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If Trump Goes, Netanyahu’s in Serious Trouble

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President Donald Trump embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
President Donald Trump embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.Credit: STEPHEN CROWLEY / NYT

When Americans go to the polls for midterm elections in November, no politician anywhere will be watching the results more closely than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What happens for Netanyahu if Donald Trump’s debacle performance at the summit alongside Vladimir Putin on Monday proves to mark the beginning of the end of the American president’s obstacle-studded political road?

And what happens if the Democratic Party scores significant gains in Congress and the Senate a little over 100 days from now, and Trump is weakened, wounded and finally taken down?

Benjamin Netanyahu will be in serious trouble.

No Israeli prime minister in history has been so entirely and openly enmeshed with one American political party, one American president and one American megadonor as has the frankly pro-Republican, pro-Trump, Sheldon Adelson-powered Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nor has any Israeli prime minister in history been so closely identified with the vectors in Israeli governance that have so vexed and alienated Democrats and the critical mass of politically involved, left-leaning American Jews: The right-wing juggernaut that is unabashedly pro-occupation, pro-settlement, pro-annexation, antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian – and which considers the clear majority of North American Jews who are non-Orthodox unworthy of consideration even in matters pertaining to the Jewish people as a whole, as in the Western Wall debate.

Never before has an Israeli prime minister been so directly and potently crucial in sparking a rift in two of Israel’s once-reliable resources of strength, support and protection – the Democratic Party and the American Jewish community.

Despite their reputations and predilections for strongman leadership, neither man is, at his core, all that psychically strong. Netanyahu is notoriously “laheetz” (vulnerable to pressure). Trump – for all he boasts to adoring crowds about how he unmercifully counterpunches his foes – has shown himself to be meek and obsequious when he actually meets a supposed enemy face to face.

As standard-bearers, both Trump and Netanyahu portray themselves as magic men, the sole and irreplaceable secret of their respective parties’ power and success.

But their political support, specifically their base, is far from a lock. Both men were elected by a small minority of eligible voters. Trump won approximately 26 percent of the total eligible vote in 2016, while Netanyahu won less than 17 percent the year before.

This has forced them to rely on, and therefore kowtow to, the right-wing kingmakers and lobbies who command an indispensable segment of their base, whether influential evangelical pastors and the National Rifle Association in the United States, or hard-right “national Orthodox” and ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements in Israel.

One significant misstep, and that support could easily be swung to the leaders’ rivals.

Trump and Netanyahu are both under the intensive scrutiny of their respective backers, especially as both men are also under intensive investigation.

If, as many Americans have come to believe, Putin is holding compromising material as a means of leverage over Trump – who has denied any such scenario – a spreading sense of treasonous conduct by the U.S. president could force a tipping point in driving him from power.

Netanyahu is heavily invested politically in his close relationships with both Trump and Putin. He has explicitly placed the fate of Israel’s very security in their hands, most recently in his widely noted public remarks hailing both men in the choppy wake of the Helsinki summit.

At some point, the question will be asked: What’s the chance that Russia – whose history of spying on Israeli leaders dates back to the personal military adviser of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion – has not expended efforts to amass a dossier on Benjamin Netanyahu?

At this point, no one knows if Netanyahu’s own expressed deference to Putin is rooted in personal regard, a strategic detente vis-à-vis Russia’s allies Syria and Iran, or the contents of a dossier that may or may not exist.

In that regard, it’s worth taking a look back at Netanyahu’s conspicuously muffled response earlier this year to the use of a military-grade nerve agent in the March 4 poisoning that left former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition and a British police officer seriously ill.

At the time, in a rare and stridently worded joint statement, Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May issued an informal indictment against Russia, declaring that “there is no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility.

“This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” the leaders added, calling it “an assault on the United Kingdom’s sovereignty” and “a breach of international law.”

British Ambassador to Israel David Quarrey personally implored Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to have Israel issue an official condemnation. But Netanyahu held off. The British Embassy in Israel put out a public statement, saying, “We do expect a strong statement of support from all our close partners, given how seriously Russia’s actions challenge the international rules-based system.”

In the end, Israel’s Foreign Ministry – headed by Netanyahu in the absence of a designated minister – pointedly issued a condemnation that failed to mention Russia at all.

“Israel views with gravity the event which took place in Great Britain and condemns it vigorously. We hope that the international community will cooperate in order to avoid such further events,” the Foreign Ministry statement read.

Another, much more shocking turn of events may also be worth a second look. Prior to Trump’s inauguration, it emerged that U.S. intelligence officials had warned Israeli counterparts that Putin had “leverages of pressure over Trump,” and that as soon as the president took office, Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources and material to the White House, for fear that the information could be passed to Russia, and ultimately reach Iran.

Sure enough, almost exactly four months later, in a May 2017 Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump personally disclosed highly classified information to them. The New York Times reported that “a Middle Eastern ally that closely guards its own secrets provided the information, which was considered so sensitive that American officials did not share it widely within the United States government or pass it on to other allies.” Further, Trump provided Lavrov and Kislyak “details that could expose the source of the information and the manner in which it was collected.”

The Middle East ally was Israel.

Another question that must be asked is whether Putin intends to, or has already tampered with, Israel’s electoral process. In any case, Trump’s lukewarm and waffling response to hacking in the U.S. elections, coupled with his recent elimination of the position of White House cybersecurity coordinator (handing the role to National Security Adviser John Bolton), have effectively undercut the key international intelligence-sharing element of fighting off such attacks.

Turning aside all such concerns, Netanyahu has taken strong advantage of the Trump limelight, as well as the media shield and focus provided by Adelson and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel.

But the special alliance with Trump may cut both ways if investigators and journalists, now out for blood, uncover concrete and damaging evidence of collusion and/or obstruction of justice – or, worse, breaches directly impacting national security.

Already, Israeli media have begun to highlight the darker implications of Helsinki. A front-page headline in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Wednesday read: “Trump’s Capitulation.” An accompanying cartoon and Op-Ed were titled “A Puppet on a String.” The illustration showed Putin, a stiffly jointed doll of Trump in one hand, a remote control in the other.

Netanyahu is not one to shy away from the front page. And, yes, he plainly loves to be pictured with the presidents of the United States and Russia. But this is one image, one connection, that the prime minister must be quietly, desperately, hoping to avoid.

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