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Trump Will Be the Big Loser If Netanyahu Falls

Israel's prime minister has been the president's senior partner on all things Middle East.
Corrected

Headed different directions?

Photographer: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

After 14 months of investigation, the Israeli police have finally decided that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a crook.

That doesn’t make him guilty. The cops aren’t always right. Bibi says they are biased. Now the police report goes to the attorney general, Avihai Mandelblit. If he decides to indict, Netanyahu will have to step down. This will take some time, and circumstances can change, but at the moment I’d put the odds against the prime minister at about 3-to-1.

In the meantime, he can stay in office. But he will not be nearly as strong or as free as he has been. Israeli prime ministers need a parliamentary majority. Netanyahu’s margin is 66-54, in a coalition of his Likud and five smaller parties. Each has its own ideological, political and personal agendas. A few rebels with a cause or a grudge could bring down the government by voting with the opposition to disband the current parliament.

In the current Israeli political constellation, there is no alternative coalition Netanyahu could form if this one collapses. He could hand the reins over to one of his fellow Likudniks, which would preserve the coalition, and wait for his day in court, but nobody who knows Bibi thinks he will do any such thing. He intends to fight on and do what it takes to stay in office.

This is not merely a local political situation. Netanyahu is, for better or worse, one of the world’s most important statesmen. On matters pertaining to the Middle East, he has been President Donald Trump’s mentor, guru and partner. In some ways, his senior partner. 

Trump got to the White House without apparently knowing the difference between the West Bank and the West Side Highway. The prime minister comes with a lifetime of expertise, experience and a well-developed Republican world view. Fox News founder Roger Ailes had two photographs on the wall of his office: General George Patton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has called evangelical Christians Israel’s “best friends in the world, and the admiration is mutual. Republicans in Congress stand at attention when he enters the chamber for one of his periodic lectures. Trump, who came to the White House without a party establishment of his own, knows that Bibi is an electoral asset.

The two men also have a common goal. Trump’s key project is to reverse and wipe away every trace of the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, foreign as well as domestic. Netanyahu spent the eight years of the Obama administration butting heads over what he considered to be misguided American behavior.

The prime minister and Obama disagreed over just about everything: the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; American support for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and its disinclination to accept the Brotherhood’s replacement, General al Sisi. Netanyahu disagreed with Obama’s mocking assessment of the Islamic State as a terrorist junior varsity. He was disconcerted by the red line Obama drew and then erased in Syria.

And, most of all, he was frustrated by the administration’s refusal to see the extent to which Iran was a malign force threatening Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

For Trump, all this was a menu for Obama Reversal. In short order, in consultation with Netanyahu, stopping Jewish settlement in the West Bank ceased to be a U.S. priority. Jerusalem was recognized as Israel’s capital. Trump’s team negotiating with the Palestinians was recruited from among American Likudniks, and leaked plans for a peace deal left the Palestinian leadership fuming.

Trump quickly embraced Netanyahu’s Egyptian ally, Sisi, as an American asset. He stepped up the U.S. war effort against the Islamic State. Above of all, he declared Iranian aggression to be the single greatest threat to America and its interests in the Middle East.  

The new president accused Obama of making a feckless nuclear deal with the Ayatollahs and pledged to rescind it if it isn’t improved (“fix it or nix it” in Bibi lingo). In the confrontation with Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, Obama preached military restraint. This week, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself, without waiting for an attack on its citizens. An American green light for pre-emption is something Israel never even dreamed it would get.

Netanyahu doesn’t deserve all the credit (or the blame) for Trump’s policies. Despite all his rhetoric about relieving the U.S. of its global burdens, the president is an instinctive hawk. He also sees the simple wisdom of supporting Israel, a military and technological power, as well as other pro-American Middle Eastern countries.  

And Netanyahu is valuable to Trump in this. He is a cautious but potentially powerful warrior. And he has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a trusted and reliable go-between for Washington and Moscow, a role of great importance to both sides given the proximity of their forces and proxies in Syria.  

Still, Trump needs to understand that the Bibi of today is not the Bibi of yesterday. The prime minister is certain to be distracted by his legal jeopardy. He may also be constrained by coalition pressures.

It is possible, for example, that Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, might insist on the formal annexation of West Bank settlements, something Netanyahu has resisted until now. Or Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a right-leaning Russian immigrant party, could demand a greater role in Israel’s relationship with Putin. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (who, like Bennett and Lieberman, has prime ministerial ambitions) heads the 10-member populist Kulanu faction. If he decides to bust the budget on behalf of his working class voters, it would be hard for Netanyahu to say no. And the two ultra-orthodox coalition parties have a Talmud’s worth of theocratic laws they would love to implement.

This doesn’t mean that Bibi will cave. He is a smooth political operator. And it certainly isn’t a reason for Trump to question his judgement or advice. But I do think the president would be wise, under the circumstances, to insist on getting a second opinion.

(Corrects size of Likud majority in parliament in third paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Zev Chafets at zchafets@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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