Why might Trump be distancing himself from Netanyahu?
President Trump informed reporters in Los Angeles on Wednesday that he had yet to speak to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and added: ‘The relations are between our countries.’ This has sparked speculation among some that the US President prioritises the relationship between the US and Israel above any individual. But others believe that he could be distancing himself from a leader he views as a loser.
Dov Zakheim, former Undersecretary of Defense for George W. Bush, informed the Jerusalem Post that Trump does not want to take the risk of being associated with a loser who has failed to win two elections in a row. Zakheim also believes the President might start referring to Netanyahu as ‘his friend’ if he is able to form a coalition again, but that he is preparing to work with the leader of the Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, if he succeeds the current Prime Minister. Considering the fate of the current government remains unclear, it is sensible for the Trump administration to start preparing for the reality that Netanyahu might not be Prime Minister soon.
However, it is more likely that the President is attempting to refrain from interfering in Israeli politics as opposed to distancing himself from a ‘loser’. Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that both Trump and Netanyahu formed an alliance that served both their interests. This is why he actively intervened to ensure Netanyahu won a coalition in April, which he failed to do. Although Shapiro believes that Trump is preparing to form a relationship with a new premiere and that he has distanced himself from a leader he views as a loser, it could be that the President has realised his electoral interventions failed to help his ally.
During last week’s election, pictures of Trump shaking hands with Netanyahu were plastered on billboards throughout the country. The President tweeted about a possible defence treaty with Israel, which was viewed as another demonstration of his confidence in Netanyahu. But the Trump administration intervened in last week’s vote less frequently than it did in April’s election. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton visited Israel in April.
The Prime Minister’s relationship with Trump should have worked to his advantage during both elections. In 2017, the President relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby acknowledging that Washington accepted the latter as Israel’s capital. He also embraced Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights this year too. But Netanyahu’s electoral performances were overshadowed by three corruption charges, including accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage. A second election has failed to break the political stalemate overshadowing Israel’s politics.
Whilst the outcome of last week’s election remains unresolved, Trump cannot cooperate with his ally on the latest peace plan that his administration has created. It could create division between the different parties as Gantz may argue that he can seek favourable terms to Israel and a caretaker government might be unable to implement a plan that contemplates Israeli annexation. Therefore, it is more likely that the Trump administration will pursue its foreign policy when the winner of last week’s vote has been decided.
The President may not like to be associated with ‘losers’, but it is unlikely this is why the Trump administration has eased off Netanyahu. Until a new government is formed, Trump cannot implement his new peace plan for Israel, and he may have realised his interventions in April failed to ensure the current Prime Minister was re-elected, though he has not officially said that. If that is the case, the Trump administration is doing the right thing by cooling off relations until the situation becomes more clear.