Five Things to Know This Week: Is Bibi Losing Trump?
1. Is Bibi losing Trump?
Israel announced early elections scheduled and Benjamin Netanyahu, running for another term as prime minister, has a winning line—or at least had one until this week. “Our alliance with the United States is stronger than ever,” Netanyahu told Likud party members when he announced elections were set for April 9. It’s clear Netanyahu is positioning himself not only as “Mr. Security” but now also as “Mr. Diplomacy.” After all, the Israeli leader, despite warnings from all sides, stood up to the former American president and bet on regime change in Washington. He is now reaping the fruit of his gambit: He enjoys an unprecedented relationship with Donald Trump and has watched the Trump White House grant him his two main wishes: moving the embassy and abandoning the Iranian nuclear deal.
But that’s last week’s news.
In the roller coaster known as the Trump presidency, nothing lasts forever, and the president’s recent decision to pull American troops out of Syria is seen as a diplomatic and strategic blow to Israel. Israel had hoped for a longer U.S. military presence to ensure Iran doesn’t use its land bridge through Syria to get dangerously close to Israel’s border. On Wednesday, during a visit to Iraq, Trump doubled down on his decision, basically making clear that Israel can take care of itself. “I told Bibi, you know we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they are doing very well at defending themselves,” Trump told reporters during his surprise visit. Trump’s warm embrace of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, complete with two phone calls, an upcoming visit and a wholesale endorsement of the Turkish leader’s plan for Syria, also irked Netanyahu, who this week repeated his claim that Erdogan is plagued with anti-Semitism.
So is the tide turning on the Netanyahu-Trump bromance? Not if it’s up to Bibi. The Israeli prime minister walked a political tightrope this week, trying to dispel the doom and gloom prophecies about the dangers Israel will face after America withdraws from Syria, while making clear the mission in Syria, at least as Israel sees it, has yet to be accomplished. But all around, the wall of support for Trump in the pro-Israel community is beginning to crumble. AIPAC, the large nonpartisan pro-Israel lobby, issued a statement expressing concern over Iran’s role in a post-America Syria. The lobby also retweeted politicians from both sides of the aisle speaking out against Trump’s move. In Israel, criticism of Trump’s move was voiced on the right and left, especially from former generals and members of the military establishment. Back at home, the New York Times’ conservative columnist Bret Stephens, a staunch defender of Trump’s foreign policy, titled his December 26 op-ed: “Donald Trump is Bad for Israel.”
This upcoming week will be a time for clarifications and course correction. Netanyahu will meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a meeting that is likely to produce a stronger commitment from the Trump administration to block Iran’s spread in the region even after the U.S. withdraws from Syria. A clear statement coming out of the meeting, and some more reinforcement from the White House, can go a long way in restoring the friendship, and can help Netanyahu prove to Israeli voters that he was right in tying his political destiny to Donald Trump.
2. Will Bibi come to AIPAC?
The lobby will hold its annual policy conference on March 24, just two weeks before Israelis go to the polls. Netanyahu is usually the keynote speaker and he’s unlikely to miss out this year, thanks to the perfectly timed pre-election photo opportunity the event offers, and a possible meeting with Trump on the sidelines. For AIPAC, the timing will require some delicate balancing in order to ensure it’s not seen as meddling in Israeli elections. In the past the lobby solved the problem by giving equal time at the conference to Israeli opposition leaders.
3. Who will march in the Women’s March?
With three weeks to go, controversy over anti-Semitism in the movement has engulfed the Women’s March, playing out on the pages of major publications and in just about every Jewish news outlet. Organizers of the march don’t seem likely to go beyond their statement on anti-Semitism, which was deemed by some Jewish activists as unsatisfactory. Now it’s time for Jewish organizations and individuals to make their decision: join the march, stay home, or launch their own events. Several major local organizations, including those in major Jewish population centers such as New York and Los Angeles have chosen to distance themselves from the national movement, making clear to their supporters they will hold a march, but are not affiliated with the group. Others including the National Council of Jewish Women are reconsidering endorsing the march, while trying to work with organizers on addressing problems of anti-Semitism.
4. Peace plan watch
The Jared Kushner-Jason Greenblatt peace initiative is now on hold once again, at least until after the Israeli elections in April. The early election date, said a senior administration official, is “one of many factors we are considering in evaluating the timing of the release of the peace plan.” Or in other words, nothing will happen before the U.S. knows who’s Israel’s next leader and what his coalition looks like.
5. Jared and Ivanka watch
The royal couple is under fire, for a change—this time for spending their Christmas vacation in Florida, where local paparazzi caught the couple having fun at Mar-a-Lago while 800,000 federal workers are on furlough due to government shutdown. This week will give Jared a chance to redeem himself, as negotiations with Democrats over a funding bill could resume.