Trump Kept His Promises to Netanyahu, and Showed They Were Worse than Worthless

Debbie Hill, Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in Jerusalem

The lasting images for Israelis, the footage likely to feature in 100 future documentaries, appeared on the split screen of television news: On one side, Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza border, enveloped in smoke or tear gas, hurling stones or carrying their wounded; on the other, dignitaries arriving at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to watch Ivanka Trump, dressed in white, reveal the new sign rebranding the building—with the words “Donald J. Trump” chiseled into stone in larger letters than “Embassy, United States of America.”

Joined on the split screen, the pictures are icons for the hollowness of Benjamin Netanyahu's diplomatic offensive and of his reliance—like that of so many Republicans—on the promises of America's confidence-man-in-chief.

These days the emailed press announcements from Netanyahu's office portray Israel's prime minister as always flying off to meet foreign leaders, or returning, or meeting leaders who have flown to Israel to meet him. He's in Cyprus for a three-way summit with the president of that country and the prime minister of Greece. He's meeting the prime minister of Japan—or is it Romania today, or Guatemala? He's off for a quick trip to Moscow. 

Some of those conversations are responses to immediate crises. The pilgrimage to Vladimir Putin was surely focused on Syria. 

But the overall impression, carefully cultivated for the Israeli electorate, is that under Netanyahu, Israel is anything but isolated. If some of those diplomatic embraces are with less-than-enlightened leaders—the grand welcome from India's Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, or the phone call to congratulate Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban on winning an election—well, it only shows that Netanyahu resonates with the rising figures of our age. 

The deliberately implied message of Netanyahu's diplomatic perpetual motion is that the Palestinian issue belongs to the past—that Israel can continue its rule of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza, and gain popularity. 

And for the decisive proof, look at how well Netanyahu is getting along with Washington. Under Trump, America has come around to Netanhayuism. And if the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has blocked all of Trump's phone numbers, that's another victory.

Netanyahu's relationship to America was always a marriage to the Republican Party. Until January 2017, his years as prime minister coincided with Democratic presidencies—first Clinton, then Obama. His thesis was that his tense relations with the White House resulted from the aberration of Democratic rule. The thesis was never tested by personally facing the elder George Bush's anti-settlement pressures or even the younger Bush's push for negotiations with the Palestinians. 

When Trump first emerged as a candidate, Netanyahu kept his distance—whether because his establishment GOP friends advised him to, or because Trump's crass and ungrammatical style clashed with Netanyahu's more polished nationalism. Back in December 2015, when the upstart candidate promised a ban on Muslim immigration, Netanyahu issued a statement saying he “rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks.” Trump then canceled a planned visit to Israel and meeting with Netanyahu. Maybe he thought the meeting wouldn't go well; maybe Netanyahu very discreetly begged off. 

Once Trump became the nominee and then the president, Netanyahu again followed the lead of establishment Republicans, and swallowed whatever qualms he had. They were surely small qualms and didn't hurt much going down. He understood that the way to be friends with Trump is to provide the very best compliments (“there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump”) and ignore little slights like Trump forgetting that the main victims of the Holocaust were Jews. 

Now it has all paid off. Sort of. First Trump checked the United States out of the JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iran deal, which Netanyahu fiercely opposed before and after it was signed. Then he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Explicitly Trump recognized the city as Israel's capital; implicitly he certified Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding areas; negligently, he threw away an asset that Washington could have used to smooth a future peace deal; egregiously, he showed he has no interest in Palestinian views. 

How better could Trump signal Netanyahu's diplomatic success?

Let's tarry for a moment on the Iran deal: Trump has no Plan B for a better agreement. Unless Europe can salvage the JCPOA, there's nothing to stop Iran from renewing its nuclear arms program.

Beyond the club of policy wonks, security experts and diplomatic correspondents, that danger is hard to explain. 

The split screen during Monday's ceremony, however, presented the hard, tangible reality: The Trump-branded embassy in Jerusalem has not made the Palestinians vanish. On Monday alone, Israeli snipers shot and killed some 60 Palestinians in the roiling demonstrations on the Gaza border. Germany and Britain—essential Israeli allies—are among the countries calling for an independent investigation. In every country with a free press that Netanyahu visits, journalists will grill him about Gaza. 

The embassy opening was the pinnacle of Netanyahu's diplomatic campaign. The split screen showed how little it can accomplish as long as Gaza festers and the occupation of the West Bank continues. 

Trump's promises, it turns out, are most dangerous when he keeps them. And like his Republican friends, Netanyahu is stained by his embrace of Trump. The split screen tells the story: On one side, Ivanka and a Trump sign. On the other, reality. 

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