Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has known a few American presidents en route to becoming Israel’s longest-serving premier, but it’s in President Donald Trump that he has found a unique partnership.
Since Trump’s election in 2016, the two leaders have provided important political support for each other; Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu has bolstered his appeal to millions of pro-Israel evangelicals, while Netanyahu’s closeness to the U.S. president has allowed him to tell Israelis that only he can handle the country’s complex foreign policy needs and extract concessions that have eluded the Middle Eastern nation for generations.
The mutual benefit society of two foundered as Trump undergoes a scarring impeachment process.
Now, in a striking parallel, both leaders have found themselves facing allegations of corruption that has put them in perilous straits. Their special relationship is no longer so special, as the political crutch each has afforded the other no longer carries the weight it once did.
Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Trump-Netanyahu relationship might rekindle some of its former magic. That it instead produced a quickly extinguished spark only underscored its limits. The mutual benefit society of two foundered as Trump undergoes a scarring impeachment process and Netanyahu, currently the country’s caretaker prime minister, was indicted Thursday on corruption charges days after he failed to cobble together a governing coalition.
With Trump under increasing pressure from wall-to-wall coverage of impeachment hearings laying bare his behavior toward Ukraine, he attempted a classic move Monday: divert attention by making news that fires up his base, in this case with the radical declaration that the United States would no longer view Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal.
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Washington as far back as the Carter administration has opposed Jewish settlements. Recent administrations have seen them as damaging to the terrirorial integrity of a future Palestinian state. The announcement added fuel to Palestinian claims that the U.S. can no longer serve as an impartial broker of a Middle East peace deal.
Despite the major reversal on settlements, the U.S. media barely paid attention and quickly returned to impeachment coverage. And in Israel, this massive gift to the Israeli right, which Netanyahu leads, failed to translate into political capital for the weakened PM.
Following the announcement, Netanyahu floated forming a coalition government with his archrivals in the Blue and White party in order to annex a strategic part of the West Bank— the Jordan River Valley — a possibility now newly viable. But the unprecedented window of opportunity was insufficient to convince Netanyahu’s rivals to join with him in a government. And it did nothing to deflect attention from the indictment bombshell.
It didn’t used to work this way. When Trump made the colossal gesture shortly into his tenure of moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, fulfilling a campaign promise, it garnered massive headlines for Trump and helped Netanyahu prove to Israeli voters— particularly the Israeli center and right for whom the relocation was long sought and drenched in symbolic importance — that he enjoyed a special relationship with the American chief executive.
Similarly, weeks before a tightly contested Israeli election April 9, Trump made a surprise announcement that almost 52 years after Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967’s Six-Day War, the U.S. would recognize Israel’s annexation of the strategic territory. The recognition was interpreted by both Israeli and American audiences as a gift to Netanyahu, a sign of the two leaders’ alliance and personal proximity.
Coverage of the Golan move was wall-to-wall in Israel, and one village renamed itself in honor of Trump. Netanyahu used Trump as a central part of his message, erecting larger-than-life billboards showing him shaking hands with a happy Trump above the slogan “Netanyahu — in a different league.” That helped give Netanyahu, already under threat of indictment, a victory at the polls (though not enough for him to form a government).
Trump’s public embrace of Netanyahu also helped the U.S. president politically. Prominent evangelicals saw Trump’s embrace of Israel as little short of divine providence. Pastor Jim Hagee, leader of the millions-strong Christians United for Israel, recounted to his followers that he told Trump that he “would be forever engraved in our history books if he did indeed fulfill his promise to move the embassy.”
The two leaders also get support from each other’s followers, which have made Trump’s support for Netanyahu and Netanyahu’s proximity to Trump a key way of appealing to their respective voters. Approximately 65 percent of American Republicans and 40 percent of Americans overall have positive views of Netanyahu, making him about as popular as Trump himself in the broader public.
In Israel, Trump is so highly regarded among right-leaning voters that an ultra-Orthodox boys’ choir dedicated a song — “Super-Trump” — to the president, while earlier this month Trump himself joked: “If anything happened here, I’m making a trip over to Israel. I'll be prime minister there very quickly.”
He might need to test that proposition if he finds himself impeached in the coming months or, more likely, turned out by voters repulsed by the evidence that he pressured the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into a major political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also on the ropes thanks to the indictment by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, once considered a Netanyahu ally, whose appointment to the position was seen as a strong protection for the prime minister.
Both have turned to criticizing the media and attacking branches of their own government in efforts to shore up their political viability.
In the end, the very similarities between the two — shared domestic legal woes stemming from alleged abuses of their executive offices — have rendered each leader unable to deliver the usual boost to their trans-Atlantic counterpart.
The parallel continues in how they are dealing with their vulnerable positions. Netanyahu deflected the news of the indictment by describing it as “an attempted coup” and complaining that leftist judges “weren't looking to get the truth, they were looking to get me.” Trump, reeling from the impeachment proceedings of the past week, Friday called them an “overthrow attempt.”
Both have turned to criticizing the media and attacking branches of their own government in efforts to shore up their political viability. These tactics are needed now more than ever after the reciprocal relationship has come up short.