It was a feel-good press conference by design and the man that everyone was trying to help feel good was President Donald J. Trump. First in line to make a supreme effort to help him feel that way was his guest, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was surely hoping that he could put Trump in a cheerful mood before the two men and their aides sat down to hammer out policy.
Battered by the crisis swirling around the resignation of his National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn, the dispiriting battering of his Executive Order on Immigration by the courts, and the troubled nomination of Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary, it was clear that Trump was in dire need of a grand moment standing in front of the shiny gold curtains at the White House, his family and top aides in the front row of the press conference - Melania and Ivanka Trump, senior advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and policy director Stephen Miller.
Netanyahu didn’t disappoint, handing Trump the validation, flattery and support he clearly thrives on, dwelling on topics close to the U.S. president’s heart like the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism” and using the tagline that is also the name of Trump’s famous book, “the art of the deal.”
Most importantly, in a declaration already being referred to widely in Israel as a “kosher stamp,” Netanyahu declared unequivocally: "I’ve known the president and his family and his team for a long time, and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest."
Netanyahu made his assertion of Trump's deep friendship despite the fact that the 70-year-old American president has never visited Israel.
Trump responded with a big smile. “Thank you very much. Very nice. I appreciate that very much” and extended his hand for one of his famous grips, choosing the moment to end the press conference, which took place before the two leaders actually spoke policy, lest there be any disagreements that could mar the smiles and happy talk.
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As good as Trump surely felt when he was given the Jewish people’s seal of approval by Netanyahu, it was surely a moment of discomfort and even outrage for many American Jews. The Israeli Prime Minister made his declaration only moments after Trump sidestepped an opportunity to issue a clear throated denunciation of anti-Semitism, that could repair the damage done by the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day and its subsequent doubling down on its refusal to refer to Jews or anti-Semitism.
When asked about troubling anti-Semitic attacks in the United States by an Israeli reporter, Trump first took the opportunity to revisit his election victory and the widespread support and “enthusiasm” that it reflected - and continued with a decidedly awkward ramble around the issue of anti-Semitism, without saying the word.
“We are going to have peace in this country, we are going to stop crime in this country,” Trump said. “We are going to do everything in our power to stop long-simmering racism and every other thing that’s going on. A lot of bad things have been taking place for a long period of time. I think one of the reasons I was elected was that we have a very, very divided nation - very divided. And hopefully I’ll be able to do something about that. As far as Jewish people - many friends. A daughter who happens to be here right now. A son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren. I think you are going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. A lot of good things are happening. And you are going to see a lot of love. A lot of love.”
In case Trump needed any reminding that this was a family affair, Netanyahu made sure to point out that he had known his son-in-law Jared Kushner since he was little, though, he said laughing, “he was always big, he was always tall.”
Another feel-good element of the event - as with many Trump appearances, there was a cheering section of aides on hand to give Sara Netanyahu a round of applause when the president asked her to stand up and be saluted for being nice to his wife. The fact that Melania Trump came to Washington to greet the Netanyahus and play hostess to Sara was a gesture to the event’s importance. Melania, who has stayed in New York to care for her son Barron, had not come to Washington to perform official First Lady duty since the inauguration.
Last week, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made his state visit to Washington, eyebrows were raised by the First Lady’s absence and the fact that Abe’s wife spent the day unescorted.
Sara Netanyahu has made no secret of her eagerness to bond with her American counterpart. She has called Melania Trump twice to congratulate her - once after her husband’s election and once after Inauguration - and in both calls said she was looking forward to meeting the new First Lady.
The image of the two couples on the steps of the White House was part of a carefully orchestrated effort to deliver a visual message of friendship and harmony.
Netanyahu and Trump, both fans of red power ties, both wore blue ties. When the Netanyahus were greeted at the entrance of the White House, and then turned to go inside, the President and Prime Minister’s arms lingered across each other’s shoulders and backs as they turned around, making sure their embrace was captured by the cameras behind them.
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