A Not So Special Relationship: What Israelis Can Learn From Trump's Latest Spat With the U.K.

Both countries have counted on getting special treatment by the new president, who has already shown that he is short on delivering promises

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, speaking to British Prime Minister Theresa May during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, May 25, 2017.
Matt Dunham/AP

A year ago, on the morning of Election Day, the Republican candidate Donald Trump tweeted to his followers that it would be “an amazing day, it will be called ‘Brexit plus plus plus.” Trump was suggesting that just as five months earlier, voters in Britain had surprised the political establishment, the elites and the media, by voting in the referendum to leave the European Union, the same was about to happen in the United States’ presidential election. This week, Trump’s Twitter account mocked the British elite once more. Yet again, he proved that he would rather keep the faith with his racist fan-base than safeguard America’s oldest international alliances.

It’s not clear what damaged the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom – the fact that Trump chose on Wednesday to retweet from his account anti-Muslim videos originally tweeted by the deputy leader of Britain’s tiny racist party, Britain First, or that when their source was pointed out to him, he refused to undo the retweets. What was clear is that the way he chose to respond to Prime Minister Theresa May’s rather guarded criticism of his choice of retweets, prove that he has no special relationship with Britain.

It should have been clear to May long ago. Trump has some obsessions with Britain – with Brexit and with anything to do with Muslims and terror attacks. He regularly tweets on the subject, especially in the bizarre one-sided vendetta he has opened up with London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. Trump is also obsessed with making a state visit to Britain, with all the fancy trappings of a state dinner at Buckingham Palace and a drive down the Mall with Queen Elizabeth in the royal carriage. Until now, Downing Street was prepared to swallow all of Trump’s tweets and demands in silence. Talks went on for months about the state visit, until Trump, disappointed to hear that London’s police would not prevent mass protests against him, decided to postpone the trip.

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU in a year-and-a-half and is looking across the Atlantic for an enhanced trade relationship with the United States, which will help its economy prosper on the day after Brexit. In the first months of Trump’s presidency, May did everything to build a personal, special relationship with him. She rushed to meet him in the White House and even allowed him to grasp her hand as they walked through the corridor, providing a very unflattering photograph for the press back home. At first, the British deluded themselves that they had some influence over the new administration, and that due to May’s urging, Trump had toned down his criticism of NATO. But in recent months, there have been too many warnings from administration officials in Washington that Britain shouldn’t hold its breath for an early or preferential new trade agreement. Trump is only interested in agreements that can make America, not Great Britain, great again.

Trump revealed his true attitude toward Britain in his Twitter response to May on Thursday when he tweeted: “Theresa May, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!” He doesn’t tweet strong leaders like Angela Merkel in such a fashion.

There is a lesson here of course for Trump’s supporters in Israel. Just like the British, Israelis are convinced they have a deep and special relationship, almost a mystical one, with America. They believe it is a bond that is stronger than the personality of any particular president and transient political interests. Both in Jerusalem and in London, there was concern for these ties during the presidency of Barack Obama. At the start of his term, Obama removed from the Oval Office a bust of Winston Churchill, and there were claims that due to his Kenyan grandfather’s suffering under the British in the colonial period, Obama harbored a hidden antipathy to Albion. These fears were reminiscent of the claims by the Israeli right and Republicans that Obama had “thrown Israel under the bus.”

In both countries, there was hope that with Trump’s arrival at the White House, America would once again see in them their indispensable partners. In the British case, these hopes have already evaporated. The Trump administration does not seem very eager to help Britain on the day after Brexit, when it will need to rebuild its trade agreements with the world. If Theresa May still believed that Trump was willing to give Britain preferential treatment, she may have remained silent this time.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in October, 2017.
Mark Israel Salem

As far as Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned, you won’t hear a word of criticism of Trump. Even when the president praised the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, Netanyahu remained silent. From his point of view at least, anything is better than Obama. But in the highest levels of Israel’s security, intelligence and diplomatic elite, you can hear off-record grumbling that the Trump administration has no policy whatsoever in the Middle East and is giving Russia and Iran free reign to increase their influence in the region. If Trump’s latest tweet scandal proves anything, it is that he will never disavow his anti-Semitic supporters and that his words of support for Israel will not be matched by actions.