Will Trump "fire" Netanyahu?

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump will come together on February 15th at a Washington meeting that ought to be smooth sailing for both of them. Where there are possible differences, such as on Iran or the settlements, Bibi can stonewall and use the survival of his right wing coalition as a weapon to fend off Presidential pressure.  He has become adept at this tactic in the Obama years. So while he holds the President at bey, he can continue to build, and build, and build some more in the settlements.

Bibi, who does not like the nickname, enters the meeting from a position of strength – he has strong Congressional support on most issues, particularly Iran and the Palestinians; and he believes that Trump and his acolytes are sympathetic to the settlements agenda. His coalition is strong so long as he does not yield ground to the Americans. In addition, since Bibi pocketed an annual $3.8 billion in US defense support for ten years under Obama, he does not have to worry about being mugged by the President.  By the same token, the Prime Minister will be able to use any public resistance he gets from the President to keep his coalition partners in line at home. He may even welcome a little friction to strengthen his domestic hand.

Iran is a different matter, but the Prime Minister has leverage with the President who has written off the Iranians as terrorists and needs to prove his ability to face down the Iranian threat.  The PM and President will be willing partners in vigorously confronting Iranian terror tactics, short of upending the five nation nuclear coalition.  But I do not expect this meeting to result in short term disagreements between the two, even on settlements or Iran.

Bibi is adept at turning on his “made in America” charm, American language, and understanding of our people based on his early years in a US high school outside of Philadelphia.  He has his problems at home, but then so does Trump. Bibi can be so American in his demeanor that it is very easy to forget that he represents a foreign country.  He is skilled at flattery, which he will use to play to Trump’s ego. He has a good sense of humor that he can also deploy as needed. Trump can be played and Bibi is the man who can play him.

For his part, the PM is no soft target and can be rigid when it comes to threats to his personal political future, his coalition, or Israel’s security. His perspective during his meetings with me tended to be short-term – he did not appear on the surface to be a strategic thinker.  But he is a student of Jewish history, as was his father, thus he is very much aware of the long-term threats to the Jewish people and thus to Israel.  He just does not think that the threats outweigh Israel’s power to deflect them right now. 

Arguments about Palestinian population growth, for example, and the future of Israel’s Jewish identity or its democracy will fall on deaf ears. Bibi believes Israel is in the driver’s-seat when it comes to the Palestinians and that he can pull the plug in the occupied territories if the Palestinian’s become a serious threat.  He is less sure of himself on Iran and so counts on the US to be the big brother. He will play on the President’s and Steve Bannon’s mistrust of Iran and Islam to build his case against the Ayatollah.

Like Ben Gurion and Sharon before him I found that Bibi’s word was bankable, provided you know precisely what he is promising.  Too many US officials and diplomats hear what they want to hear from Bibi, and miss the comma or the period in his sentence that changes the meaning of his promise. He is not as good at dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s” as Begin was, but Bibi does his homework and will know precisely what has been going on in the White House and the Congress.  He will be better informed than his interlocutors, including the President. His intelligence on the Middle East region as it impacts on Israel is better than ours, and his attention to detail makes him a formidable negotiator. He is not afraid of telling the President “No” or of walking out of the room if necessary to make his point and preserve his position. But on this visit he will not need this tactic.

When I was Ambassador to Israel, I liked my sessions with Bibi. He conveyed a sense of inclusion and good humor. Like Trump, Bibi uses the threats to his people as a cudgel to attack his opponents and solidify his support.  He also uses indirection, loyal staff, and surrogates to accomplish his goals.  No man can survive in the hot house of Israeli politics as long as Bibi has, without extraordinary political talent, a strong personality, and a certain moral flexibility that permits the bobbing and weaving that Israel’s politics demand.  Bibi has all of those skills. Trump clearly has some of them.  

Bibi has a lot in common with President Trump but has been at it a lot longer.  If there is a clash, we will probably not see it.  But if President Trump thinks he can bully Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump better be prepared to lose.


-Ambassador Ned