It’s not every day that the prime minister of a country talks to an important visiting delegation from the United States for three hours, and the headline of a report on the visit is about what he didn’t say.
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But that’s what happened in a recent meeting, according to a New York Times report by the paper’s newly minted Jerusalem bureau chief, Peter Baker. In his piece, As Trump Vs. Clinton Captivates World, Netanyahu is Unusually Silent, Baker surveys Beltway insiders on their summer fact-finding jaunts to the Middle East, and concludes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is keeping mum on the presidential race.
The three-hour encounter involved a delegation of former American national security officials led by longtime Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, veteran of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Others with whom Netanyahu reportedly remained mum on the elections included U.S. senators Tim Scott and Cory Booker.
Calling the Israeli prime minister’s silence “unusual” is a bit misleading as it implies discussion of public pronouncements. If Netanyahu favored American presidential candidates in the past, he didn’t do it openly or on the record. Yes, it is true that he warmly welcomed his old friend, GOP candidate Mitt Romney, in 2012 when the Republican hopeful made a visit to Israel the July before the election – images from which were later used in Romney campaign ads. During the visit, a grandiose fundraiser was held, attended by Sheldon Adelson, political patron of both men.
These actions, a series of spats with U.S. President Barack Obama during the campaign – and yes – leaks from his private chats resulted in a report in Haaretz by Yossi Verter, who wrote that “a very senior Israeli figure who is in close touch with members of the U.S. administration relates in private conversations that in the eyes of the Democratic administration, Netanyahu is perceived as campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney.” The story was picked up widely internationally and it was charged outright that Netanyahu was “meddling” in the U.S. election.
The bad blood spilled over the Iran deal would likely have happened without such a perception. Yet it still taught Netanyahu a lesson, that no matter how strongly he might prefer a Republican White House, no good can come from discussing the matter – on or off the record, with visiting Americans or even with fellow Israelis.
But an even better reason that Netanyahu has nothing to say on the matter is that there is no good outcome for Israel, as far as he is concerned.
No matter who wins, he and his government will come out a loser.
What are the options?
Hillary Clinton is the devil he knows, and knows well. He can predict that her administration will actively oppose settlements and push for a two-state solution. While she does her best to send a message that she will be different than Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the differences will be in style, not substance. Netanyahu may not know how aggressively, or how high a priority, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will figure on Clinton’s agenda, which will first of all be consumed with domestic affairs, as well as a long list of more pressing foreign policy crises, with Syria and ISIS topping that list.
While he isn’t enjoying Obama’s icy silence much, Netanyahu surely must not be looking forward to Clinton’s tough love either. Let’s not forget that she told CNN last year that as secretary of state, she was the Obama administrator’s “designated yeller” when it came to Bibi. “Something would happen, a new settlement announcement would come and I would call him up, ‘What are you doing? You've got to stop this.’”
Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario in a Hillary Clinton White House would surely be a decision to put her husband’s prestige on the line by making former President Bill Clinton a special envoy to the Israel and the Palestinian Authority and give him a shot at trying to finish what he started in the 1990s. The idea has been bandied about by progressive Zionists like Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who wrote in the Times that “if there’s the slightest possibility that this 100-year-old conflict can be brought to a permanent peaceful conclusion, Bill Clinton is the one who can make it happen.”
And then there is Donald Trump. In a normal election year, even if he was being careful, Netanyahu may have been hard-pressed not to let some signs slip that he would be far happier with Clinton’s Republican rival in the White House than with her.
With Trump, he doesn’t have to make a big effort. The roller-coaster nature of the GOP candidate’s campaign, his problematic embrace by the “alt-right” and naming of its champion, Steve Bannon, to his campaign, don't bode well for Israel, despite Ivanka and Jared, and despite Trump’s beloved Jewish lawyers and accountants. While a President Trump may please the Israeli right by refraining from criticizing settlements (some Trump surrogates even promise that he will encourage them) and showing no interest in pushing the Arab-Israeli peace process forward, isolationism is a two-sided coin.
Trump’s “America First” types may very well be interested in casting aside the massive military aid packages and close ties between Israel and the U.S. Though they may share common cause with the Netanyahu government’s war on Islamic terrorism, in this case, the enemy of their enemy isn’t necessarily their friend. This is particularly true when one considers that Netanyahu’s carefully nurtured, long-term close Republican ties are to the party establishment figures that loathe Trump – some openly, others behind closed doors.
As my colleague Chemi Shalev put it back in February: “a President Trump might be worse for Netanyahu than a President Clinton or even President Sanders. If either of the Democratic candidates get too ambitious as presidents in seeking peace with the Palestinians or expanding an alliance with the Iranians, Netanyahu can always count on the entire GOP, along with sizeable chunks of hawkish Democrats, to stare them down, as they often did when Obama got too uppity and as they tried but failed to do with the Iran deal.
"If Trump is president, that pro-Netanyahu bloc will crumble: if a President Trump decides to make peace based on the 1967 borders, he will be supported by his loyalists in the GOP and a sizeable chunk of most Democrats. And Netanyahu will be left high and dry, hanging in the wind.”
Right now, if the polls are to be believed, such an outcome is highly unlikely. What they do point to, however, is just as depressing an election result for the Israeli leader: a Democratic White House and President Hillary Clinton, and a badly damaged – if not utterly decimated – Republican representation on Capitol Hill. This includes a small but very real chance that the Democrats may gain a Senate majority, giving Clinton far more power to push her agenda through.
No wonder Netanyahu doesn’t really want to talk about it.