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U.S. Slap on Settlements Highlights Risk of Netanyahu’s Beautiful Friendship With Trump

Harsh White House statement provides early warning of fate awaiting those who dare embarrass or confront the self-centered president

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu and Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport, May, 2017.
Netanyahu and Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport, May, 2017.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A tsunami of schadenfreude swept parts of Israel after the White House essentially called Benjamin Netanyahu a liar on Sunday - even though it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, and that’s an understatement. Netanyahu may not be guided by the truth, but Donald Trump doesn’t even recognize its existence. The prime minister’s insinuation that he was talking to the U.S. administration about annexing settlements didn’t unsettle the White House because of its alleged historical inaccuracy but because it portrayed Trump as an Israeli stooge. After courting Vladimir Putin throughout a tense military confrontation with Iran and Syria over the weekend - and thus depicting Trump as an empty shell - Netanyahu felt the full fury of a President, or at least his advisers, who suddenly felt they were being had.

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Perhaps Netanyahu hadn’t read the full text of Trump’s interview in Sheldon Adelson’s Yisrael Hayom newspaper on Sunday. ”Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” the U.S. president warned, only to have Netanyahu inadvertently thumb his nose at him within a few short hours, for the entire world to see. No one suspects Trump, of all people, of sanctifying the status quo in the territories, just as no one would be shocked to learn that Netanyahu did discuss, at least with the settlement-adoring U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, the ramifications of a Knesset law that would annex settlements, never mind annexation of settlement blocs within the framework of a peace agreement. Rather, the harsh White House statement was a shot across Netanyahu’s bow, a taste of the punishment that awaits anyone who dares humiliate the president, especially in the eyes of his princely friends in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

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The unusually harsh reaction, unbecoming such a supposedly intimate ally, is an early warning of just how far south the allegedly beautiful friendship with Trump could go. Trump, after all, is only interested in Trump. He may have touted his recognition of Jerusalem as his number one achievement in the interview, but it’s the same Trump who less than two years ago was the only Republican candidate who refused to commit to the Israeli capital’s unity. Trump embraced Israel to secure the much-needed support of messianic evangelicals, but he didn’t bring with him a deep and abiding commitment - like Barack Obama’s, we dare say - to the country’s security and prosperity or any special fondness for Netanyahu himself, for that matter. If you think Trump has forgotten how he was forced to cancel a trip to Israel in late 2015, before the GOP primaries, because Netanyahu had condemned his call for a travel ban, you don’t know Trump. One day, he’ll exact his revenge.

Netanyahu has saddled his political fortunes - and by extension the fate of Israel as a whole - to a capricious and unsentimental president whose only commitment is to himself. He has embraced a leader who views the world through the prism of America First, with only Trump above it. He has turned into a groupie of a president who, notwithstanding his empty boasts, has brought U.S. standing in the world to a low point that hampers its ability to make friends and influence countries.

Netanyahu prodded Trump to recognize Jerusalem, goaded him into an unpopular confrontation with Iran and maneuvered him to take on the United Nations and its subsidiaries, so it may only be a matter of time before Trump realizes, or his advisers convince him, that Netanyahu is not only isolating America but is also the main obstacle to Trump achieving the glory of the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, which would silence his critics. If Netanyahu tried to obsequiously crawl his way back into Trump’s heart on Sunday it is because he knows that at any moment he could find himself starring in a presidential tweet that defines him as a stupid loser and Israel as a shi**hole pain in the neck.

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