Bibi’s Trip is Fraught with Traps
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Historians have often observed that few people were better prepared to be president than Woodrow Wilson. He was a former governor, a former university president, and an exceptional political scholar. Wilson certainly had his flaws and made mistakes, yet his preparation for the job was textbook.
Similarly, many people have suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is uniquely qualified to run the Government of Israel. He was a brilliant student, a courageous soldier, a clever politician and an astute pupil of contemporary geo-politics. While Netanyahu also can be questioned about many of his decisions, few can argue with his preparation for the job. Netanyahu embarks on his trip to the U.S. leaving behind a set of landmines some of which he set himself and which are inexplicable.
At the level of atmospherics Bibi will undoubtedly have a triumphal visit next week to the U.S. He will meet with President Trump—Members of Congress undoubtedly as well—and he will be received by the pro-Israel community assembled at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual Washington policy conference. This trip, however, is occurring as Netanyahu is functioning under a pall of serious legal charges. He is now awaiting a decision by the Courts that could produce indictments against him and his wife at any time.
On the security level, Netanyahu faces an evolving crisis in Syria and in Lebanon. It involves not only ISIS, Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran but Russia as well. Unlike Netanyahu’s relationship with Washington under both Presidents Bush and Obama, there is no guarantee whatsoever that Trump will have Israel’s back; especially when it comes to containing Russia.
Trump may sound good but be full of bluster. If there is an actual moment when Russia gets involved or dictates terms for engagement in the Israeli-Syria border, Israel—as with anyone who has ever dealt with Trump—cannot have faith that Trump will deliver. Trump’s word and willingness to support Israel, unfortunately, is meaningless. His record of denial and reneging on understandings is chronic.
On Israel’s northern border, Iran is merely a participant with Syria for the Russian efforts to destabilize the region. Iran and Russia seek greater influence and control across the upper rim of the Middle East. They both may be hostile to Israel but Russia is their sugar daddy. Bibi can encourage Trump to make all the declarations and issue all the challenges about the need to abrogate the Iran deal, to reinstate sanctions, or even to scuttle the deal; but he has no basis to be assured that Trump will actually deliver for Israel except to trumpet the fact that Trump was abrogating a bad deal made by Obama. This, in fact, has been the only clear principle and operating axiom of his Administration.
For a smart leader one wonders why, prior to a trip to the U.S. Bibi would undercut and embarrass the Jewish State in its dealings over a tax matter with the three major church groups in Israel. Discussions having been going on for years concerning Church owned property in Jerusalem that was not functioning as places of worship. The matter has been politically postponed for the moment. Netanyahu created an unnecessary fuss over $53 million dollars at this time and seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre closed even for a few days just prior to coming to the States is unnecessary. It also insults Christians right in the middle of the Lenten season.
Similarly, one also needs to ask why Netanyahu could not have prevailed upon his—as well as Trump’s–friend Sheldon Adelson not to volunteer to pay for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. While the millions of dollars are not a problem for Adelson, even assuming that this gesture is approved by law and the State Department, it only embarrasses the Jewish world. It smears them once again with the classical anti-Semitic trop that Jews are all about money.
As a result, Bibi’s trip could be a rocky one even for a well-trained politician who was not carrying any personal baggage.