If somewhere in the White House archives there’s a list of all the visits of foreign leaders over the years, it’s a sure bet that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accumulated more than any of his international colleagues.
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Twelve years in power, at least one visit a year – often more. He’s almost certainly also the only world leader to have been nearly banned from the White House, as then-Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates recommended to his boss, Brent Scowcroft, after objecting to the “glibness and criticisms of U.S. policy – not to mention [the] arrogance and outlandish ambition” of then-Deputy Foreign Minister Netanyahu in 1990.
With Netanyahu currently in Washington, there will naturally be speculation that this could be his last White House visit. The police recommendations to indict him for bribery in Cases 1000 and 2000, the heightened pace of investigations into Case 4000, and the likelihood that the attorney general will endorse at least some of the recommendations and press charges all lead to the inevitable conclusion that he will be forced to resign in a matter of months.
Netanyahu, of course, plans to continue fighting from the Prime Minister’s Office, no matter what. But at least some of his governing coalition colleagues will rediscover their backbones and not allow the humiliating spectacle of a premier running the country while standing accused in court.
Thirty-four years since the young ambassador to the United Nations was first lionized at the AIPAC Policy Conference, this week could be the last time Netanyahu is free to bask in the pro-Israel lobby’s adulation. This time next year, when the delegates gather, his passport may have been surrendered to the court for the duration of his trial. Even if he is still at liberty to travel, a former prime minister under a cloud of criminal indictments would be too much for even the most craven of AIPAC toadies to swallow.
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But even before Netanyahu’s criminal travails force him off the international stage, it seems his honeymoon with U.S. President Donald Trump is about to reach its highest point and may soon be on the wane.
As the two leaders meet at the White House on Monday afternoon, they will once again be squeezing the orange from the U.S.’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Netanyahu is still hoping Trump will agree to fly to Israel and cut the ribbon on the new and temporary Jerusalem embassy himself in May. The chances that the president – who is no fan of foreign travel, far away from his golf courses – will make a second visit to Israel are slim. But the way Netanyahu has been hyping up the slender prospect of another presidential visit shows just how anxious he is to make as much as he can out of this empty gesture. Bibi realizes he’s unlikely to get anything else of significance from this administration.
“Besides a lot of talk on Iran and Syria, we’re not seeing any American action,” said a senior Israeli defense official a few weeks ago. This is now the consensus view in the Israeli establishment: Despite all the tough talk heard from the Trump administration on Iran, there is no U.S. policy on confronting it in the region and – most crucially for Israel – in Syria.
As things stand, Netanyahu would probably be better off without any U.S. input since he can’t rely on it to be consistent. Now he has to focus on trying to reach tacit agreements on Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At this stage, Trump can only disturb.
The same is true for negotiations with the Palestinians. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said two weeks ago that the administration would soon be putting forward its new vision for a peace plan, which “won’t be loved and won’t be hated” by either side.
Haley is currently the only diplomatic voice of the Trump administration that senior Israelis still take seriously – but even this statement has been taken with a grain of salt. The number of Israeli diplomats and officials who still believe there will be a real Trump peace plan, anything more than a few bland statements of unclear intent, is now minuscule.
But Netanyahu actually needs Trump to be engaged with the region a bit. If the U.S. administration completely disengages, as it seems to be doing, he loses the only constraint he has on the far-right elements within his own party. In the early months after Trump’s election in January 2017, the settlers and their supporters in the government urged him to embark on sweeping annexation and building programs in the West Bank. Netanyahu, who has no interest in disturbing the status quo that works in his favor, made sure that a message of restraint came from Washington. “Bibi tricked us then,” says one far-right minister. Now a lame-duck prime minister with a disinterested U.S. president, Netanyahu will find it very hard to hold back the settlers in the coming months.
Trump will soon be of little use to Netanyahu. For Trump, meanwhile, the strong ties of members of his close team and family to Israel could swiftly become a liability. As federal investigators continue zeroing in on son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner’s business dealings in the Middle East and their connection to Trump foreign policy, being seen as over-friendly with Israeli leaders may not seem so useful to a scandal-ridden administration.
Trump’s “love” for Israel – which he never even visited before becoming president (or if he did, as sometimes reported, no evidence exists) – is little more than a passing affectation for the benefit of Vice President Mike Pence’s evangelical constituency. The moment it becomes disadvantageous, he will abandon it.
This may not only be Netanyahu’s last official visit to the United States. It is also the beginning of the end of the only honeymoon he has ever had with a U.S. president.