Opinion

Cleared of Collusion With Russia, Trump Can Now Collude Shamelessly With Netanyahu

Netanyahu is breathing a sigh of relief: Now Trump is free to campaign for him, joining a long line of U.S. presidents who've interfered in Israel's elections. The only downside is what Trump will expect in return

U.S. President Donald Trump embraces Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017
\ JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

The world held its collective breath this past weekend waiting to hear the verdict of the probe being led by Robert Mueller into alleged collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump and his campaign.

But no foreign leader was more invested in the outcome or likely to be happier when Mueller confirmed Trumps oft-repeated insistence that he hadn’t colluded with a Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

This makes Netanyahu’s fortuitously timed visit to the White House on Monday even more celebratory than it might otherwise have been. But more than being able to share in the glow of his ally’s survival after two years of the Mueller probe hanging over the president's head, Netanyahu had more at stake in Trump’s fortune than almost anyone outside of the president’s inner circle.

>> Trump Just Boosted Netanyahu – but Handed Putin an Even More Priceless Gift >> Dershowitz's Ludicrous, Pitiful, Conspiratorial and Dangerous Defense of Netanyahu 

Had Mueller’s investigation ended in a finding that the president had conspired with Moscow, or issued something more than a shrug of the shoulders about the charge that he had obstructed justice, it would not only have placed Netanyahu’s friend in legal peril. It would have also sabotaged Trump’s shameless campaign to anoint Netanyahu as the American government’s clear preference in the upcoming Knesset election.

Likud campaign billboard showing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with U.S. President Donald Trump. Tel Aviv, 3 Feb 2019
Ofer Vaknin

The Trump-Netanyahu alliance was one of the more unexpected outcomes of the 2016 U.S. election, but its impact on the Middle East cannot be overestimated. Trump has changed American foreign policy so as to make the positions of the U.S. and Israel on issues like Jerusalem, Iran and how to treat the Palestinian Authority more closely aligned than at any other point in the 70 years of the Jewish state’s existence.

Now, with Netanyahu’s political fate hanging in the balance, Trump has also gone all out to convince Israelis to keep his ally in office.

That is the main reason for Trump to decide to signal his support for Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights as he did in a tweet last week. Nor was there any other plausible explanation for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel last week (including an unprecedented joint photo-op at the Western Wall) or for Netanyahu’s White House invitation so close to the election.

The full-on preferential treatment for Netanyahu was compounded by the fact that neither Pompeo nor Trump are giving the prime minister’s leading rival — Kachol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz - the courtesy of a meeting, or even acknowledging the possibility that he might be the victor on April 9th

If the Democrats’ fantasy had come true - that Mueller would make the bad dream of 2016 go away by declaring Trump guilty of collusion - it would have undermined Netanyahu’s efforts to tie himself to Trump, and lessened the value of the president’s endorsement. Trump isn’t completely in the clear with House Democrats and other prosecutors vowing to continue their investigations. But Mueller’s verdict makes those threats a problem for another day, and allows Netanyahu to accept Trump’s gifts - without having to worry that it reminds Israeli voters of his own legal woes.

But the greatest irony here is that having been judged innocent of colluding in Russian interference in U.S. politics, Trump is now free to go on trying to interfere in those of Israel.

Netanyahu’s opponents are within their rights to cry foul about this. But if that complaint falls on deaf ears, it’s because far from being another example of Trump trashing norms and traditions, his willingness to intervene in an Israeli election gives him something in common with his White House predecessors.

In 1992, the first President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker worked hard to undermine the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir because of differences about settlements and the peace process.

Four years later, U.S. efforts to interfere in the 1996 Israeli election were far more blatant. President Bill Clinton committed his prestige to the success of the Oslo Accords and was determined to do everything he could to prevent Netanyahu and the Likud from defeating Shimon Peres, who had succeeded Yitzhak Rabin after his tragic assassination. Clinton has admitted that he had pulled out the stops to boost Peres’ chances, including staging a summit with him prior to the election and then hosting him at the White House.

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres writes U.S. President Bill Clinton's name in Hebrew after they sign a joint declaration on terrorism, April 30, 1996, less than a month before Israeli elections
Associated Press

Netanyahu won anyway and, as Clinton subsequently noted, made it clear to the president that he knew the president had tried to prevent his election. But that didn’t stop Clinton from trying again in 1999, and with more success, when Ehud Barak ousted Netanyahu.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought a man who viewed Netanyahu as both an obstacle to peace and a personal bête noire into the equation.

Obama openly schemed to topple Netanyahu in favor of Tzipi Livni after he emerged as prime minister after the 2009 election. When that effort failed and Netanyahu ran for re-election in 2013 and 2015, Obama made no effort to hide his desire that Israelis would reject him - or his dismay, when the voters decided otherwise.

It’s unlikely that many Israelis have ever voted on the basis of White House endorsements. But if Netanyahu seemed to be strengthened by his spats with Obama it was because the latter was unpopular in Israel. The close relationship that Netanyahu has forged with Trump makes the majority of American Jews cringe.

Head of the Kachol Lavan party Benny Gantz at its launch event in Tel Aviv. 11 February 2019
Tomer Appelbaum

But Gantz’s problem is that now, for the first time, the American administration is supporting Netanyahu, and Trump’s popularity in the Jewish state must be considered an asset for the prime minister.

The only downside to this for Netanyahu is what Trump will expect in return after April 9th. But that’s a problem that the prime minister will gladly worry about after he is returned to office.

After benefiting so many times in the past from American interventions, Netanyahu’s foes are in no position to complain about anything Trump does to help Netanyahu. But like the Democrats who were hoping Mueller would solve one of their chief problems for them, it turns out that Gantz was among the big losers when the special counsel’s report was handed down.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin