Analysis |

Ignore the Smiles: Trump-Netanyahu Get-together Is a Collision of Bad Karmas

The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is truly special when both their leaders are mainly preoccupied with escaping the law

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017.Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The summit between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu will be portrayed by their PR people as an expression of the stellar relations between Israel and the United States which, the White House is likely to say, have never been better. But it could also be described as a hubbub between two primo suspects, a rendezvous of the politically besieged, a cosmic collision of two bad karmas.

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Defining the inevitable causality of karma, the holy Hindu text Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, composed around 700 BC, teaches “that a person consists of desires and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.” The prophet Hosea put it more bluntly: “Those who sow a wind will reap the whirlwind.” Whatever original offences Trump and Netanyahu may or may not have committed, they have compounded them with their efforts to threaten investigators, deter prosecutors and scare the bejesus out of judges. Their evasion tactics have kicked up political whirlwinds, if not storms, which could ultimately sweep them out of office. In their desperate attempts to escape their fate, both captains often seem willing to sink their own ships, passengers and crew first.

The relationship between the two allies may have never been more special, but not only in good ways. The leaderships of both countries are possibly closer than ever in their basic political views and in their perceptions of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Security coordination is great, both sides assert. And Trump is moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, isn’t he? But then again, in a truly unfathomable unraveling of synchronized history, the most critical “shared value” of Netanyahu and Trump, even when they meet in the Oval Office, is how to extricate themselves from the legal nooses that are concurrently tightening around their necks.

One thing supposedly doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but Israel and America these days can rightly be described these days as the United States of Meshugas. Trump has rejected rationality as an important factor of American policy, replacing it with his own impulses, whims and outbursts. Anxiety in what remains of clear-headed Washington DC has never been higher, along with elevated trepidation, and no small amount of glee, that have spread throughout the world.

Netanyahu meanwhile has rallied his troops for holy war against the Israeli police and court system, with the attorney general, who will have the final say whether to indict him, next in line. Just like Trump and the American right, Israel’s ruling Likud party and large chunks of its right wing media are campaigning against their own system of law enforcement, turning perpetrator into persecuted and branding guardians of the law as sinister co-conspirators against the throne. Both countries are caught in maelstroms, drifting into a twilight zone in which right becomes wrong, upholding the law is suddenly a form of harassment and honest public officials are cast as the ultimate bad hombres.

Both Trump and Netanyahu are either congenitally or maliciously blind to their own misdeeds. They have both patently and blatantly misbehaved, at best, but refuse to concede an inch. Although they are charged with implementing the laws of the land and safeguarding its judicial integrity, both refuse to let justice run its course, preferring to besmirch, defame and slander those who are performing their constitutional duties by investigating them. Both are appealing to the worst instincts of their respective mobs, stoking hate, sowing distrust, torching the edifice of law enforcement in order to snuff out those who would do them wrong, in their eyes.

Netanyahu seems the more rational and calculating of the two, especially after Trump’s manic week, in which he shocked Republicans and NRA types on gun control, rattled world economies with a unilateral declaration of trade wars bid a teary farewell to his darling Hope Hicks and helplessly watched his own son in law Jared Kushner get hanged, drawn and quartered for all the world to see. Netanyahu apologists claim that he is a victim of his tempestuous wife Sara, but Jared and Ivanka are the collateral damage of Trump’s own imbalance, which he now realizes, so his first reaction is to dump them. It’s surely a bad omen when Netanyahu’s staunch ally Kushner is labeled suspect just a few days before the bilateral summit.

Ostensibly, the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu will focus on the Iranian challenge in Syria. They will express their lust for Saudi Arabia and probably trade derisive jokes about Palestinians and Mahmoud Abbas, who have committed the cardinal sin of dissing Trump in public. They will portray Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize it as Israel’s capital as the greatest event in Jewish history since the founding of the state, if not more so. They will play the Embassy card to the hilt, organizing a once in a millennia extravaganza in honor of the physically modest move. Trump will shore up critical support of Evangelicals, who see no evil as long as he serves their interests, while Netanyahu will get a much needed shot in his arm, and even a well-timed electoral windfall, if current projections of the imminent downfall of his coalition are borne out.

They make an odd couple. Netanyahu is a cerebral student of Jewish history and veteran tactician of Israeli politics, while Trump is a baccalaureate student of absolutely nothing who thought he’d run for President for the kicks but ended up running the world instead. Commentators may dwell on the similarities of their xenophobia, nativism and incitement against internal enemies, which is their political weapon of choice, but what truly brings them together these days is their shared fear of indictment, hyper-inflated sense of victimhood and tendency to divide people around them like George Bush delineated the world, in another context – “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”.

Whatever actions they take and whatever decisions they make, their meeting will be tainted by suspicions that these are desperate men in desperate times who have already shown their willingness to take desperate measures. If Netanyahu can actively undermine Israeli police just because he doesn’t like the direction they’re taking and if Trump can launch a preemptive trade war because White House shenanigans have made him tense and unglued, as the U.S. media reports, there is simply no reason in the world to assume that the two would consider U.S. Israel ties in particular and the situation in the Middle East in general as somehow sacrosanct, exempt from the kind of naked exploitation and manipulation that both employ on a regular basis in their efforts to beat their respective raps. The celebration of the special U.S.-Israeli relationship, which will no doubt take center stage at the AIPAC conference, will be marred by the knowledge that its two main facilitators are up to their necks in criminal problems and desperately seeking ways out.

Both may soon face a prisoner’s dilemma of sorts. For now they may prefer to stand together so that they don’t hang together, but each will bolt without a moment’s hesitation if it will help them crush their pursuers. Trump’s shock declaration that he favors seizing guns without due process is the equivalent, after all, of him suddenly stating that Israel is evil and the occupation illegal. If Hamas comes up with a billion dollars to bail out the Kushner debt, who knows, the White House might start referring to Israel as the Zionist entity and to Bibi as yet another bumbling bozo. And if the reported leaks of the Trump’s Middle East plan are accurate, including removal of a substantial number of settlements and recognition of East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, Netanyahu may be compelled by an election campaign to turn on Trump rather than lose the right to Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett.

Whatever the scenario, Trump and Netanyahu can no longer escape the realities that they created when they first crossed the line, possibly between legal and illegal but certainly between right and wrong. Their efforts to obstruct justice and savage democratic institutions have only compounded their sins. They may smile widely at the White House, but they are gnawed by fear of being apprehended and haunted by a creeping realization that, inevitably, this won’t end well for them, and possibly for their people as well.

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