tried to strike a reassuring note by announcing promises made by the administration to Defense Minister Benny Gantz for appropriate compensation to the Israel Defense Forces for the blunting of Israel’s qualitative edge.

It would be interesting to know what Israeli F-35 pilots think about this, after having had it drummed into them for years by their commanding officers what a great privilege it was to fly a plane so advanced that the United States was unwilling to sell it to any other country in the region. The last time a disparity of this magnitude prevailed between the army’s demands of its personnel and the pervasive culture of prevarication in Israel, the Harpaz affair exploded.

President Donald Trump arrives speaks to service members at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, March 13, 2018.Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

With his repeated denials about the F-35 deal, Netanyahu reverted to when he misled President Reuven Rivlin and top defense officials, and concealed from them the go-ahead he gave the Germans to sell advanced submarines to Egypt. This reeked of conflicts of interest, corruption and bribery, but despite public fury, it’s still difficult to see a renewed criminal investigation into it being opened.

Of all the many statements by Netanyahu’s opponents, the one that stood out last week was uttered by a former senior Mossad official, David Meidan. He was Netanyahu’s envoy in the negotiations to return kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit to Israel and no one is better than retired handlers at reading the human soul. In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Meidan said of his former boss: “I have no doubt that Netanyahu is going through a terrible period. I think he doesn’t sleep at night, that he is undergoing a great crisis. You can see it in him. His eyes are very blurry, almost snuffed out.”

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