Helsinki Fiasco Proves That Netanyahu’s Adulation for Trump Is a Miscalculated Risk for Israel

A U.S. president who shames his country in public won’t hesitate to stick a knife in the back of its ally in the Middle East

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Trump throws a football to U.S. First Lady Melania during a joint news conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018
Trump throws a football to U.S. First Lady Melania during a joint news conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018Credit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A few minutes after the end of the press conference with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement of unqualified support. He praised Trump for his “deep commitment” to Israel’s security and added, as he usually does, that “the friendship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger.” He put in a good word for Putin as well, even before hearing that the Russian president was “a fan,” as Trump told Fox News. The reports and analyses in Israel were ecstatic: The summit’s outcome showcased Netanyahu’s strong statesmanship and unrivaled diplomatic skills.

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From reading the headlines, one might have concluded that we are living in a normal world and that the Helsinki meeting was just another point on the continuum of summits between the leaders of the world’s two superpowers. Since Trump’s election, however, the world is far from normal and the United States is going off the rails: The Helsinki summit will be remembered as one of the most disturbing and grotesque events in modern American history. Most of the world, including many Trump supporters in the U.S., watched aghast as the U.S. president trashed his country and defended its enemy. Netanyahu’s quick support portrayed Israel as living on another planet. As Israel’s famous poetess Rachel wrote, “I only know to tell of myself/ my world is as narrow as an ant’s.”

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Never mind that the link between Netanyahu and Trump isn’t just a matter of simple expediency, but a deep-rooted emotional and ideological bond. Trump’s election released the last pent-up remainders of Netanyahu’s nationalism, authoritarianism, populism and self-victimization. It accelerated the depletion of his sense of shame, from the odious laws Netanyahu pushes in the Knesset to his war on the police and law authorities to his shameful courtship of arguably anti-Semitic leaders in Hungary and Poland. Small wonder that Trump often uses Netanyahu as an advocate and human shield, deploying him to remove doubts among wavering U.S. supporters.

There’s no denying, of course, that Netanyahu is responsible for Israel’s security, not world peace. And it’s understandable that he would play up his close ties to Trump, his frequent dialogue with Putin and the advantages that Israel accrues from both. But there’s a limit to everything and sometimes enough is enough: The plaudits for Trump immediately after his dismal showing in Helsinki are perceived as assistance for a disgraced friend. They depict Israel as a country oblivious to the world and blind to troubles just beyond its nose. It casts Israel as a central cog in the deviant Putin-Trump axis, the true nature of which has yet to be revealed.

The obvious precedent, of course, is Richard Nixon, who provided vital assistance to Israel during the Yom Kippur War and was rewarded with the undying admiration of its leaders, despite the Watergate scandal swirling around him. But unlike 1973, Israel isn’t waging an all-out war with empty arsenals. And Nixon, with all due disrespect, wasn’t viewed as a compulsive breaker of U.S. alliances and as an epitome of arrogance, ignorance and personal corruption. Netanyahu could have maintained close ties to Trump and safeguarded Israel’s vital interests while maintaining a safe distance nonetheless. Instead, the prime minister goes out of his way to kowtow to the U.S. president.

His total identification with Trump is a moral stain on Israel in and of itself. It tarnishes Israel’s good name among the large swaths of the U.S. and world public opinion that abhors the American president. When the time comes and Americans will be rid of their president - at the ballot box, in the courts or through impeachment proceedings - they will hold his enablers to account as well. First and foremost, Israel’s infatuation with Trump is a miscalculated risk:  An American president who is willing to sell out his own country in public, as Trump did in Helsinki, won’t think twice about sticking a knife in the backs of his groupie Netanyahu, and of America’s “greatest ally” in the Middle East.

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