Next week, Benjamin Netanyahu will round out his 4000th day as prime minister. He spent most, if not all of them, fending off a Democratic president who, he believed, was out to do him harm. Which is why Wednesday was to be one of the happiest in his life, the day he would be received royally at White House, make himself comfortable in an Oval Office armchair, smile at the cameras, silently thank God and finally have the time of his life.
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Netanyahu must have fantasized about his first meeting with a Republican president like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and even Newt Gingrich. There would be great chemistry between the two leaders, as well as deep understanding and wall-to-wall agreement. The American would gaze at Netanyahu with admiration, and might seek his counsel about the war on terror or reviving the economy. Then, over an expensive Cuban cigar, they would discuss The Clash of Civilizations or the tax estimates of the Laffer Curve, compare and contrast the latest biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, spend a moment near the bust of Winston Churchill to sing his praises. At the lavish State Dinner, over a glass of pink champagne, the president would invite Netanyahu and his wife to spend the weekend at Camp David, as befits such a most favored foreign leader.
But der mentsh trakht un got lakht, as Yiddish speakers knew: Man plans and God laughs, and in this case, it was cruel laughter indeed. Donald Trump may look like Netanyahu’s dream come true, because he is a Republican billionaire who hates Muslims, leftists and the media, but in actual fact he is a nightmare in waiting, a wish that’s gone haywire. This is not the president that Netanyahu was yearning for. Trump doesn’t read books, is uninterested in precedents, couldn’t analyze history if his life depended on it. He doesn’t admire Lincoln or Churchill, despite reinstating his bust, and certainly not Netanyahu, but only himself. His view of the world is flat, so Netanyahu’s deep dissections will be lost on him, and his vocabulary is limited, so Netanyahu will have to talk to him slowly and with simple words. Instead of grand global visions and anti-terror campaigns, Netanyahu should be fretting about the world blowing up tomorrow.
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Trump is not an ideologue, but a populist and an opportunist whose positions move left or right depending on where the wind is blowing. Unlike many Republicans, especially religious ones, Trump has no ingrained commitment to Israel. He is not enamored with the return to Zion or the resettlement of Judea and Samaria. Trump supports Israel because it is convenient politically, but if he gets a better offer - and he may have already gotten one from his friends in Gulf and Arab countries - he won’t hesitate to impose his will harshly.
Worst of all for Netanyahu is that he’s also terrified of Trump. He said so openly, in fact, in an uncharacteristic and undiplomatic statement to the cabinet on Sunday: “You can’t cross him, because of his personality and complexity.” Media reports from his first few weeks in the White House indicate that as much as Trump is blunt, aggressive and insulting in his public appearances, his temper and temperament are far worse in private. One can only shudder at the ill winds that blew in the White House on Tuesday, as National Security Adviser Michael Flynn submitted his resignation.
Netanyahu has proven himself adept at overcoming tame and self-restrained politicians such as Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni or Labor leader Isaac Herzog, but he flinches away from, and often succumbs to, people who are more ferocious or ruthless, such as Avidgor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, Ehud Barak or Sheldon Adelson. If Netanyahu angers Trump, defies him, insults him or simply seems condescending, the U.S. president will come down on him like a ton of bricks. Incredible as it may seem right now, it is in such moments that Netanyahu will find himself pining, to his own amazement, for the good old days of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.