March 6, 2018 / JNS) With a wobbly coalition threatening his political stability and under investigation for alleged corruption, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surely must have appreciated the opportunity to escape Israel and receive a warm welcome by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House.
But his appearance at the annual American Israel Political Action Committee convention the next day, during which he touted Israeli innovation and the need to “stop Iran” in an engaging speech, must also have left many of the 18,000 attendees wondering if this would be the last time they would hear him exclaim, “What the heck, I’m the prime minister!” as he left the safety of the podium to wander the stage and engage the audience.
“I think a visit to Washington for him is a respite,” David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS. “He gets a warm welcome. It’s a way for him to project to the Israeli public that he is not distracted by the investigations, and that he is accepted by the U.S. as a great friend. So there is an advantage for him to make the trip.”
Itamar Rabinovich, who previously served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during the Clinton administration and is currently a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told JNS that “in terms of atmospherics, Netanyahu had an excellent visit.”
He noted that “Trump went out of his way to display good will and cordiality,” adding that “it seems that the president is seeking to help a beleaguered Netanyahu.”
That mounting political pressure on Netanyahu was brought to the fore at the AIPAC convention when the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Avi Gabbay, appeared to officially announce his candidacy for the Israeli premiership in his speech and subtly referred to Netanyahu’s legal woes when he told the audience that “we are better than some of the news coming out of Israel today.”
According to Makovsky, because of this talk of early elections, “there might be a tactical advantage for Netanyahu to convince Trump to release the peace-process plans.”
“It could be,” Makovsky surmised, “that if Trump wants to help Netanyahu in early elections, he might ask him, ‘Will a peace plan help you or hurt you?’ After Israel’s 70th birthday celebrations and the U.S. embassy move in May, Netanyahu might see it as an advantage to go to early elections.”
But it’s a two-way street. Trump is a businessman, so if he offers to help Netanyahu, he will expect something in return.
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told JNS: “I see Prime Minister Netanyahu engaged in a grand campaign, both public and private, to keep the volatile American president pleased with Israel and cooperative with such priorities as Jerusalem, the Palestinians, Syria and Iran. His address to AIPAC—mixing admiration with subtle pressure—was another element in that campaign.”
“The real question,” according to Rabinovich, “concerns the substance of the actual discussion between the two leaders. Israel’s most urgent problem is the Iranian military buildup in Syria. Iran collaborates closely with Russia, and in order to counter that axis, Israel needs U.S. help.”
Commenting on the fact that Trump and Netanyahu discussed how to deal with Iran, Makovsky said that “Netanyahu clearly wanted to touch base with Trump two months before the consultations with the Europeans over new sanctions on Iran, to hear what the U.S. says about that.”
According to Rabinovich, “Trump has defined containing Iran as a major U.S. policy interest goal, but so far has done little in this regard. The long-term significance of the visit will be determined by the progress, or lack thereof, in this regard.”
But this won’t help Netanyahu if he calls early elections back home.
“Under a darkening cloud,” said Rabinovich, “one of Netanyahu’s main assets with the Israeli public is his ability to argue that he is very effective in improving an already close relationship with the U.S.”