NEW YORK – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent an hour and 20 minutes in the gilded residence of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Sunday. He had met U.S. President Barack Obama four days earlier for under an hour. This says less about Netanyahu and more about what Trump and Obama think of him.
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Until a few days ago Netanyahu had no meetings scheduled with either Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Both were in the midst of preparing for their first debate, scheduled for tonight, and neither had asked for a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.
When Netanyahu realized he was likely to end his visit to New York without any photos of him with Trump or Clinton, a “senior member of his entourage” issued a public message to both candidates during a briefing for Israeli journalists that if Netanyahu were to be asked for such meetings, he would agree. It isn’t clear whether a similar message was conveyed through quiet channels, but within 24 hours the call came from Trump’s office.
Netanyahu, who was burned badly by his and close associate Ron Dermer’s gross intervention in the 2012 presidential campaign on behalf of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, learned his lesson this time. Every meeting with Trump must be matched by a meeting with Clinton or her top advisers. After Trump asked for a meeting, Netanyahu’s advisers hastened to contact Clinton’s aides to set up a similar meeting.
Netanyahu has a very effective channel to Trump. Dermer, who in return for his meddling in the 2012 elections was rewarded with the post of ambassador to the United States, contacted the Republican candidate’s closest adviser – his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Dermer and Kushner worked together on Trump’s address to the AIPAC conference in March, as well as on other issues.
The press was given zero access to the Trump-Netanyahu encounter. Journalists who tried to get near the entrance of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue were removed by burly security guards, and Netanyahu’s entrance into the building was not photographed. All the public knows about the meeting came from carefully chosen photos released by the Government Press Office and the announcements issued by both sides.
Netanyahu says little publicly
Netanyahu’s announcement after the meeting was laconic, stressing the close ties between Israel and the United States. Trump’s announcement was long, detailed and full of campaign promises unlikely to be kept. The one that made headlines after the meeting regarded the American tycoon’s recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital if he enters the White House on January 20.
The announcement presumably was music to Netanyahu’s ears and those of many coalition members and Israelis in general. But Trump hasn’t invented the wheel. Many presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, have promised in vain to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or to move the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Believe it or not, the last person to make such a promise was Obama. In 2008, in the midst of his first presidential campaign, Obama told the AIPAC conference in Washington that Jerusalem would never be divided. Upon entering the Oval Office it was as if that promise had never been made. So it will be with Trump. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s quip, “What you see from here, you don’t see from there,” holds true in Washington as well.
But the really disturbing thing about Trump’s announcement after the meeting was the way he perceives the American defense aid to Israel. During the campaign Trump said America’s allies would have to start paying for the military aid they’ve received over the years, and added, “I think Israel will do that also.” During Sunday's meeting Trump stressed that he doesn’t support cutting aid to Israel, but he described one of the most basic foundations of the U.S.-Israel relationship in business terms.
According to his announcement, he told Netanyahu that U.S. military assistance and military defense cooperation “are an excellent investment for America.” An investment. Not a joint interest in national security, not a part of shared values with the only democracy in the Middle East. What does that say about the future? Will the aid cease when it’s no longer good for business? It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu, like his friends at the head of the Republican Party, are concerned about what might happen if Trump is elected.