It came as no surprise to anyone that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington brought with it the pageantry of an Israeli leader who could not be happier about dealing with the current American administration. From his meeting with President Trump to his speech before the assembled throng at the AIPAC Policy Conference, Netanyahu repeated again and again his thanks and gratitude to Trump for a host of decisions and policies, from recognition of Jerusalem to moving the embassy to standing up for Israel at the United Nation to even his appointment of David Friedman as American ambassador to Israel. When it came to the imagery of the U.S.-Israel relationship, there was indeed no daylight to be seen. And while this makes Israel’s supporters ecstatic after years of differences between Netanyahu and Obama that played out in a very public way, it creates a series of problems for Netanyahu and Israel that are slowly bubbling to the surface and will be sure to intensify.
There is indeed much for Netanyahu to be happy about. It is folly to suggest that Nikki Haley’s vocal and energetic efforts on Israel’s behalf in the United Nations are not beneficial to Israel, or that Israel’s supporters should not celebrate recognition of Jerusalem by the U.S. as Israel’s capital even as there are plenty of concerns about how doing so in isolation will impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is also the case that the Trump administration’s positive moves toward Israel have been largely symbolic public relations ones. When it comes to tangible policy issues, there has been plenty of divergence of the type that is becoming increasingly worrisome to Israeli political and security officials.
Israel’s main security priority right now is preventing a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Not only has Hizballah been an important component in the array of pro-regime forces keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units have been establishing positions across Israel’s northern Golan Heights border and building bases in southern Syria. Israel’s response to this has been a combination of air strikes on Iranian bases and weapons convoys and quiet support for non-jihadi rebel groups that are part of the Free Syrian Army in order to limit Iran’s influence in the south. But this response comes after years of pleading, first with the Obama administration and now with the Trump White House, to take the Iranian threat in Syria more seriously. While Obama was reluctant to get involved in Syria writ large, Trump is focused only on beating back ISIS territorial gains in Syria while ignoring Israel’s concerns about Iran’s involvement in the country. This includes dismissing Israeli requests on how far back foreign fighters must be kept from its border in the southern deconfliction zone and also withdrawing support from rebel factions that are focused on fighting Syrian regime and Iranian forces rather than ISIS fighters.
The Israeli government and the Trump administration are also not on the same page when it comes to Gaza, where – much like on the issue of pressuring the Palestinian Authority to cease payments to terrorists and their families – the White House is out in front of the Israeli government and forcing it to acquiesce to a harder line than Israel itself adopts. Trump and Netanyahu both agree that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency – the body in charge of providing aid and services to Palestinian refugees – is a problematic organization, to put it charitably, but whereas Netanyahu and the Israeli government want to see UNRWA reformed while understanding that it is a necessary evil, Trump seems determined to collapse the organization overnight. As Shira Efron methodically lays out, Gaza’s humanitarian problems cannot and will not be confined just to Gaza, and removing UNRWA from the equation will not only hasten a crisis, but ensure that Israel suffers from UNRWA’s absence in spades as there is nobody else to take over or pick up the pieces.
Not only would the casual onlooker not know that these differences between the U.S. and Israel exist under Trump, even an informed observer who carefully followed Netanyahu and Trump’s every interaction could be forgiven for being in the dark. Netanyahu has anointed Trump as King Cyrus reincarnate and as Israel’s modern day savior, and the mounting and ever more absurd rhetorical flourishes and genuflections leave no space for Netanyahu to criticize anything that Trump has done or is doing. So Israel is left in a situation where it has vital national security problems that are being compounded by American policy decisions, but it cannot really do anything about it because of the dynamic that Netanyahu has created with his American counterpart. After all, it is difficult to complain about American decision making that has left Israel in a bind after you have asserted that there is no daylight between the two countries – a proposition that is not and never has been true under any American president and Israeli prime minister and yet is an enduring myth in some quarters – and dubbed Trump the most pro-Israel president in history.
Whether it is because he correctly reads Trump as someone who must be obsequiously flattered at all times in order to wring the most out of him or because he needs the optics of Trump’s support and friendship to benefit him politically back home, Netanyahu has created this dynamic that he must break out of for national security purposes but that he is unable to do. There needs to be a balance in any bilateral relationship between acceptance and push back, and while Netanyahu veered too far towards the push back pole under Obama, he has replicated this mistake in the opposite direction under Trump. Not only does it box Israel in, it makes for enduring policy uncertainty in which repeated untrue assertions of no daylight and no disagreement are impossible to walk back and Israel is left waiting for whatever the next Trump pronouncement is going to be. Netanyahu’s bind is of his own making, but it is hurting Israel in easily identifiable ways.
There is no guarantee that taking a more measured approach would get Trump to change his mind on Syria or alter his policy on Gaza. But the elevation of symbolic American measures as the end all and be all while there are real and serious policy issues festering has consequences, which are that Netanyahu and Israel cannot now credibly push back against White House decisions that they do not like. Hopefully Netanyahu will be able to move Trump going forward, but if Trump bristles at perceived insufficient gratefulness for the president who “took Jerusalem off the table,” Netanyahu will not have to look any further than the mirror to find the person to blame.