In his seminal work of extravagant fibs, “The Art of the Deal,” there’s a part where Donald Trump described his commitment to duplicity.
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“I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first,” he writes. “In addition, once I’ve made a deal, I always come up with at least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen, even to the best-laid plans.”
This quote might be useful to anyone trying to make sense of the U.S. president’s approach to Israel. As Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are getting ready to meet next week, for the first time since Trump became POTUS, it is still a mystery which Trump Netanyahu – and by implication, all of Israel – will get.
When it comes to Israel, you see, President Trump has largely kept his balls in the air. He began his presidential campaign, as you may recall, with a promise to be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians, opining that a peace deal between the two is “probably the toughest deal in the world right now to make.”
Then Trump decided he actually does need Jewish votes and started courting right-wing supporters of Israel by shamelessly pandering to the pro-settlement agenda, and declared himself “the best thing that could ever happen to Israel.”
Then, after he got the Israeli far-right practically salivating at the opportunity to accomplish coveted goals such as having the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem or annexing the West Bank, Trump went ahead and poured cold water on both fronts. After adamantly vowing to move the American embassy to Jerusalem throughout his campaign, as President Trump said that its “It’s a big, big decision,” one that he is “studying very long and hard.”
[Update: As it turns out, Trump does in fact seem to be Art of the Deal-ing Netanyahu. In an interview with the Sheldon Adelson-backed (and Netanyahu-affiliated) Israel Hayom daily, Trump urged Israel to "act reasonably” on settlements, and uttered the following line: "There is limited remaining territory. Every time you take land for a settlement, there is less territory that remains. I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace.” All of this is pretty far from where Trump was three months ago, and likely pretty far from where he’ll be the next time he changes his mind.]
Furthermore, after going out of his way to signal that he would be the complete opposite of Barack Obama on settlement expansion, Trump seemed to renege on that, with the White House suddenly echoing the Obama administration by saying that “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful” in achieving peace.
So which Trump will Netanyahu meet on February 15? The “neutral” Trump of old, the staunchly pro-Israel presidential nominee, or this new, vague hybrid who “has not taken an official position on settlement activity”? Will Netanyahu get all that he is after, or will he leave this meeting as glum as he did the last time he met with Trump? A lot hinges on the answers to those questions. For Israel, the results of this meeting would be the first indication of what kind of U.S. president it is going to get for the next four or eight years. Beyond the personal fate of Netanyahu himself, the position that Trump takes (or, more likely, doesn’t take) will greatly influence the course of Israel’s politics, its security status and its future.
For Netanyahu, the results of this meeting could have grave implications for his career, and even his freedom. Engulfed by a series of corruption investigations, Netanyahu desperately needs Trump to give him something, anything, to bring back home. His political career is dependent right now on Trump’s willingness to provide him with an accomplishment of some kind. It could be settlement expansion, or the koshering of Israel’s new, controversial land-grab law, or it could be an American embassy in Jerusalem – it doesn’t matter.
What matters for Netanyahu is to show Israelis that his relationship with the president is so special, so very close, as to make him essentially irreplaceable. With new discoveries about Netanyahu’s cronyist and corrupt dealings seeing light every single day, Trump just might be Netanyahu’s only lifeline to avoid a trial.
Netanyahu, who’s painfully aware of this, has been doing his best lately to pander to the new president, to the point that he is even throwing “fake news” accusations around and aping his idiosyncratic syntax on social media. Of course, Netanyahu does deserve some royalties here: Many of the tricks in Trump’s playbook (attacking the media to galvanize support, for instance) came from Netanyahu’s. In many regards, after all, he is the originator and Trump the copy.
This, however, won’t help him deal with Trump as president. On the flight to the meeting, Netanyahu would be wise to leaf through his copy of “The Art of the Deal.” There, he will find the following lesson: “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”