Analysis |

Why the Rudest Israeli Lawmaker Was Allowed So Close to Trump

Trump covered Netanyahu with honey, but payment is pending ■ And: What's behind the embarrassing presidential reception - on the tarmac and at the Netanyahus' 'modest palace'

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Trump takes Netanyahu and the ministers on a wild roller-coaster ride (illustration).
Trump takes Netanyahu and the ministers on a wild roller-coaster ride (illustration).Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s nothing short of an illuminating anthropological experience to witness close-up the constant mood swings among Israel’s right-wing politicians. Now they’re up, now they’re down, from peak to abyss and back again, as they have danced to the tunes of U.S. President Donald Trump and his aides during the past 120 days.

The exaltation that gripped the right wing when Trump was elected, quickly turned into frustrated disappointment as the messages emanating from the White House became vague and hesitant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s February visit to Washington, where he was received as an honored guest, generated a dramatic rise in the serotonin level of the national camp. But then Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Washington, too, and also received a warm welcome. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, was suspected of leftism because of his close ties with MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union). Trump’s old friend Ron Lauder, whom Netanyahu had earlier banished from his close circle, turned out to be trying to persuade the president that the Palestinians were sincere in their intentions. The skies darkened. Concern gnawed at the right-wing camp again.

This week Trump paid what was touted as a historic visit to Israel. On Tuesday, the cabinet ministers went to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to hear his keynote speech. Wow, what a relief! He didn’t talk about a Palestinian state. Hurray! He didn’t mention the settlements. Terrific! The clouds dissipated, the sun shone, the danger of peace passed.

“There was really tremendous jubilation,” Science Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) said, recalling his feelings in emotional terms. “We sat there, all the ministers – me, [Gilad] Erdan, Miri Regev, Yariv Levin, [Zeev] Elkin – the whole Likud hierarchy, in the first row, opposite him. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked were also there. And I tell you that I don’t remember happiness like that, a feeling of togetherness like that, a good atmosphere like that since the government was formed exactly two years and one week ago.”

Was it really like that?

”Yes, yes,” he gushed. “And I can tell you what I said.”

What did you say?

“I said to [Housing Minister Yoav] Galant that I’m against guaranteeing places on the Knesset list before the next election, but there’s one person I would happily guarantee.”

Let me guess ...

“Right!” Akunis exulted. “It’s Trump!”

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hand at the Israel museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Akunis would be well advised to wait a bit before sending Trump Likud registration forms. En route to Rome, when the echoes of the Israeli festival down below reached Air Force One, Trump lost no time in dispatching Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who’s shaping up as the bad cop in the emerging U.S.-Israel relationship – to the press corps, to put an end to the celebratory right-wing flag dance.

“The president was very forceful in his encouragement to both of them [Israel and the Palestinians] to be serious about approaching these discussions in the future and recognize they have to compromise,” Tillerson said. “Everyone has to compromise. So he was putting a lot of pressure on them.”

The president, he added, reiterated these things several times. Reiterated what several times? His great fondness for his friend Benjamin? And in what areas did he expect Netanyahu to compromise? On the settlements? Jerusalem? Refugees?

At the same time, reports began to emerge from the closed sessions between the various leaders. Trump told his interlocutors that he believes the Palestinians want to reach a settlement and are ready to be flexible. He sounded less convinced about the Israeli side. The president thus echoed the approach of Lauder, his old pal in the New York billionaires’ club.

Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu was asked to agree to change the status of territory in the West Bank currently included in Area C (which is under full Israeli control) to that of Area B (under joint Palestinian-Israeli security control). This was denied by the Prime Minister’s Bureau, but diplomatic sources clarified this week that, in contrast to the public impression that they are a mutual-admiration society, the two leaders are far apart in their positions on the Palestinian issue.

Another strange thing happened, too. On Wednesday, a day after Trump’s departure, the bureau announced a historic event: The prime minister would hold a press conference the next day at 9:45 A.M. Yes, yes, it wasn’t a figment of the imagination but a real press conference, with questions and answers, “to sum up the president’s visit.”

Within a few hours it indeed turned out to be a figment of the imagination. The event was canceled “for scheduling reasons.” Sounds suspicious. The prime minister’s schedule didn’t change. He was mostly skittering between Jerusalem Day events, which had been scheduled weeks in advance. Taking an hour to meet with the media would not have been a problem. A possible explanation for the about-face? Between the announcement and the cancellation, the Americans sent a frosty message. Netanyahu realized that it wouldn’t be a good career move to issue festive declarations about the dawn of a new day, etc., because they might boomerang very soon.

While he was here, however, Trump heaped unreserved affection on the prime minister, covering him with honey. The very fact of the visit here so soon after the president’s inauguration testifies to relations that are different from those that Israel had with the previous president. But make no mistake, a senior Israeli policy-making figure said this week: There are no free lunches with a character like Trump. Payment is pending.

Chef Segev Moshe poses in front of the dinner he prepared for U.S. President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and son, Yair, at the PM's Residence.Credit: No credit

Arabian Nights fantasies

From the perspective of a few days, the highly publicized visit of the president and the First Lady to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem served as a backdrop to a crafty PR exercise aimed, not for the first time, at re-marketing the Netanyahus’ supposedly spartan way of life. It’s a familiar gimmick that this time outdid itself.

It may sound off-the-wall, but nothing was random in the Hanoch Levin-style scene in which the high-ranking guests at were cast as extras. Every gesture by the hosts was carefully rehearsed and prepared in advance; every nervous move of the hand, every imploring clasping of palms by the hostess had been scripted. That, at least, is the impression one gleans from a second viewing of the video clip released to the media by the Government Press Office.

The presentation wasn’t necessarily aimed at stirring the pity of the Trumps, who undoubtedly made a few choice cracks about their weird hosts when they got back to the presidential suite at the King David Hotel. The audience the Netanyahus were aiming at was Israel’s citizens, who last year heard stories – and will soon hear even more – about the hedonism, miserliness and greediness of the Smoker and the Drinker, which the police are now in the process of turning into a recommendation for indictment.

Whoever came up with the idea of a live television broadcast of the reception at the entrance to the house on Balfour Street wanted to get a message across: Living there, in that “palace,” as it was described with a snort of contempt by Benjamin Netanyahu when he greeted his guests, are modest, humble, persecuted folk whose only wish is to paint their house. And only now, thanks to the presidential visit, did their dream come true, when the budget for the paint job was approved.

What do these people have to do with Cuban cigars, pink champagne and freebie jewelry? What do they have to do with the flagrant, swinish lifestyle described in the testimonies of the donors and payers, on the one hand, and in the reports of the state comptroller, on the other? What kind of Arabian Nights fantasies could one be talking about, when flakes of plaster from the peeling walls fall into the teacups?

It’s clear from a second viewing of the clip that the whole segment was crudely staged. Donald and Melania enter the gates of the residence, and Bibi and Sara launch into a dialogue (“Welcome to our ‘palace.’” “It was only thanks to you that we could paint,” “It’s a very modest house”). The president and his wife look embarrassed, speechless, at the table where the guest book was open for them to sign.

If the lady of the house had had her way, she would probably have dragged Melania (and a photographer) to the kitchen to show her the buckling Formica, and perhaps shed a tear. But because every hallucination has a limit, even here, Ms. Nicol Raidman, a billionairess by marriage and the owner of a luxury boutique in north Tel Aviv whose dresses were given to the prime minister’s wife, was recruited. When Raidman visited the residence, this week, she was given access to the neglected kitchen, filmed what she filmed with permission and authorization that she clearly received from the Lady – and posted it on Facebook.

The kitchen that’s used by the employees is indeed in poor condition. The Netanyahus’ second-floor private kitchen, to which Raidman was not invited, is “perfect,” according to the testimony of Meni Naftali, the former chief caretaker of the residence. A few years ago, we saw the off-limits floor in a TV show about the previous residents, Ehud and Aliza Olmert. The kitchen indeed looked to be in excellent shape, new and sophisticated. Not perhaps to the standards of Donald and Melania, but still nothing to be ashamed of.

Even people who have become accustomed to the repulsive way of life of the prime minister and his wife, find it difficult to fathom how the most privileged couple in Israel, who live in a residence paid for and operated by the state, who own a well-staffed luxury home in Caesarea that is also largely funded by the taxpayers, and who shamelessly suck the public coffers dry – is capable of descending to a level of such minimal self-awareness.

Hundreds of thousands of young Israeli couples, who can only dream about a three-room apartment in the center of the country, and hundreds of thousands of families who live in average sorts of dwellings, surely felt shame and nausea at the sight of the two millionaires describing with affected embarrassment the official mansion with its multiple levels, fancy furniture and artwork as “very, very modest.” The only thing that was missing was a bank details flashing on the screen for donations.

“This is the thinking of their son Yair, who is Sara in pants,” explained one person who knows the family well this week. It was Yair Netanyahu who came up with the idea of bringing the “stylist” Moshe Galamin to the Jerusalem residence on the eve of the 2015 elections, to describe in ostensibly professional terms the shack in which the family lives. But Galamin is old news. This time the couple “upgraded” to Raidman, whom the gossip columns say is a friend of Sara’s.

Nice try. But what impressed Likud supporters and voters in a tense election will not confuse the investigators in the fraud investigation unit of the Israel Police.

Tarmac debauchery

Hours before the Trumps’ dinner at the Prime Minister’s Residence, there was the much talked-about reception at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Plenty has been written about MK Oren Hazan (Likud), a clown in a suit and tie, who forced a selfie on Trump. Every additional word would be superfluous; he’s a phenomenon best ignored. But it is important to talk about the circumstances that brought him to the reception on the tarmac. He didn’t just sneak into the line. He didn’t pop up from the gutter. He was invited. And not by the Foreign Ministry but by the Prime Minister’s Bureau. (They are the only two bodies that had responsibility for organizing the event.) It’s Netanyahu’s office that has to face judgment for the debauchery at the ceremony for all the world to see.

Here, too, it’s the police investigations that are in the background. The prime minister is under tremendous pressure as the investigation in Case 1000, the “gifts” case, nears its end. The investigators will likely recommend an indictment. Worried, Netanyahu is taking preemptive action. On the critical day, he’ll need public support, above all from his party. That’s why the invitees to the airport ceremony, which was supposed to comprise only the A Team, also included Likud mayors and council heads, along with party functionaries, members of the Likud central committee and all kinds of riffraff. Hence the presence of MK Hazan.

Some of these folks related that they received an invitation from the cabinet secretary, Tzahi Braverman. In the election campaign, Braverman was part of the organizational team at Likud campaign headquarters. One of his functions was to fill halls where Netanyahu was scheduled to speak. When he was asked to fill the ranks at the airport, he did what he knows how to do. Quite a few eyebrows were raised when Braverman was appointed to one of the most sensitive and important tasks in the government apparatus. Now we know why.

Henceforth, Netanyahu’s schedule will be conducted in the shadow of the Case 1000 investigation. The need to close ranks and rally his party is forcing him to go back on the stump. Next week he has two political events scheduled. He doesn’t fulfill the unpleasant and disliked duty of meeting with party activists for the sake of heaven above or out of feelings of nostalgia. There’s always a practical reason. Looming elections are one such reason, though that scenario now looks less likely. A looming indictment, though, could also be a reason.

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