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President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t taken office yet, but his diplomatic ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are strengthening by the day.
Trump and Netanyahu have joined hands in recent days to condemn the Obama administration’s abstention from a United Nations resolution labeling Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.
Going around the White House, Trump announced his opposition before the Obama administration took a position on the resolution. Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, told MSNBC on Thursday that Israeli officials reached out to Trump ahead of his statement and said they would provide intelligence to him showing Obama took an active role in passing the resolution, a charge that Secretary of State John Kerry denies.
“We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. He added: “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”
Netanyahu responded on Twitter as well, telling Trump “thank you for your warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel” and tagging the Twitter handles of Trump's adult children, Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump.
He also tweeted a video of Trump criticizing the U.N. on Thursday, adding, “I could not have said it better myself.”
Netanyahu currently leads a coalition of right-wing parties that Kerry claimed in a speech on Wednesday were making a potential Palestinian state impossible by peppering the West Bank with hundreds of thousands of Israeli residents. The U.S. has opposed the settlements across multiple administrations, but the bipartisan consensus has frayed in recent years as prospects for a peace deal have dimmed and some on the right believe Trump will more tightly align America with the hardline Israeli government.
Netanyahu has also cultivated close relationships with Republican leaders over his many decades in politics. In 2015, he accepted an invitation from then-Speaker John Boehner to speak before Congress about the Iran nuclear deal, drawing the ire of the White House and many Democratic politicians in the process.
“I don’t think there’s going to be issues of any significance or consequence in which Trump and Netanyahu will differ,” Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said.
Klein’s hopes were buoyed when Trump announced David Friedman, a far right lawyer close to the president-elect, as his ambassador to Israel. Friedman has voiced skepticism of a two-state solution, the bedrock of U.S. policy for the conflict (and still Netanyahu’s position), and compared left-leaning pro-Israel groups like J Street to Jews who collaborated with Nazis.
He identified other signposts as well, such as the GOP platform this year, adopted at Trump’s nominating convention, which eliminated prior mentions of a two-state solution and condemned “the false notion that Israel is an occupier” while still supporting peace efforts.
These signals represent somewhat of an evolution for Trump. During the primaries, he said he planned to be “neutral” in negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and even questioned whether Israel was “willing to sacrifice certain things” to achieve peace.
“I don’t know that Israel has the commitment to make [a peace deal], and I don’t know that the other side has the commitment to make it,” he said at a Republican Jewish Coalition forum last year.
Lines like that surprised foreign policy observers and drew criticism from Republican rivals like Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who offered much less qualification to their support for Israel.
“Saying such a thing was almost blasphemous in Washington, which is a very openly pro-Israel space,” Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told NBC News. “As his campaign went forward, we saw a lot of things that suggested he wasn’t interested in being neutral at all.”
His rise was also treated with ambivalence in Israel. Trump cancelled a planned trip last year after Netanyahu distanced himself from the Republican's proposal to ban people of the Muslim faith from traveling to the states, which leading Israeli politicians had derided as offensive to its own Arab citizens.
But Trump has moved closer in line with Netanyahu since then and some observers see parallels between their worldview and governing style. They speak about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism in similar terms, depicting it as a global civilization battle rather than a limited conflict with individual extremist groups. Netanyahu is also known for firing up supporters on social media, like when he used a Facebook video to accuse Palestinian leaders of supporting “ethnic cleansing” against Jewish settlers.
How their relationship translates to policy is still unclear. Trump has said he will transfer the American embassy to Jerusalem, which prior administrations have refrained from doing since the city’s boundaries are a contentious part of any peace talks, but Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made similar campaign pledges only to back off in the White House.
Trump has been heavily critical of the U.N. and some Republicans have suggested retaliating against the latest Israel resolution by cutting funding, but he has yet to announce his own plan. Then there’s the question of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu bitterly opposed, and whether Trump tries to withdraw, demand new concessions from Iran, or enforce it more stringently.
Beyond that, there’s also a question of how much focus he’ll devote to the region given his broader policy agenda.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement about this right now, but in general, presidents prioritize domestic issues and it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump and Netanyahu are not making headlines every week once he's sworn in,” Heather Hurlburt, a former State Department official under President Clinton, told NBC News.