Coronavirus has now tilted the scales in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu at least twice. The sense of emergency sparked by the pandemic shifted focus away from his criminal trial, paved his way to a government with Benny Gantz and, pending a decision by the High Court of Justice, to at least 18 more months of continued rule.
In recent days, the scourge and its dreadful economic ramifications have helped Netanyahu avert what would have surely turned into a feeding frenzy for the media, at the very least: New revelations that seem to hint at the prime minister’s supposed contacts with Donald Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2016. Tantalizing hints of such alleged clandestine contacts came to light in recent publication of redacted FBI documents relating to Stone’s investigation.
If times were normal, both the Israeli and U.S. media would be all over the story, with politicians demanding investigations and probes. The new documents are redacted, partial and sometimes indecipherable, but their most plausible interpretation suggests an Israeli cabinet minister without portfolio, who is in touch with a yet-unnamed senior Israeli with supposed contacts to Netanyahu.
The senior Israeli apparently tried to set up a meeting between the unnamed minister without portfolio and Trump. Two months later he – or she – is cited as stating, "Roger-As per PM we have one last shot before moving on. Can you deliver? History will not forgive us. TRUMP IN FREE FALL. OCTOBER SURPRISE COMrNG!” [sic] At another juncture he seems to claim that Israel has “critical intell [sic]” at its disposal.
The most immediate suspect is veteran Likudnik Tzahi Hanegbi, who was appointed minister without portfolio in May 2016, a month before he is mentioned in the FBI documents. Hanegbi, the only minister without portfolio at the time, was in the United States on the dates mentioned, attending, among other things, a roll out of the first Israeli F-35 jet at a Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
Hanegbi, however, denies any connection to the alleged effort to arrange a meeting with Trump or to Stone “who I hadn’t heard of or known of his existence until yesterday,” as he told Haaretz. On the dates either Hanegbi or the other Israeli were alleged to have flown to Rome to consult with Netanyahu, Hanegbi was on a visit to Chile and Panama. Perhaps, he speculated, we’re dealing here with a con man that used me without my knowledge.
References to some sort of Israeli involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign cropped up during Robert Mueller’s official investigation of the so-called Russia collusion affair, but were thoroughly redacted. A disproportionately large number of people investigated or questioned in the Mueller probe – oligarchs, advisers and cyber specialists – also had ties to the Israeli establishment. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that both Stone and convicted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort were close collaborators with Netanyahu’s legendary strategist and world-class dirty campaigner, the late Arthur Finkelstein. They and others were known as “Arthur’s boys.”
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By 2016, the time period discussed in the FBI files, Trump and Netanyahu had already established what would evolve into a mutual intervention society on each other’s behalf. The first move was made by Trump, who sent Netanyahu a bizarre video endorsement in the 2013 elections. Mocked at the time, the video was made, by some accounts, a short time after Trump had made up his mind to run for president. “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days,” as Ecclesiastes noted, and in this case, in the summer of 2016.
Six months earlier, in December 2015, when Netanyahu was still convinced – like most of the universe – that Trump’s candidacy was a mere curiosity, he dared to rebuke the tycoon candidate for calling on a total ban on entry of Muslims to the U.S. An incensed Trump then cancelled his planned trip to Israel, or may have even been told to stay home. At that time, Netanyahu was still rooting for mainstream Republican stalwarts such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and when they faltered, for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the former champion of Christian Evangelicals, who won a dozen primaries and was being billed as the last line of defense against Trump. On May 3, however, after a crushing loss in Indiana, Cruz withdrew from the race.
Netanyahu, whose ties with Barack Obama were going from bad to worse, wasted no time. He and his envoy Ron Dermer encouraged their evangelical admirers to line up behind Trump and to thus become his main base of support: This was the founding of the Trump-evangelical-Netanyahu axis, which has effectively deprived AIPAC and other Jewish organizations of their historic roles.
Over the past year, for his part, Trump has intervened openly, unabashedly, repeatedly and possibly decisively on behalf of Netanyahu: Two weeks before the April 2019 elections he gave Netanyahu a precious gift by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Three months before the March 2020 elections he invited Netanyahu to the White House to grandstand alongside him in the revelation of his so-called Deal of the Century, along with its irresistible temptation – for most Israelis – of annexation.
Netanyahu now wants to capitalize on Trump’s promise to support Israeli annexation before it’s too late. He expects Trump to keep his word and to allow Israel to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as the Jordan Valley, as he pointedly made clear in a video address to European Evangelicals last week.
If Trump delivers the goods, as he very well may, he will cement his close ties with grateful Zion-loving evangelicals – and press Netanyahu to repay his accumulated debts, big time. The worse Trump’s situation gets, the more he’ll need Netanyahu – but the worse his situation, the more Netanyahu will try to wiggle his way out. If Joe Biden opens up an insurmountable lead over Trump, even Netanyahu will think twice about incinerating his last bridges with a future Democratic President and a potential Democratic Congress.
The terrible economic tidings hitting America now – never mind the deaths of more than 60,000 Americans from coronavirus – almost ensure such a scenario. Trump is already on edge, lashing out at advisers, refuting strategists, disputing polls and launching a dangerous blame game with China, which will only heat up in the coming months, as more and more of his citizens come to grip with his appalling mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
Under these circumstances, pressing Netanyahu to come to his rescue, even if it demolishes whatever remains of Israel’s links with Democrats, will be, for Trump and his coterie, a no-brainer.