As GOP Recoils From Trump and Putin, Netanyahu Gloms On

Even for Israel – where 'normal' never is – there was something exceptionally peculiar in the prime minister's response to the Trump-Putin meeting

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

It had all barely ended – the manicured chaos of the Helsinki summit, the marathon of studied delays, cone-of-silence deliberations, and vague but incendiary statements delivered at a news conference and at prearranged Fox News interviews with presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – when the Israel Television News evening broadcast supplied the whole of the historic and wildly controversial talks with a quick and comprehensive headline: "THE SUMMIT: AN ACCOMPLISHMENT FOR NETANYAHU!"

Granted, all politics may well be local, especially in the silicon ghetto that is Netanyahu's Israel. But even for Israel – where "normal" never is – there was something exceptionally peculiar in the prime minister's response to the Trump-Putin meeting.

It came as Republicans of all stripes were scrambling to distance themselves from their party standard-bearer. Among them were party veterans who had long been among Trump's most loyal and vociferous champions.

GOP ideologue and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Trump's performance "the most serious mistake of his presidency." Shawn Steel, former California GOP chairman and currently Republican National Committeeman from California, said, "It's very unsettling to me personally [for Trump] to have anything good to say about Putin, or not even to confront him, because he's just a thug."

Trump, Steel told CNN, is "meeting with these dictators, from Saudi Arabia, from China, from North Korea, talking about peace, peace, peace. And I have to realize that he's not part of that conservative movement that was highly anti-communist, that didn't like any of these totalitarian dictatorships. We always saw them as the enemy, no matter what. Trump is looking at this, maybe, as some kind of a peacenik, at a level that I'm not comfortable with." 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. Credit: Yuri Kadobnov/AP

But Netanyahu, to whom a Forbes Magazine opinion piece once called "the Republican Senator from the Great State of Israel," was experiencing no such discomfort.

"I very much appreciate the deep commitment to the security of Israel which President Trump expressed in the news conference," Netanyahu said in a video on his Facebook page Monday, standing before an Israeli flag and a map of the Middle East. "And I can say that the alliance between Israel and the United States has never been stronger."

Netanyahu – alluding to his campaign, so far notably ineffective,  to get Trump to press Putin to help oust Iranian and Iran-backed troops from Syria – added, "Secondly, I very much appreciate the remarks of President Putin on the need to honor the Separation of Forces Agreements of 1974 between Syria and Israel."

Netanyahu's entanglements with Trump and the Republican Party are broad and deep. In what was seen in Israel as a somewhat bizarre move ahead of Israel's 2013 general election, Trump – then a U.S. celebrity as a reality television star and real-estate mogul, but all but unknown in Israel – filmed a video endorsement of Netanyahu, exclaiming: “My name is Donald Trump, and I'm a big fan of Israel. And, frankly, a strong prime minister is a strong Israel, and you truly have in Israel a great prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu. There’s nobody like him. He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, he’s highly thought of by all. And people really do have great, great respect for what’s happened in Israel. So vote for Benjamin – terrific guy, terrific leader, great for Israel."

But Netanyahu's strong ties to the GOP went back much farther, often placing him at odds with pro-Israel Democrats, especially during the Obama administration.

Prefiguring a current rift among American Jews and within the Democratic Party, officials within the AIPAC lobby quietly argued – without success in changing the lobby's course – that the prime minister's undisguised antipathy to then-President Barack Obama threatened the tradition of bipartisan support for Israel.

All pretense of bipartisanship on Netanyahu's part dropped away in the mid-2000s, as Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson threw his weight and fortune behind the Likud leader, then working on an arduous comeback from electoral failures.

Adelson founded an entire newspaper, Israel Hayom, distributed in huge quantities free of charge, with the specific goal of dethroning then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and replacing him with Netanyahu.

In early 2009, both Obama and Netanyahu were in power, but their relationship was quick to sour. Netanyahu's senior adviser at the time was a young American Israeli named Ron Dermer, who had worked with Republican pollster Frank Luntz on the party's 1994 takeover of Congress.

By the presidential campaign of 2012, Dermer was helping organize a high profile visit to Israel by Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Adelson, at first backing Gingrich, later switched to Romney and said that he might spend at least $100 million on the 2012 elections.

Three years later, an astonishing breaking point in relations between Netanyahu and the Obama White House – and between the prime minister and the overwhelmingly liberal-Democratic American Jewish community – saw Republican House Speaker John Boehner invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress.

Claiming to speak as an emissary "of the entire Jewish people," Netanyahu, then at the height of a hard-fought reelection race, frontally attacked the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy legacy, the Iran nuclear deal. Two weeks later, powered by the Capitol photo-op and an unapologetically racist last-minute campaign tactic, Netanyahu won a shocking come-from-behind victory.

More recently, the currents of Trump and Adelson support for Netanyahu would come into conflict. In December 2015, Trump sparked uproar and charges of anti-Semitism when he spoke to the influential Republican Jewish Coalition. Trump was booed after he refused to commit either to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, or to accepting the city as the undivided capital of Israel.

Trump's response? “You’re not gonna support me even though you know I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. And I’ll be that. And I know why you’re not going to support me. You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money."

Trump also raised hackles when he told the group, “This room negotiates deals. Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.”

In the end, and despite a number of other factors – including Trump's lukewarm or nonexistent response to the rise of alt-right anti-Semitism – Adelson mobilized to Trump's aid, and there were days in which his Israeli newspaper would devote up to 20 pages to candidate and then President Trump.

As Trump's 2016 campaign gained momentum, Dermer, who had become Netanyahu's ambassador to the United States, may have played a key backstage role – especially at the closely watched AIPAC conference. According to the recently published book "Born Trump: Inside America's First Family," by Emily Jane Fox, Dermer effectively dictated Trump's AIPAC speech to the nominal speechwriter, the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, "who then loaded it into the teleprompter for Trump," Politico has reported.

Meantime, Netanyahu's relationships with a growing number of foreign leaders are also distinguished by a marked tolerance of right-wing anti-Semitism. From Hungary to Poland and, yes, across the United States, the prime minister who takes to social media at every instance of Muslims attacking Jews abroad proudly supports a range of authoritarian rightist regimes with abysmal records on human rights.

Putin's, for example.

"In recent days," Netanyahu's video clip concludes, "we've spoken of all these subjects in great detail both with President Trump and with President Putin. These are very important matters for the security of our state."

On Tuesday, Netanyahu took to his Facebook page again, this time to post a clip of Trump's post-summit interview with Fox News: "At the end of this meeting I think we really we came to a lot of good conclusions – a good conclusion for Israel," Trump said, a Hebrew translation scrolling below. "Something very strong. [Putin's] a – he's a believer in Israel. He's a fan of Bibi, and they're really helping him a lot, and we'll help him a lot, which is good for all of us."

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