When Benjamin Netanyahu strides through the doors of the White House on Wednesday, he will radiate confidence, but inwardly, he must realize how precarious Israel’s situation is about to become. President Trump will embrace him as an old friend, and the two will gleefully telegraph to the world (and mostly to their political bases) that the days of daylight between the U.S. and Israel are over.
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But the back-slapping will mask the deep instability that Trump’s approach to foreign policy has injected into American-Israeli relations. In Trump’s world, every interaction is a deal; Netanyahu’s problem is that Israel does not have much to offer.
For now, the interests of the Israeli prime minister and the American president align. A well-choreographed visit from a friendly foreign leader provides President Trump the opportunity to present himself as a respected statesman. Just as important, publicly displaying friendliness to Netanyahu offers red meat for a key portion of his evangelical base. For Netanyahu, a visibly warm relationship with the American president projects strength, and a form of triumph. After years of warnings from the Israeli Left that his policies were souring relations with the United States, Netanyahu suddenly seems prescient. His strategy of cultivating and relying on Republican allies and waiting out the temporary chilliness of an unfriendly president appears validated.
But this is just the surface. Netanyahu cannot miss how diametrically different President Trump’s vision of world politics - and America’s role - is from the bipartisan consensus that preceded it for decades before.
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Since the Second World War, the United States has made an unprecedented commitment to lead an ambitious, values-driven foreign policy. The Marshall Plan, the U.S. Navy’s preservation of open seas, the NATO nuclear umbrella―all were part of the answer to Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s call to “act with consciousness that our responsibility is broader than our immediate American interests.” For the first time in history, a global hegemon’s foreign policy would be animated not by a narrow self-interest, but by values.
This commitment was never motivated by utopian naivete or selfless generosity. It was rooted in a recognition that prosperity and peace are not zero-sum commodities, and that global stability confers specific benefit on global superpowers. A rising tide lifts all, but it lifts the most buoyant most quickly. Ensuring free trade, open seas, and the spread of liberal democracy was inherently just and beneficial to the United States.
This consensus has persisted for over half a century. Some, like George W. Bush, have adopted a particularly ambitious view of America’s abilities to change the world. Others, including Barack Obama, have been significantly more pessimistic. No doubt, these differences matter, but they are, essentially, merely variations on a theme. And for all of his hesitations (and their costly result in Syria and elsewhere), even Barack Obama never doubted that the United States was “the indispensable nation in world affairs,” with responsibilities to save civilians in Benghazi and on Mt. Sinjar, to promote free trade and to act boldly against climate change.
In Donald Trump, the United States has elected a president who fundamentally rejects this approach: For Trump, the primary error in the management of Iraq War was that America failed to monetize its participation - that we did not “take the oil”. In its trade relationships, America is “losing”, and our outsize role in NATO reflects the U.S.’s status as sucker rather than a global leader. For Trump, everything is a (binary) deal: winner takes all. And if the United States is not gaining at the expense of another, then we are losing.
For Israel, this structural shift in the American approach to world affairs is a looming disaster. As Netanyahu himself is fond of pointing out (usually by berating others for anti-Semitism), support for Israel is best understood through the prism of shared values. American attachment to Israel, in particular, is sustained by ties rather than transaction.
Americans have long been enchanted with Israel because of its story and identity—not just democracy and liberalism, but shared narratives of chosenness and prophetic mission. A world in which the United States no longer views itself as the protector of a “liberal world order,” but as a transactional actor for whom values are (at best) secondary to economic interest, is a precarious place for Israel. As much as we wax poetic about Israel’s contributions to hi-tech, medicine and agriculture, if it comes time to barter, the Arab states will always have more to offer. And as is apparent from the Jordanian king’s success in blocking the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Trump is ready to deal.
Netanyahu realizes this. But he also realizes that Trump is not simply dealing on behalf of the United States, he is dealing on behalf of himself: the president’s political longevity and ego. And Donald J. Trump values both personal loyalty and the support of his own Bibi-adoring political base. These are goods that Netanyahu can deliver. And so he does.
It is against this backdrop that Netanyahu’s odd conduct over the past weeks—such his bizarre and unprompted tweet in support of Trump’s wall, his uncharacteristic silence in the face of a White House Holocaust statement that failed to mention Jews—begins to make sense (while remaining deeply unseemly).
Some, especially on the right, will take comfort by pointing out that the President’s most influential advisors still seem ideologically driven. Jared Kushner’s love for Israel certainly seems genuine. And Israel’s more cynical supporters may find some success in slotting Israel in on the side of ‘the sons of light’ within Stephen Bannon’s and Michael Flynn’s Manichean, civilizational struggle against the non-White world (particularly Islam and the Chinese).
But these are thin reeds on which to lean: Kushner’s ambition may yet exceed his love for Zion, and racialized, civilizational struggles have not historically been kind to the Jews. And as with his recent rejection of Elliott Abrams, an established pro-Israel player, for Deputy Secretary of State, Trump has demonstrated that he is quite comfortable ignoring the pleas of his senior advisors, even at Israel’s expense.
On his visit this week, Netanyahu is surely looking forward to the absence of earnest lectures from American officials on Israel’s long term interests and deepest values. But he is also uneasy. Netanyahu is an expert at moral posturing and a veteran of a thousand debates over how and when and why Israel can best deal with its geopolitical environment. But he has not usually been called into the White House to deal. His currency is limited (aside from providing personal political cover for Trump with endless no-cost sycophantic tweets). And he will soon sit down with a President whose primary question is: “What can you do for me?” Netanyahu may find himself stumped for an answer.
Yishai Schwartz is a student at Yale Law School. Previously, he was an associate editor at Lawfare and a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter: @YishaiSchwartz