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Is an Increasingly Unhinged Trump Good or Bad for Netanyahu?

The prime minister basks in the president’s pro-Israeli gestures but could gain from Trump’s total unraveling as well

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, January 14, 2019.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, January 14, 2019.Credit: AP/ Evan Vucci
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Financial Times reported last week that Ivanka Trump’s name has been circulating in Washington D.C. in recent weeks as a potential candidate for Chairman of the World Bank. Most people dismissed the notion of such a blatantly nepotistic choice as ludicrous, which, in this day and age, only made it sound more plausible.

Sensational as it was, however, the Ivanka Trump scandal had an exceedingly short shelf life. It was swept away by the shock waves of the same day’s New York Times report about the FBI’s suspicion that the U.S. president was a Russian mole and by the equally bonkers story in the Washington Post that Trump has refused to divulge the contents of his meetings with Vladimir Putin and had even ordered, reportedly, that notes of the meeting be incinerated.

Welcome to the loony tunes that marks the start of the second half of Trump’s first (and last?) term in office, which is saying a lot, given that the first half of his term has already broken all known records of crazy. As Robert Mueller’s investigation hones in on the White House, Trump has grown more outspoken, more erratic and, in the eyes of many, even more unhinged, if such a thing is possible. His take-it-or-leave it showdown with Democrats over funding for a physical barrier along the border with Mexico, which has shut down the federal government with no end in sight, was particularly off the wall, if you’ll excuse the expression.

Even in Israel, hitherto Trump’s single foreign source for unbridled admiration and unqualified support, things are not as hunky-dory as before. Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria damaged his standing as Israel’s unflinching champion and all-round protector. Netanyahu and most officials in Israel maintained diplomatic discretion following the announcement of the withdrawal, but the overall consensus in the media and security apparatus was that the withdrawal was a dangerous move that hampered Israel’s strategic aim of eliminating the Iranian presence in Syria and denying missiles and sophisticated technology from Hezbollah.

>>Editorial: Trump's Withdrawal From Syria Is a Slap in the Face to Netanyahu

The withdrawal was perceived as a political embarrassment for Netanyahu, especially as it came on the eve of his decision to hold early elections. Netanyahu has staked his reputation as Israel’s supreme maven in national security affairs on his famous friendship with the U.S. president. Trump’s decision last year to abandon the Iran nuclear deal and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem are two of the brightest feathers in Netanyahu’s cap, both of which will feature prominently in his election campaign. Trump’s Syria debacle is an annoying fly in this ointment, one that Netanyahu prays won’t turn into a direct threat before Israelis head for the polls on April 9.

Before the announcement of the impending Syria pullout, Israelis were unperturbed, and often downright enthusiastic about foreign policy decisions that were seen by most of the international community as part and parcel of Trump’s generally daffy approach to world affairs. The decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem and to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, elsewhere perceived as dangerous and ill-advised, were accepted here in Israel as wise and courageous moves that undercut global hypocrisy and undermined the world’s inherent animosity towards the Jewish state. If this is crazy, Israelis agreed, give us more.

The Syria withdrawal gave them temporary pause. Trump’s impulsiveness, coupled with his known tendency to overrule his defense and foreign policy advisers, suddenly seemed less compelling. Maybe his wires are a bit crossed, they reasoned, reluctantly, just as his detested liberal haters have claimed all along. Crazy suddenly seemed far less attractive.

Nonetheless, one should not exaggerate the impact of the Syria move. It has since been offset, for one thing, by the reports of National Security Adviser John Bolton’s order to the Pentagon to prepare war plans for a possible military clash with Tehran, another move that terrifies the world but delights Israelis. Likewise, Trump’s overwrought threat on Monday morning to “destroy Turkey’s economy” if it attacks the Kurds may be seen by most of the world as reckless bluster but in Israel will undoubtedly be viewed as the right comeuppance and the obligatory lingua franca of the Middle East. As far as most Israelis are concerned, no threat is too harsh for the likes of the unlikeable Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many Israelis, especially on the right, are skeptical of critical news reports from Washington in the first place. They equate negative depictions and critical analyses of Trump in the U.S. media with the kind of “fake news” and leftist bias with which, they believe, the Israeli media covers Netanyahu. Others acknowledge that something may be rotten in Trump’s White House, but as long as he stands with Israel, that’s something for Americans to worry about, not Israelis.

>>Israelis Love Trump More Than Almost Any Other Nation, Poll Shows

There’s a limit, of course, to how much Israelis can turn a blind eye to Trump’s overall loopyness. If the already precarious situation in Washington continues to deteriorate, some may even start to doubt the wisdom of Netanyahu’s fervent embrace of such a controversial U.S. leader. The prime minister’s rivals are sure to jump on every opportunity they get to blast the alliance between the two leaders the moment it seems more detrimental than advantageous and more dangerous than beneficial.

Trump’s progressively delirious decision making isn’t all bad news for Netanyahu, however. In many ways, it’s a godsend. Trump, after all, makes the world go round, even if it gets dizzy in the process. His impetuous policies, domestic and external, may be universally reviled and condemned, but they change perceptions and move the global goal posts nonetheless.

Trump inspires and emboldens authoritarians and despots, as widely claimed, but he also shines a positive light on most other foreign leaders. Far-right nationalists may be on a roll but most others are simply grateful that their elected leaders are, at this time at least, nothing like the President of the United States.

Netanyahu enjoys both ends of the stick. On the one hand, he has drawn inspiration from Trump’s assaults on the rule of law, raising the volume and intensity of his own, personally motivated attacks against his police investigators and state attorneys. Likewise, Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, his hostility to criticism, his aggressiveness toward the free press and his disdain for the separation of powers, as evidenced in his unwillingness to come to terms with the new division of power in Washington following the November 6 elections, have all emboldened Netanyahu to advance along similar lines, albeit more timidly. Along with similar-minded leaders throughout the world, Netanyahu’s ability to buck accepted norms and to undermine the infrastructures of Israeli democracy to suit his personal and political aims is easier today, in the times of Trump, than ever before.

>>Almost Half of All Israelis Fear ‘Grave Danger' to Democracy in Their Country

Trump’s erratic presidency, however, could also improve Netanyahu’s lot among Israelis who were wary of the U.S. president from the outset, along with those whose view of Trump has changed for the worse because of the Syria withdrawal. If Trump is so dangerously volatile, they reason, who better to handle him than Netanyahu, who arguably wields more influence in Washington today than any of his predecessors.

If Trump needs to be contained, who is better equipped for the task than the experienced and, in foreign affairs, cautious Netanyahu? Will neophytes such as Yair Lapid, Avi Gabbay or Benny Gantz be in a better position to control the potential damage that may be wrought in the future by Trump? Netanyahu’s close ties to Republican leaders in Congress and his god-like standing among Evangelicals could serve as powerful deterrents to a president who seems out of control. If Netanyahu could hold off both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, many Israelis might reason, Trump will be child’s play.

Thus, Netanyahu is Trump’s cultivator, extracting golden gifts from the child-president in the White House, but he is also ideally placed to be Trump’s controller, should the need arise, minimizing the potential fallout from his ally’s malevolent meshugas. Either way, Netanyahu wins - unless Trump goes off the rails so completely and spectacularly that even the Israeli prime minister is rendered impotent to help.

In this day and age, with the world held hostage by one unbalanced leader, that’s not wild speculation but a cautious and realistic assessment. Even for the 85 days that remain before Israelis head for the polls.

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