Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett may be quivering with excitement and counting down the hours for Donald Trump to be sworn in as president, along with Vladimir Putin and the Philippines psycho President Rodrigo Duterte. But the rest of the world, including the Washington establishment on both sides of the aisle, still doesn’t know, three weeks before Inauguration Day, whether the incoming president is a hidden genius, a complete idiot or a sleeper agent who takes his orders from the Kremlin.
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The doubts about the essence of Trump’s ties to Putin, which have accompanied him since the start of his election campaign in June 2015, were revived in recent days in the wake of his bizarre reactions to the U.S. intelligence assertions that Russia tried to interfere in the recent U.S. elections on his behalf and the sanctions that President Obama imposed on Moscow on Friday. At first Trump tried to pin the blame on computers "which have made things complicated so no one knows exactly what’s going on," as if the whole affair was just another chapter in the "Terminator" series: "Rise of the Machines" with a dash of "Monty Python" thrown in. Then he suggested moving on to "bigger and better things," as if Russian interference in U.S. elections was a mere trifle. And after his hero Putin cleverly decided on Saturday to postpone retaliation for Obama’s moves and his expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, Trump gushed, like a schoolboy with a crush: "I always knew he was very smart."
In an editorial on Saturday, The Washington Post questioned, in effect, whether Trump’s behavior could be explained by his lack of experience, naveté about Russian intentions or admiration for strong leaders. The paper asserted that there were “darker suspicions” as well. To have an establishment paper such as the Post question whether an incoming president isn’t in fact a Manchurian Candidate doing the bidding of Moscow, three weeks before his swearing in, is an indication that his presidency is bound to be just as strange and extraordinary, to say the least, as his triumph in the GOP primaries and his victory in the November 8 presidential ballot.
One thing is for sure, if Obama or any other Democratic president would react towards Putin in such blatant efforts to appease the Russian leader, after Moscow stands accused of grossly violating U.S. sovereignty, shades of Munich and echoes of Neville Chamberlain would have been dominating the airwaves long ago. And Republican lawmakers would have been standing in line to start impeachment procedures against the incoming commander in chief.
As it is, the growing doubts, or perhaps resurfacing doubts would be more accurate, are not limited to the liberal media or to the Democratic Party: they are spreading across the GOP establishment as well. In a split reminiscent of the election campaign, the Republican Party is increasingly divided between hardcore Trump supporters, who are embracing his admiration for Putin, and the hawkish conservative wing of the party, which finds Trump’s reaction to the hacking scandal weak, at best, ominous, at worst. Senator John McCain has rebuffed Trump’s version of the affair, labeling the Russian hacking of Democratic Party computers as nothing less than "an act of war." Senator Lindsey Graham has asserted that 99 out of 100 U.S. senators do not see eye to eye with Trump on this matter. Both senators have pledged to impose even harsher sanctions than those announced by Obama this week.
The irony is that Trump is the main victim of his own appeasing tweets. The suspicions he has now resuscitated about the nature of his ties to Putin will make life more difficult for some of his cabinet appointees, especially Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, who was already viewed as being overly close to Putin. They will make Tillerson's hearings, which may start soon after next Tuesday’s swearing-in of a new Congress, much more of a high-stakes showdown between GOP supporters and opponents of Trump’s attitude towards Putin. Trump’s behavior also makes it more difficult for him to reverse course and to restart relations with Russia after his own January 20 inauguration: He will have to work that much harder to remove the sanctions imposed by Obama now and in the past and to remove suspicions that he is colluding with the Kremlin.
The renewed doubts about Trump’s capacity to conduct American foreign policy will place a dark shadow over what is already emerging as the most divisive presidential inauguration in modern U.S. history. With most A-list celebrities boycotting the inaugural events or refusing to appear in them, it’s a wonder that the New York Rockettes are still on board to appear.
Trump’s behavior also casts a rather ridiculous light on the efforts of Netanyahu and his ministers to kowtow to the president-elect in the wake of the Israeli falling-out with President Obama after last week’s Security Council resolution against Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the ensuing speech by Secretary of State John Kerry about the two-state solution. Even though he was uncharacteristically careful not to weigh in substantively on the settlement issue itself, Trump’s tweets and statements of support for Israel were no less juvenile than those he has made on Putin and Russia. “There's something going on and it's very unfair to Israel,” Trump stated. The UN is a bad place, he asserted. Wait for January 20, he encouraged Israel. “I could not have said it better myself,” Netanyahu complimented Trump, in one of the biggest whoppers of the century.
Trump’s attitude towards Putin and the hacking affair also contains big warning signs for Israel. Putin’s willingness to forego retaliation for Obama’s punitive actions are meant to pave the way for a grand reset of U.S.-Russian ties after Trump’s inauguration. It is easier to forecast where such a detente may start - in the war against ISIS or understandings on Ukraine - but harder to tell where it might lead. If Putin is indeed calling the shots, he might very well have enough ambition to try and impose a Pax-Russiana on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Trump’s role to deliver Israel. And lest Netanyahu find comfort in the deep support that Israel currently enjoys among Republicans, he should have a look at the latest polls conducted this month among Trump voters. They were once diehard anti-Russian hawks and are now enamored with Putin no less than their president.
Trump supporters continue to maintain that the allegations of Russian interference in the elections are being overblown by Obama, the Democrats and the liberal media, all in an effort to delegitimize Trump’s impending presidency. They insist Trump will be able to meet Putin as an equal and to conduct hard-nosed talks with him that will be beneficial for both countries. Trump was a successful businessman who turned out to be a political wizard and will soon emerge as a skilled statesman as well. All of which might be true, but gets harder to believe with each passing day, as Trump does his utmost, it seems, to prove them wrong.