Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come to Washington on Sunday, heading straight into the eye of the storm sparked by the presentation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report. Netanyahu’s meeting with Donald Trump on Monday, originally cast as another White House boost for his election campaign, could provide Trump with his first opportunity to declare his historic victory. If Trump has so far refrained from feting himself, it is only because of his fear that under the shiny wrapping of the gift Mueller has ostensibly given him he may find a Pandora’s box with a can of worms inside.
The Mueller melee is likely to overshadow Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump. As far as the U.S. media is concerned, Netanyahu is likely to be cast as an extra in a sideshow, unless he decides to weigh in on the substance of the special counsel’s report. Netanyahu’s target audience is the Israeli voter anyway, rather than American public opinion.
In fact, Netanyahu could work the Mueller controversy in his favor. Fresh off an extremely rare and impromptu interview to Israel’s Channel 12, in which an unusually fidgety Netanyahu rebuffed any and all allegations about his corruption — including the three indictments being weighed by the attorney general — the prime minister will be more than happy to stand besides Trump as he declares that the Mueller report proves both his innocence as well the existence of the “witch hunt” he has incessantly blasted. Netanyahu hopes the analogy to his own predicament will make its way from Washington to Israel.
Netanyahu’s critics would do well to prepare themselves mentally for a nightmare scenario in which, at the end of his assault on the media, the legal system and all those conspiring against him, Trump will turn to Netanyahu and say: “You’re in the same situation, no?” To which Netanyahu will respond with a slight nod and bittersweet smile, before turning on his martyr gaze and peering directly into the TV cameras, in the hope of touching Israeli voters and softening their hearts.
Netanyahu, after all, is an old hand at White House summits being unexpectedly overshadowed by presidential scandals. His first visit with Trump as president in February 2017 was eclipsed by the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, one of Mueller’s first and most prominent victims. Netanyahu could curry favor with the president by noting that he was right there when the storm began and how gratified he is to be there once again, when sunshine broke through the dark clouds to shine on Trump and his vindication.
Netanyahu is also adept at turning sudden White House controversies in his favor: In January 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke between his first meeting with Bill Clinton and the second, scheduled for the following day. Netanyahu immediately realized that the controversy was bound to take Clinton’s eyes off the Palestinian peace deal he was concocting. His mood improved so dramatically that he called Clinton before taking off on his return trip to share his own experiences and to cheer up the now-embattled president: “These things usually blow over,” he reassured him.
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Netanyahu might also guide Trump — not that he needs lessons — on how to focus exclusively on the bottom line and ignore everything else. Pretend there’s nothing else in the report, he might suggest, besides Mueller’s assertion that his investigation will yield no more indictments.
This is exactly what Netanyahu did during his first term in office, in the wake of then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein’s scathing public report of the prime minister’s role in the so-called Baron-Hebron affair. Rubinstein castigated Netanyahu’s questionable conduct in a conspiracy to appoint an attorney general who would clear Shas Minister Arye Dery of criminal charges in exchange for his party’s support for the Hebron Agreement with Yasser Arafat — but decided against indicting the prime minister because of his august position and the lack of foolproof evidence of his guilt. Ignoring the damning public report, Netanyahu promptly pronounced that he had been completely exonerated and vindicated, which is how the affair is remembered today.
Netanyahu comes to the meeting highly indebted to Trump for his declaration on Thursday that the United States should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The dramatic presidential statement, which garnered widespread support in Israel, sidelined the so-called submarine affair, which reemerged last week in the wake of reports that Netanyahu had earned millions of dollars from his stocks in a company owned by his uncle and allegedly connected to German submarine manufacturer ThyssenKrupp.
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In a clear sign of his unease, Netanyahu spent the bulk of his Channel 12 interview denying allegations of wrongdoing. Why he would want the media to refocus on the scandal rather than on his upcoming White House kumbaya with the president is anyone’s guess, though his critics have a theory: It’s called hysteria.
in any case, Netanyahu owes Trump, big time. He may be asked, or even volunteer, to pay off his debt earlier than anyone expected. Which means he will be more than ready to endorse Trump’s narrative of the Mueller investigation, no matter how far-fetched it may seem. The Democrats will be outraged, of course, and accuse Netanyahu of intervening in U.S. affairs but: A. That’s never deterred him before; B. They didn’t say a word when Barack Obama boycotted his visit before the 2015 elections; and C. the Democrats are a lost case anyway as far as Netanyahu is concerned.
Much will depend, of course, on how much of the Mueller report is made public before Netanyahu’s meeting. The Democrats are girding for battle against recently appointed Attorney General William Barr, who has already indicated that he does not intend to publish the entire report. Like the clash between “executive privilege” and Richard Nixon’s secret White House tape recordings at the height of the Watergate affair, the issue is likely to be ultimately decided by a federal judge, if not the Supreme Court itself.
Democrats are seeking not only the report but its accompanying documents and evidence, in the hope of contradicting Trump’s statement of his own innocence and as a basis for expanded investigations by the various House committees under Democratic control. It’s one thing if Mueller based his decision not to issue any further indictments on his failure to collect sufficient evidence, and quite another if the evidence is right there but Mueller’s interpretation of the scope of his mandate, as well as the U.S. Constitution, requires that he pass the mantle from the legal to the political arena.
As U.S. commentators have pointed out, the Mueller probe might be over per se, but the Russian collusion and obstruction of justice cases will live on. Mueller will undoubtedly be called by Democrats to testify under oath before their committees; there are the prosecutions and investigations that Mueller handed over to the N.Y. district attorney that will continue independently. And Trump still faces a wide range of probes of the Trump Foundation, his inaugural committee and a host of other derivatives from Mueller’s work.
But whatever pitfalls lie on his way forward, and notwithstanding Mueller’s clear-cut corroboration of a Russian plot to intervene on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 elections — never mind the 34 indictments he handed down, including convictions of Trump’s closest advisers — Trump won’t let his day of celebration slip from his fingers. Only a conclusively damning report could still prevent the president from declaring his victory over the forces of darkness that sought to remove him from office.
The fact that Netanyahu could be there with Trump provides yet more proof of the eerily intertwining fates of the two leaders. Beyond their beautiful friendship, Trump’s pro-Israel policies and Netanyahu’s natural affinity for the president's brand of populist nationalism, the two leaders face similar legal challenges and have reacted to them in identical onslaughts on the media and the law while casting themselves as their innocent victims.
In this regard, the term “foreign intervention” is highly inappropriate for Trump and Netanyahu’s mutual aid society. They are less foreigners for one another and more like twin brothers who maintain a symbiotic relationship, which this writer long ago dubbed “Trumpyahu.” When Trump is hurt, Netanyahu winces. But when Trump triumphs, as he might anytime now, Netanyahu is overjoyed. And vice versa.