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Netanyahu’s Sweet Temptation Is to Seal the Trump-Putin Deal

The Israeli leader is most admired among conservative hawks who are enraged at Trump's soft approach to the Kremlin.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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An illustration showing Netanyahu jumping into Trump's arms as Putin smiles nearby.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The New York Post reported on Sunday that some of Donald Trump’s advisers would like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend the President-Elect’s January 20 inauguration.

Israeli and Russian media also reported on the same day that Netanyahu had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the second time in a week. Are the two stories unrelated? Not necessarily.

Netanyahu could prove to be an indispensable ally in any effort by Trump to buck the prevailing winds of suspicion and distrust and to carry out a quick rapprochement between Russia and the United States.

Think about it: Netanyahu is widely admired in the Republican Party and the conservative movement – especially among the kind of right wing hawks that are most up in arms right now because of Trump’s continued efforts to curry favor with Putin.

Netanyahu could help alleviate the resistance of Republican senators to achieving a détente with Moscow by endorsing efforts to undo President Barack Obama's sanctions against Russia for the hacking scandal. Such efforts could be followed by accommodations to ease earlier U.S. sanctions imposed in 2014 and 2015. They might also blunt some of the objections that are bound to come from hawkish Democrats, such as Maryland Senator Ben Cardin - especially if Netanyahu couches his positive view of a U.S.-Russia reset in terms of helping Israeli security.

Such support from Netanyahu, coming at a critical moment, could lend much-needed credibility to Trump’s embrace of Putin. It could help legitimize Trump’s kowtowing to Putin and cast it as hard-nosed realpolitik instead.

It would lend gravitas to a policy that currently seems patently weak, naive and self-defeating; rightly or wrongly, Netanyahu is perceived among Republicans as a “tough guy” with proven security credentials. At this point, Trump has no one of similar stature coming out in support of his pro-Putin policies.

The diplomatic windfall for Netanyahu could be enormous. If resetting relations with Russia is Trump’s top priority, as it seems, any assistance rendered by Netanyahu in making it possible would be more than appreciated by the incoming White House. In exchange for such strategic assistance,

Netanyahu might be able to extract wide-ranging concessions, not only from Trump but from Putin as well. He could secure pledges of a new, get-tough policy towards Iran that might not abrogate the nuclear agreement formally but could go a long way towards ensuring its early collapse.

He might ask for a renewed commitment by Trump for President Bush’s April 2004 letter, which extended de-facto recognition to Israel’s hold on the so-called “settlement blocs” in the West Bank. (Albeit in the context of the then-proposed Gaza Disengagement and the so-called Road Map).

In fact, Netanyahu might even be able to ensure the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in June 2017, when the current Presidential waver expires.

If he goes for broke, Netanyahu could also demand some sort of informal U.S. acquiescence to an Israeli annexation of West Bank areas such as Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion near Jerusalem.

It goes without saying that if he emerges as Trump’s most trusted foreign confidant, Netanyahu will be able to leverage his newfound stature to improve Israeli relations with other countries as well.

Foreign leaders will eagerly court a leader who seems to have the ear of the U.S. President. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion will be deemed tame in comparison with the perceived sway of the Israeli elder statesman.

The political benefits for Netanyahu could also be huge. His eight years of hostility towards Barack Obama and partiality towards the GOP could be portrayed as a stroke of genius that is finally paying off, big time.

Netanyahu could outflank his rivals on the right and be crowned as the man who ensured that a Palestinian state would never be born. At a time when a dark cloud of criminal suspicion is hovering over him,

Netanyahu could portray himself as changing the course of history while petty detractors at home try to bring him down any way they can, to the detriment of Israel and the Jewish people.

The question of whether a new alliance between Trump and Putin serves Israel’s long term interests is more complex: Russia is heavily invested in supporting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and has forged ad hoc alliances with Iran and Hezbollah in order to do so.

Netanyahu might need American counter-pressure, which might not be available in case of a rapprochement, in order to prevent this Russo-Shi'ite axis from becoming too cozy.

Promises to Netanyahu notwithstanding, Russia and the U.S. could quickly come to the conclusion that it is in their interest to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on terms that will almost by necessity be unacceptable for Netanyahu.

But without superpower rivalry, Israel may find it harder to resist joint efforts to impose peace, especially if Netanyahu is perceived as having brought the two sides together in the first place.

The temptation, however, may outweigh the risks. Netanyahu has been waiting all his life for the opportunity to serve alongside a Republican President who shares his basic worldview. With a neophyte such as Trump in the White House, Netanyahu could emerge not merely as a valued ally but as an esteemed mentor.

Instead of confining himself to handling the affairs of Israel and its enemies, as he has throughout his adult life, Netanyahu could suddenly reemerge as a major player on the world stage. He would finally gain the respect of foreign leaders he’s always yearned for and enjoy the company of titans of industry and finance he’s always cultivated.

Of course, placing all your bets on a wild card such as Trump could be considered an uncalculated risk. It will certainly be a huge gamble for a man who has always seemed risk-averse - but Netanyahu has never been faced with such an enticing grand prize either.

Not only can he beat the house if his gamble pays off, but the looks of shock and jealousy on his detractors’ faces when he hits the jackpot will be worth all the money in the world. Unless, of course, it all blows up in his face.

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