Trump-Netanyahu: True bromance, or marriage of convenience?

Jim Young/Reuters
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during their meeting at Mr. Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, March 21, 2019.
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None of President Trump’s courtships with world leaders has had the staying power of his relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a relationship that has addressed their professed priorities, from border security and the status of Jerusalem to, now, the Golan Heights. But is their bond a true friendship or just mutually beneficial?

As they prepare to meet again, close observers say their relationship is more than just a matter of aligned worldviews. More important, they say, is how Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu identify with each other as the shunned of their country’s elites. Both disparage tough media coverage as “fake news,” and both are under investigation. They “get that in each other and identify with it,” says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They feel like they’re in the foxhole together.”

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has expressed affection for several world leaders but seems to share more than just mutual interests with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. What has made their relationship so durable?

But Charles Kupchan, at the Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees. “I don’t think Trump maintains deep personal relationships with anyone, Netanyahu included,” he says. “Yes, there are clear ideological and stylistic similarities,” but “this is a relationship that rests on the strong mutual benefits that it brings to both sides.”

Either way, a true test may come with Mr. Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan and any demands it may make on Israel.

As president, Donald Trump has had his share of bromances with world leaders – certainly more than his predecessor, the cool Barack Obama, ever did.

There was the short-lived fling with French President Emmanuel Macron, an early dalliance with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that failed to launch, and a cozying up to strongman leaders – from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines – that remain a feature of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

And then of course there was Mr. Trump’s own admission that he and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “fell in love.”

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has expressed affection for several world leaders but seems to share more than just mutual interests with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. What has made their relationship so durable?

But none of these courtships has had the visceral kinship and staying power of the relationship between Mr. Trump and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – a relationship that has addressed each leader’s professed respective priorities, from border security and the status of Jerusalem to, now, the Golan Heights.

As the first-name-basis leaders prepare to meet again at a White House meeting and dinner Monday and Tuesday, close observers say the lasting bond between two ardent nationalists who have Iran at the top of their enemies list is not just a matter of aligned worldviews, although that is a major factor.

Even more important, they say, is how Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu identify with each other as the shunned of their country’s – and indeed the world’s – elites and as soulmates who understand their survival depends on a loyal, fervent, and forgiving political base.

“Bibi was Trump before there was Trump, always in a mode of solidifying and advancing his core base but not looking to be a unifying symbol of the state,” says David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a longtime Israel expert.

The two men “get that in each other and identify with it,” he says. “But maybe even more than that, they have a sense of common grievance, that they are up against the elites of their society, the deep state,” Mr. Makovsky adds. “They feel like they’re in the foxhole together, persecuted by essentially the same establishments, and they’ve decided to hit back at the same institutions of democracy, first among them the judiciary and the media.”

Mr. Netanyahu learned from Mr. Trump to disparage any tough coverage or media analysis of him as “fake news,” something Mr. Makovsky says the Israeli leader now does “just about every day.”

And of course both leaders find themselves and their political entourages under investigation by national judicial authorities: Mr. Trump under the cloud of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the felony convictions of a number of his high-level campaign aides; and Mr. Netanyahu set to be indicted by Israel’s attorney general on a number of corruption charges sometime after Israel’s April 9 elections.

More than warmth, utility

Still, for some, “bromance” just is not the right term for the Trump-Netanyahu tandem, because they see no warmth or real friendship to a relationship in which the key common denominators are a sense of being under siege and of mutual utility.

“I don’t think Trump maintains deep personal relationships with anyone, Netanyahu included,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington and an expert in security alliances. “Whether he’s dealing with democratically elected leaders or with strongmen, the ‘bromances’ have been short-lived and really haven’t gone anywhere.”

But what Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu have in common and the common vision they have of their political situations – these have allowed their relationship to last where others haven’t, Mr. Kupchan says.

“This is a relationship that rests on the strong mutual benefits that it brings to both sides,” he says. “Yes, there are clear ideological and stylistic similarities, and I’m sure that creates an affinity. But that doesn’t seem to create stickiness for Trump.”

Each leader finds the other very useful in maintaining strong support within his core political base. For Mr. Trump, that includes a large number of evangelicals and a small but fervent (and influential) slice of the American Jewish electorate, Mr. Kupchan says. For Mr. Netanyahu, it’s the conservative base of his Likud party and factions farther to the right.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s surprise tweet this week that he intends to upend long-held U.S. (and international) policy with recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the contested Golan Heights was seen by some analysts to be as much about Mr. Trump playing to his own fervently pro-Israel base as it is about shoring up Mr. Netanyahu in the midst of a tough reelection battle.

Billboards in Israel

That Mr. Trump is intent on doing what he can to boost Mr. Netanyahu’s election prospects seems abundantly clear. And Mr. Netanyahu is pulling out all stops to showcase his alliance with the U.S. president, going so far as to tweet “Thank you President Trump!” shortly after Mr. Trump tweeted his Golan Heights decision.

Mr. Kupchan notes that, in the election campaign underway in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu is featuring billboards of himself standing proudly with Mr. Trump – something it’s hard to imagine many other world leaders doing (North Korea’s Mr. Kim did make liberal use of photos of himself standing shoulder to shoulder with the American president at last year’s Singapore summit).

Indeed, the White House has faced criticism for extending an invitation to Mr. Netanyahu less than one month before the April 9 elections. (The Israeli leader will be in Washington to address the annual meeting of the pro-Israel AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, as will his chief rival in the election, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White political alliance.) Some critics say that the leaders’ meeting Monday is one thing but that the dinner Tuesday loudly signals Trump’s support for Mr. Netanyahu.

The same criticism marked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stop in Jerusalem Thursday, when he visited the Western Wall with Mr. Netanyahu, making him the highest-ranking American official ever to make the visit to the Jewish holy site with an Israeli prime minister.

Even before Mr. Trump’s Golan tweet Thursday, Jerusalem was swirling with rumors the president would give Mr. Netanyahu a pre-election boost by recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 war and occupied by Israel ever since.

Should Mr. Netanyahu prevail in next month’s elections – polls continue to show Likud trailing the centrist Blue and White alliance but with enough smaller right-wing parties factoring in to potentially shift victory to a Netanyahu-led coalition – the big test for the two leaders’ relationship is likely to be the Middle East peace plan Mr. Trump is expected to unveil later this spring or early summer.

So far the U.S. relationship with Israel under Mr. Trump has been mostly all gives and no asks, though Mr. Netanyahu did endorse Mr. Trump’s demand for a wall to enhance border security. First among those gives was Mr. Trump’s decision in 2017 to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Golan Heights is only the latest gift, but it is one that longtime Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, says is sure to complicate prospects for getting Arab leaders to sign on to a Trump peace plan.

Any Israeli give on peace plan?

Mr. Trump’s approach to Israel seems likely to change under any credible plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Still, whatever the promised peace plan includes, Mr. Netanyahu would be likely to go to great pains to continue standing with Mr. Trump – just as he is currently in his campaign posters – analysts say.

“Netanyahu will have to be very very careful” in responding to an eventual peace plan, says the Washington Institute’s Mr. Makovsky. “He will say ‘Donald has done great work’ and ‘I will meet with [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas anytime’ … but he will not say no to Trump,” he says. “He’s going to count on Abbas to be the bad guy who says no to Trump.”

Of course, some say that Mr. Trump is unlikely to propose any tough measures for Israel in a final-settlement peace plan that risk provoking the ire of his political base.

“Trump is headed into a tough election season himself, so the last thing he’s about to do is something that sows doubt within his base,” says CFR’s Mr. Kupchan. “So I would be very surprised if the U.S. puts out an ambitious peace plan that causes a great deal of heartache in Israel.”

That may be, but at the same time Mr. Makovsky says Mr. Netanyahu is a “realist” who “gets” Mr. Trump and perhaps because of that is not misty-eyed about their relationship. “He’s worried that Trump is mercurial enough that he could turn on him if he scorns Trump’s big initiative.”

In other words, if bromance there is, it has its limits.

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