One can only hope that he is as truthful with police investigators as he is with airport security personnel. Netanyahu is spending less and less time in Israel, and doubtless finding his constant journeys abroad a welcome relief from ever-expanding corruption investigations into him and his wife Sara.
Netanyahu went to Washington last week for the annual meeting of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, and also took the opportunity to meet President Trump; two politicians in the eye of a political storm.
There is a kinship developing between the two, who share more than meets the eye. Both believe that they are not just the elected and accountable leaders of their countries, but that they are also their nation’s saviors, and it is the media and the liberals that set the agenda against them.
To add to their worries, some of their closest allies in government have been forced to resign, are under investigation by law enforcement officials, or are ready even to testify against them.
Netanyahu treads carefully with Trump, fearing his unpredictability, but also exploits to the maximum the latter’s weakness for being pandered to. He unashamedly pays (less than) sincere homage to Trump’s great leadership, and baselessly claims that under Trump’s leadership the US–Israel relationship has never been stronger.
For all the trouble Netanyahu has at home, knowing that the noose of corruption allegations is tightening around his neck, he feels comfortable in Washington, and treats it as his political backyard.
In the past year he has met Trump five times, and it was the American president who remarked this week — with his customary eloquence: “We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had. I think we’re as close now as, maybe, ever before.”
Everyone hates coming back from holiday, but the Israeli prime minister must detest leaving Washington, where he is feted and lionized, to return home, where his personal and political future is bleak.
What this greater closeness means remains to be seen, but the Israeli leadership thinks it has the current American administration exactly where it wants, namely turning its back on reaching “the ultimate deal” with the Palestinians, and treating Iran as the source of all evil, not to mention a security threat to the entire world. It was worrying to learn that after a very lengthy meeting that apparently ran over the scheduled time, Netanyahu could triumphantly boast that the Palestinian issue was discussed for only 15 minutes.
This was not because an American plan, let alone any deal, is even an inch closer. It is more likely to be the complete opposite; putting all the blame on the Palestinians, Trump has made Netanyahu grin as he hasn’t been seen to do for a very long time. Furthermore, the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and doing it in time for Israel’s 70th birthday celebrations, is the kind of gift Netanyahu desperately needs. The coalition government he leads is on shaky foundations.
His ultra-Orthodox coalition partners are threatening to withdraw their support for next year’s state budget unless the Knesset passes a law that would exempt eligible members of their community from the military draft — an issue that could lead, sooner rather than later, to fresh elections. At the same time his moral integrity is in tatters, and worse, his legal innocence is becoming increasingly questionable. Having a statesmanlike photo opportunity with an American president, let alone an American president who supports Israel’s position on the status of Jerusalem, provides some respite, be it ever so brief.
For decades now, Netanyahu has posed as a self-proclaimed Mr. Global Security who enjoys preaching to every single world leader he meets on what should be their foreign affairs priorities. And no more so than US presidents. While Barack Obama showed little patience with being talked down to about what should or should not be his administration’s policies, Trump has left his door wide open for this approach. Iran, no doubt, should be high on the agenda of any meeting between a Middle Eastern leader and Washington, considering that country’s development of long-range missiles and aggressive foreign policy in the region.
However, it is utterly irresponsible to marginalize the Palestinian issue, which is on Israel’s doorstep — a doorstep Israel crosses every day and has done so throughout the five decades of its occupation and control of the lives of millions of Palestinians. The persistent rumors regarding the deteriorating health of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should deeply worry both Trump and Netanyahu, as it could spell the beginning of a prolonged internal struggle over who should replace him, and might also affect security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. Bragging about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem gives Netanyahu some brownie points among the Israeli public, but it is a slap in the face to the Palestinians and only strengthens the hand of those who oppose or don’t believe in peace with Israel.
His speech to AIPAC must have felt for Netanyahu as if he were addressing his ardent supporters at a Likud convention back home. When he collects his suitcases at Tel Aviv airport, however, he will be back to a bleaker reality and a less hospitable domestic environment, where his personal and political future is uncertain.
His visit to the US and meetings with Trump and AIPAC might have given him a much-needed injection of adrenalin, but this cannot be a substitute for the lack of direction in his leadership of Israel, or a justification for treating the country as his private fiefdom.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg