Donald Trumpâ€™s epic stammer in the aftermath of the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has raised concerns everywhere about his commitment to stamping out hateful ideologies. In few places has it been as controversial as Israel.
The Israeli media have been brutal in reporting Trumpâ€™s attempt to divide blame between the fascists and those who protested them. So have Israeli opposition leaders. â€śWhen it comes to racism, anti-Semitism and Nazism, there arenâ€™t two equal sides,â€ť said Tsippi Livni, a leader of the center-left Zionist Union bloc. â€śThereâ€™s good and thereâ€™s bad. Period!â€ť
Livni addressed the rebuke to Trump, but Israelis know it was aimed directly at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supposed softness on the U.S. president. Three days after the rally in Virginia, Netanyahu tweeted: â€śOutraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.â€ť But, to the feigned horror of his political opponents, he did not call Trump out, or hint that the president is an anti-Semite or Nazi enabler. Netanyahu declined his opponentsâ€™ invitation to make an enemy of Trump. He had more than one good reason for doing so.
The first is rooted in reality. There is a lot of violent anti-Semitism in the world, almost all of it emanating from Islamic regimes. Israeli prime ministers are required by custom and doctrine to look after the safety of the Jewish diaspora, and Netanyahu takes this seriously. After the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, Netanyahu infuriated French President Francois Hollande by calling on the Jews of France to migrate to Israel for their own safety (a considerable number are taking him up on it).
The threat to European Jews from Islamic terrorists is palpable, and therefore Israelâ€™s problem too. American Jews are not vulnerable in the same way. The U.S. government is capable of protecting them if they need protection. The thought of Israel intervening by calling on a mass flight from American bigotry would horrify most Jewish leaders.
Even if Netanyahu thinks Trump is an anti-Semite, he would need far more evidence before saying so out loud. But Iâ€™m quite sure he believes no such thing. As the son of a historian and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, he has a pretty clear notion of how Jew-haters behave and sound. These bigots do not tend to have daughters who have converted to Judaism, Jewish senior advisers, Jewish business partners and Jewish cronies. They also do not tend to be ardent supporters of Israel. Trump doesnâ€™t fit the profile.
Of course, the presidentâ€™s support for Israel has thus far been mostly rhetorical. It will be tested soon. Israel is concerned about Iranian expansion, opposes the nuclear treaty, and would like, at the very least, to see harsher sanctions against Tehran. It is also strongly bent on preventing an armed Palestinian state in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This week, a team of U.S. peace negotiators, led by the presidentâ€™s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are in Jerusalem and the West Bank to see what flexibility there might be for a deal. So far, such talks have shown the Trump administration to be a strategic partner.
That could change, of course. Flux is the constant state of the world of Donald Trump. No statesman would pin his countryâ€™s vital interests on declarations of affection for anyone so fickle. This is another thing the prime minister doesnâ€™t want to say out loud. But heâ€™s surely thinking about it.
The Charlottesville fiasco has encouraged prominent Republicans to attack Trump publicly. Some are long-time critics such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham; but now others, including senators Bob Corker and Tim Scott, have openly questioned Trumpâ€™s fitness for the presidency. Fox News is no longer a reliable ally and, with the firing of White House political adviser Steve Bannon, neither is Breitbart News. The Republican Party is split, and it will likely stay split at least until the 2018 elections clarify how Trump voters feel about his performance. A bad election, and Trump could be in real trouble.
There is no reason for Netanyahu to involve himself in the internecine struggles of the Republicans. He can afford to remain neutral. His Likud Party voters are not deeply invested in American politics and certainly wonâ€™t pressure him. If Trump is okay with the prime minister, heâ€™s fine by them.
But if and when the Republican Party fractures, Trump will want Bibi Netanyahu on his side. The Israeli prime minister is an honorary Republican in very good standing. His roots in the party go back to the Ronald Reagan administration. His hawkish geopolitics are widely shared and admired within the party. He has ties to mega-donors like the Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. And he is a hero to the evangelical Christian wing of the party.
These are assets that Netanyahu doesnâ€™t want to squander by getting in the middle of American party politics. But the time may come when he is courted by both sides of an internal brawl, and that would add up to leverage. The possibility is worth holding onto as an insurance policy against any Trumpian backsliding on the issues that truly matter to him.
Which leads us to another thing Netanyahu doesnâ€™t want to say out loud. If Trump does get Nixon-ized by his party, presumably he will be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence. From Israelâ€™s point of view, there are worse outcomes.
Of course, no the U.S. president is without leverage of his own, and Trump is certainly aware that Bibi is under investigation for alleged crimes and misdemeanors. His media strategy has been to deny all charges and to present himself (more or less correctly) as the only Israeli politician with foreign policy chops. Who else has a good relationship with the president of the U.S.? Tsippi Livni?
If Trump gets the impression that Netanyahu is cooperating with Republican rivals, a tweet or two could seriously weaken his â€śI am the indispensable prime ministerâ€ť defense, not to mention his political future.