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Netanyahu's Delicate, Fateful D.C. Dance With Trump

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Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Donald Trump, Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Jerome Favre/Bloomberg, REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

To: Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu
Re: Your upcoming meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump

1. Based on all the evidence available, the positions of the Trump administration are now exactly the opposite of those that right-wing members of Israel’s government expected them to be.

Note the following:

The Trump administration continues to support a two-state solution; hopes to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal based on two states; opposes unrestrained settlement activity; has no intention at the moment of moving its Embassy to Jerusalem; and will not cancel the Iran deal.  

None of this means that your meeting with President Trump could not be productive. There are critical understandings that might be achieved regarding American sanctions on Iran. And on the Israeli-Palestinian front, this would be an excellent time to reach an agreement on what settlement building is acceptable to the American administration and what is not. Such an agreement, however, will require you to do what you have always been loath to do: Make some decisions and get some spine. An agreement on settlements can only happen if you are prepared to tell your own right wing the truth:  Limitations on settlement are both inevitable and desirable if Israel is to secure American support and make negotiations possible.  

2. You enter the meeting at a significant disadvantage because your personal power and influence are at an all-time low. President Trump is aware that you enjoy the favor of Evangelicals, but he is also a man who is disdainful of weak leaders. And right now, you are weak.

Your compromised position flows from the sleazy scandals that have filled Israel’s papers for months.  These scandals have raised questions about your future, emboldened your enemies on the left and right, and limited your clout in the coalition. Just how much your influence has diminished is apparent from the fiasco of the “Regularization Law,” which legalized the expropriation by settlers of Palestinian land. Your handling of this affair was an embarrassment, even for your friends: You said you opposed the bill, then said you would support it, then travelled abroad and missed the vote, then issued a statement defending the law’s provisions, and then let it be known through subordinates that you expected the bill to be struck down by the Supreme Court.  

The bill itself, of course, was a disaster. Its passage drew outraged responses from every European leader, including real friends such as the Prime Ministers of Germany and Great Britain. These are people whose support will be needed in the future on such critical matters as the Iranian nuclear threat.  

Rest assured that President Trump has been thoroughly briefed on your situation and will deal with you accordingly. So tread carefully.

3. American Jews view you right now with a large measure of wariness and skepticism. 

Support for Israel remains strong among American Jews. The great majority of them continue to believe that Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core. Even if they are unhappy with Israel’s policies, most yearn for a connection to the Jewish state.

Still, support for Israel’s leaders is another matter. The quality of political leadership is not outstanding anywhere these days, to say the least. Israel, in view of its exposed situation, needs such leadership more than other countries. But tragically, she does not have it.  

The government that you head has a reigning ideology dominated by a virulent strain of religious nationalism. The Regularization Law is the product of this ideology and is a stain on Zionism and on Israel’s good name. It is a proclamation that the god of the Israeli right is the settlement enterprise.  And this god takes priority over everything—including the security of Israel, the unity of the Jewish people, and the international standing of the Jewish state.

American Jews, Israel’s most enthusiastic supporters, were stunned by the passage of the Regularization bill and by your role in allowing it to happen. They saw it as a gift to Israel’s enemies, an affront to Israel’s friends, and a new weapon in the hand of BDS activists on campuses throughout America. How, they wondered, could the party that you lead have supported such a bill? And why in heaven’s name did you ultimately offer your support? Is there not some point at which coalition politics gives way to principle and fundamental decency? And it should be noted that opposition to the Regularization bill did not come only from the left in America. Even cautious and centrist organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League expressed their dismay at the bill’s passage.    

To this bill must be added your failure and the failure of your government to resolve the crisis at the Western Wall and implement the agreement on prayer at the Wall that your cabinet passed more than a year ago. You and your ministers obviously believed that if you stayed silent and stood above the fray, the diversity mess would just go away. But what you were doing was mocking American Jewish pain, and what happened was exactly the opposite. For American Jews, feeling betrayed by Israel’s leaders, religious freedom moved to the very top of the American Jewish agenda.

To be sure, as Prime Minister of the State of Israel, you still command respect among American Jews.  And every Prime Minister always will. But for American Jews, pledged to the defense of Israel and the destiny of Jerusalem, this is a time of hard questioning and of feeling disenfranchised by the state of the Jewish people. So be warned:  Respect is a reciprocal commodity. American Jews will expect to receive from you the same respect that you receive from them.   

4. At a time when America is being torn apart by partisan conflict, navigate the partisan divide with extreme sensitivity and caution.  

You are arriving in an America that is more divided than at any time since the Civil War. Your task, of course, is to befriend the President of the United States and to gain his support for advancing Israel’s interests and values. Winning the President’s favor must be your first priority.

At the same time, more than half of Americans disapprove of their new President. Many see him as a demagogue. They feel that he is scapegoating minorities, embracing foreign despots, engaging in unrestrained attacks on the free press and the First Amendment, and promoting religious bigotry under the guise of protecting national security. A significant number, including many Jews, fear that America’s democratic freedoms are endangered by an authoritarian politician who does not feel bound by the safeguards of the constitution.  

It is not your task to participate in this debate in any way. In fact, your task is to avoid it by both courting the President and reaching out to Democrats who oppose and likely despise him. Given the uncertainties of the hour, maintaining bipartisan political support is now more important than ever. On the one hand, it is impossible to know what direction the Trump Presidency will take, or whether it will even survive. On the other hand, there is much feeling in the Democratic Party that you have spent the last eight years favoring the Republicans and demonizing President Barack Obama.  

What you must do then is a delicate dance. Make the President your partner, and make the Democrats your friends. No more endorsements of the wall with Mexico. Feed the Trump ego but don’t become enmeshed in the cause of either party. And this above all:  Avoid public displays of sucking up to Sheldon Adelson. It helps you not at all to present him as your patron.

At a time of division, your task is to be a voice of moderation and reason, promoting the cause of security and peace for the State of Israel.  Jews everywhere are counting on you to do your job.   

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie

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