Analysis |

Trump’s Comey Treatment Is the Stuff of Which Netanyahu’s Nightmares Are Made

Lame reaction of Republican lawmakers and strong support of GOP voters for FBI director’s dismissal is bad omen for Israel’s right wing

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Donald Trump.
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

One shouldn’t envy Benjamin Netanyahu right now. You can easily imagine him waking up with a jolt in the middle of the night, covered in sweat, after another one of Trump’s traumatic tweets haunt in his nightmares. “I thought Bibi was OK. What an actor. What a disappointment. Loser!” reads one. “Netanyahu sucked up to me like crazy. I didn’t buy it, but everyone can see his true colors. The tapes will prove!” reads another. Then there’s “The Democrats couldn’t stand Bibi but suddenly they’re on his side? Give me a break!” or “Netanyahu talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. Sad!” or, the ultimate horror: “Netanyahu’s tried long enough. It’s time Israelis gave someone else a chance, like Americans. Is Yair Lapid the guy?”

Admittedly, such a harrowing scenario is still far-fetched, but it’s no longer completely inconceivable. This is the kind of treatment that the president gives to anyone who crosses him or gets in his way, as he showed for the hundredth time this week. After he sacked James Comey, who he once praised; after he let loose on the outgoing FBI director as if he hadn’t devoted his life to keeping America safe; after he thumbed his nose at the media, ignored Congress and made fools of his advisers, spokespersons and vice president by coming up with alternative rationales for firing Comey, which contradicted everything they had said in his name; after he slaughtered yet another Washington sacred cow, carved it up barbecued it and ate it up as prime steak - after all these, Netanyahu would be wise to be apprehensive, if not downright anxious, by the thought of how Trump might react if he - and Israel - got in the president’s way.

The announcement by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Friday that Trump “will express his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians” is a clear warning that Israel might have gotten caught in its own honey trap. Netanyahu fawned over Trump as a champion and savior just because he was the anti-Obama and he bestowed countless superlatives on the president after one solitary bombing of a Syrian airfield. This makes it much harder for Netanyahu to suddenly reverse course in midair and admit that he got it all wrong. In this regard, it’s possible that Israel is already inside the corrals, one of the late Ariel Sharon’s favorite terms, which means - inside the pen from which the only exit is to the slaughterhouse, though the cows don’t know it yet.

Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to commit to Palestinian self-determination, but history can’t give Netanyahu much solace. It was another hero of the Israeli right, George W. Bush, who first expressed explicit support for Palestinian self-determination, in a letter sent to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at the end of August 2001, a few days before the September 11 terror attacks. Trump is repeating Bush’s commitment, which was also endorsed by Barack Obama, and he’s also doing it in a Saudi context, as the U.S. negotiates a gargantuan $100 billion arms deal that will create thousands of new American jobs. Guess in which capital, Jerusalem or Riyadh, Trump wants to leave a better impression.

Self-determination means that the Palestinians have the right to determine their own future by themselves including, if they so wish, the establishment of an independent state. Obviously, Trump’s mere words won’t change realities on the ground, but a president who commits to self-determination will be hard put to turn a blind eye to Israeli efforts to change the status quo or to impose solutions on the Palestinians, including the delusional plans of autonomies, Bantustans or second class citizenship that Netanyahu’s coalition partners were dreaming about when Trump was first elected.

The generally lame response of the Republicans to Comey’s outrageous dismissal should also send alarm bells ringing in Jerusalem. GOP legislators may have been shocked by Trump’s brazenness, they may view him as heading for a collision with the U.S. Constitution and with the rule of law, they may even be seeing impeachment on Washington’s horizon, but with a few notable exceptions who mumbled their reservations in public, most of them are lining up behind Trump or at least invoking their right to evade the media and hide in the bush. Netanyahu needs to ask himself whether he’ll be able to enlist his trusted allies in the majority party to confront the president on an issue such as the establishment of a Palestinian state, if they wouldn’t dare look Trump in the face when he fired America’s top law enforcer in the middle of an investigation against him.

Trump reacts while Netanyah speaks during a news conference in the White House in Washington, D.C., Feb. 15, 2017. Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

The reaction of Trump’s voters can’t be encouraging either. Since Trump fired Comey, his voters’ support for getting rid of the hitherto admired FBI director rocketed up from 38 percent to 62 percent, and counting. As in many other arenas, Trump’s voters persuaded themselves in record time that he knows what he’s doing and that all the media brouhaha is fake news and a blatant Democratic effort to discredit their hero. Netanyahu’s gotta wonder how they’ll react if and when Trump tweets that the Israeli prime minister is bad news himself.

Perhaps Netanyahu will be able to convince Trump that it isn’t worth his effort to invest heavily in advancing the peace process, though that’s a risk in and of itself, because Trump thinks he’s god’s gift to mankind and doesn’t like to hear otherwise. Alternatively, Netanyahu and company can pray for the kind of divine intervention that saved their hides before, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal that sapped Bill Clinton, or, though a billion times different, of course, the Twin Towers bombing that changed Bush’s course or the passing of ObamaCare which deprived Obama of the political strength he needed to push the peace process forward. Netanyahu and his ministers can always fall back on the tried and true method of playing along with the president until the Palestinians inevitably emerge as the true rejectionists, although, one must note, Mahmoud Abbas seems to have mastered this trick and has deftly turned the tables on Netanyahu in recent weeks.

If all else fails Israel can always try to rely on pure logic: Is it conceivable that a president who is so ignorant, so arrogant, so self-absorbed and so inconsistent; a president who has brought his approval ratings to record lows in record times; a president who has infuriated so many world leaders, made mortal enemies of the American media and has now sparked a constitutional crisis and elicited unavoidable comparisons to the Watergate Affair and the ultimate punishment it wrought on its perpetrator, Richard Nixon - is it logical that he, of all presidents, will be the one who will bend Israel’s arms and cause it to make the concessions it really doesn’t want to?

It sounds implausible, for sure, but no less implausible than Trump’s very election, his erratic behavior in office, his still inexplicable ties to the Kremlin and his no less unfathomable ambition to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. There’s enough there, you must admit, to keep Netanyahu awake at nights, which will at least spare him those Twitter-induced nightmare.

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