Netanyahu’s “star power and international profile” have impressed the US leader, who might view a less experienced Israeli prime minister in a different light
Israel is currently in the middle of its second election campaign in the last eight months, and just as the first national vote ended in a stalemate, the one on September 17 looks just as likely to end in an impasse.
This deadlock, however, presages significant political peril for incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and for various reasons related to electoral math and internal politics could spell the end of his long career leading the Jewish state.
One notable feature of his tenure is the close personal relationship Netanyahu has forged with US President Donald Trump.
The Israeli premier, who was introduced to Trump long before either rose to power, has ingratiated himself to the US president, flattered and praised him, laughed at his jokes, and even adopted his wardrobe and named a new town in Israel after him.
For his part, President Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a highly symbolic statement of friendship and support, pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal which Netanyahu loathes, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over parts of the Golan Heights captured from Syrian during the 1967 war.
But if Netanyahu is indeed nearing the end of his political career, will a new Israeli prime minister – be it Blue and White list chief Benny Gantz or another popular figure from Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party – be able to maintain a similar relationship with the famously temperamental and unpredictable US president?
Dan Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, said that any world leader, not just an Israeli prime minister, faced the possibility that President Trump could turn on them at any moment because of how central personal ties play a role in shaping his foreign policy.
In this respect, Shapiro told The Media Line that Netanyahu “has figured out a good method of satisfying Trump’s personal needs,” and that a new prime minister would likely want to emulate his tactics.
“But Trump is not above turning on allies like [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau or [French President] Emmanuel Macron,” added Shapiro, who is currently serving as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.
“I wouldn’t advise any country, no matter how close their relationship with the US, to believe that [Trump’s] transactional nature is not his fundamental nature, and that at some point if he does not feel he is getting what he wants… he might become less friendly,” said Shapiro.
He qualified, however, that President Trump’s support for Israel “is something he feels in a genuine way.”
Several key White House advisers, including President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, share this appreciation of Israel. Moreover, Evangelical Christians, who form a large part of the Republicans’ political base, are major proponents of upholding strong ties with Israel, a reality that has also factored into President Trump’s approach to the Jewish state.
“This should be a cushion for any difficulty in establishing a relationship with a new Israeli prime minister,” Shapiro noted.
Professor Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes that the above-mentioned issues take a back seat to the mutual interests of the two countries, which he says will persist irrespective of their leaders.
Inbar told The Media Line that the Trump Administration would continue to view Israel as a critical ally in the Middle East, while any Israeli prime minister would consider the US of “paramount importance” and act accordingly.
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, is somewhat less optimistic, telling to The Media Line that is was possible friction could emerge between President Trump and a new Israeli premier.
Meridor said that any Israeli politician would face the same choice as Netanyahu: that is, to place an emphasis on gaining short-term political and diplomatic benefits by embracing President Trump, even though doing so could have negative ramifications in the future.
These long-term risks include potentially damaging bipartisan US support for Israel, as well as distancing from the Jewish state American Jews who are overwhelmingly liberal and mainly oppose President Trump.
Meridor stressed that there is a middle ground, whereby a new prime minister could continue Netanyahu’s strong embrace of President Trump, while concurrently taking inoffensive steps to repair relations with the Democratic Party and US Jewry.
So what are the potential points of contention between President Trump and a new Israeli prime minister, or the current one for that matter?
Forging a new nuclear accord with Iran is one possibility, which President Trump has indicated he may be open to. If such a “photo-op deal,” as Meridor puts it, is too similar to the original agreement spearheaded by the Obama administration, neither Netanyahu nor any Israeli prime minister would be pleased.
Additionally, growing Chinese investment in Israeli infrastructure and hi-tech companies could displease President Trump, who is engaged in a trade war with Beijing. A total US troop withdrawal from Syria could likewise upset Jerusalem, which is committed to preventing Tehran from establishing a permanent military presence there.
Ambassador Shapiro noted that Netanyahu’s “star power and international profile” have impressed the US president, who might view a less experienced Israeli prime minister in a different light, especially if cracks do begin to emerge in the bilateral relationship.
“But there are strong political and personal incentives not to let any differences become major sources of friction,” he said.
“Every US president and Israeli prime minister have had to establish a personal relationship and advance the common interests of both countries, and they have always been able to do so despite their differences,” Shapiro concluded.