Analysis

At Netanyahu's Reelection Party, Foreign Leaders Come Bearing Lesser Gifts

The April election saw grand gestures from world leaders in Netanyahu's favor. Now, he's lucky if they get to meetings with him on time

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Like the “voter fatigue” that Israel’s political parties fear so much, the do-over election seems to have brought with it “leader fatigue” as well. Before the previous election, in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu managed to obtain a series of grand gestures from world leaders. Whether it was planned in advance as part of the “Different League” campaign aimed at portraying him as a great statesman, or that it just played out this way – as his method goes – completely by chance, we witnessed a number of events very close to Election Day. (For the latest election polls – click here)

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There was a festive ceremony at the White House orchestrated by U.S. President Donald Trump, in which he signed a presidential proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In Moscow, there was a festive ceremony, orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, at which the remains of the Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the 1982 Lebanon War, were returned from Syria. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also popped over for a historic visit during this period. The latter did not move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, as Netanyahu had hoped, but he did make other promises, and all in an enthusiastic, merry atmosphere.

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This time, the leaders replaced the friendly hug with a half-bored handshake. First, Trump really upended Netanyahu’s political agenda by moving toward compromises with Iran and by firing his national security adviser, John Bolton. The president didn’t give the prime minister’s declaration of intent to annex the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea after the election the tailwinds that Netanyahu expected, apart from not denouncing the move. To top it all off, the famous U.S.-Israel mutual defense pact that was supposed to be the zenith, the big present, was delivered Saturday in a vague tweet with a noncommittal promise to discuss the possibility “after the Israeli elections.”

Netanyahu’s people tried, of course, to squeeze everything they could out of this, but anyone who read Trump’s words understands that it was a gift with a deferred delivery. Not only that, but many in Israel’s defense establishment believe it wasn’t a gift at all. Such a treaty exists in any event, and making it official would only obligate Israel to reciprocal measures that no one wants.

Putin, though he gave Likud a campaign photo, also kept the mood balanced, if not downright chilly. Netanyahu’s visit on Thursday, which was originally meant to include a friendly sleepover at the Russian president’s summer residence in Sochi, ended up being a brief meeting to which Putin arrived three hours late, leaving his guest to cool his heels. In the end, in a Russian variant on Trump’s limp message, Putin muttered a hope that “the future Israeli MPs will maintain the friendship between our nations and further strengthen our relationship.” Balanced to restrained, if not insulting. No grand gesture here. We also didn’t see any special guests in Israel this time, turning the new “Different League” campaign posters, which feature Netanyahu posing with Putin, into an online joke featuring the faces of Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, side by side.

There’s something natural about this extreme fatigue. Any prime minister in a round-two election would presumably suffer from it. It’s hard to stir the world to action once, never mind twice. But leaders like Trump and Putin are famously failure-averse. They hate losers, and they don’t hesitate to say so, repeatedly. So it’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition after the April election particularly enthused them. In the event of a third round, heaven forbid, Likud should consider changing its campaign slogan immediately. Giving trees, as in Shel Silverstein’s book, are eventually left with nothing more to give.

The quiet embrace of Assad

Netanyahu loves to claim that the censures of his actions by defense and foreign ministries in general and those of Russia in particular, do not reflect their leaders’ positions and are nothing more than lip service. That’s how he deals with every mention, in statements issued jointly with him, of the two-state solution for example (“they’re talking points”).

That’s also how he treated the Russian condemnation, the day before his visit to the country, of his announcement that he would annex of the Jordan Valley. On the plane trip back, he told reporters that the topic didn’t even arise during his meeting with Putin. He then corrected himself, saying that he himself had alluded to the issue in connection to something else — and that Putin had “smiled.”

But there’s a declaration that is increasingly repeated by the Russians and mentioned less in Israel, and that nonetheless deserves attention: the growing demand to remove all sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria. At the end of the meeting with Netanyahu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told local reporters that Israel had “demonstrated understanding” toward Putin’s call for an end to Western sanctions against Damascus.

Netanyahu generally omits these details from his briefings in Russia. But behind the scenes it’s an open secret that the price of Israel’s continued freedom of action in Syria against Iranian entrenchment is not disrupting the Assad regime’s recovery. Russia has been asking the United States for a long time to recognize Assad’s renewed regime and to lift all the international sanctions. After just recently boasting to the whole world about rescuing the White Helmets, it’s becoming clear Israel is now lending a hand to the restoration of their victimizer — a brutal dictator.