Trump-Netanyahu: How two leaders reap political rewards from their cozy relationship
WASHINGTON – If President Donald Trump has a true political bromance with any foreign leader, it's probably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sure, Trump says he “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and he’s clearly smitten with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics.”
But the bond between Trump and Netanyahu goes far beyond political flattery and good chemistry. It’s also great politics – for both men – as they each face re-election battles.
The two leaders met Monday at the White House, where Trump signed an official proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a disputed territory the United Nations considers "occupied" by Israel.
“Our relationship is powerful,” Trump declared of U.S.-Israeli ties.
“You’ve always been there, including today," Netanyahu responded, "and I thank you.”
Monday's frothy exchange spotlights the mutually beneficial politics of their friendship.
"Cut from the same political cloth, Trump and Netanyahu have forged a symbiotic alliance," Shalom Lipner, an expert on the Middle East and fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in a recent analysis.
"Trump’s benevolence toward Israel ... buoys the prime minister’s prospects," he wrote. "And when he responds gratefully by heaping praise on Trump, Netanyahu bolsters the president’s standing among his core Republican and evangelical supporters."
Trump enjoys high approval ratings in Israel, and Netanyahu has made his close relationship with the American president a centerpiece of his campaign before Israel's election April 9. Netanyahu even erected giant billboards showing him shaking hands with Trump and declaring "Netanyahu, in a different league."
"Trump is far more popular in Israel than he is in the United States," said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. He said that's largely because of Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, even though both the Palestinians and the Israelis claim that city as their capital.
"The result is that anything that emphasizes Netanyahu’s relationship to the administration ... is a very good political prop for Netanyahu," Sachs said.
As accusations of corruption dog Netanyahu, his conservative Likud Party faces a stiff challenge in the contest April 9 from the Blue & White bloc, which is led by former military officer Benny Gantz.
Trump's decision on the Golan Heights, announced last week, gave Netanyahu a major boost weeks before the election. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War in 1967. Trump's decision reverses decades of U.S. policy; previous American presidents labeled the territory "occupied" and declined to recognize Israel's annexation.
Trump has not officially endorsed Netanyahu, which would mark a diplomatic breach. But Middle East experts said the president makes his support for Netanyahu clear through his lavish praise and favorable policy decisions.
Trump is "not even pretending to be evenhanded" in the Israel election, said Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and expert on the Middle East. Trump's Golan Heights decision bolsters Netanyahu's claim that he's "in a league of his own" when it comes to delivering on Israel's international agenda, he said.
Trump seeks to reap his own political windfall from those decisions as he gears up for his re-election bid in 2020. He predicted that American Jews, long a loyal Democratic constituency, will flock to the GOP in the next election in part because of his pro-Israel policies.
Republicans are "waiting with open arms" for Jewish voters, Trump tweeted this month. "Remember Jerusalem (U.S. Embassy) and the horrible Iran Nuclear Deal!"
Trump has tried to portray Democrats as anti-Semitic, highlighting controversial comments by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who suggested that pro-Israel lobbying groups hold undue sway over American policy because of their campaign contributions and the political muscle of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful U.S. advocacy group.
AIPAC is holding its annual policy conference in Washington this week. Netanyahu was initially scheduled to address the group Tuesday and then have dinner with Trump that evening, but he cut his trip short because of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Monday that struck a house in central Israel and wounded seven people.
Shortly before Netanyahu and Trump met at the White House on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence hammered anew on the president's latest political theme.
Although he did not mention Omar by name, Pence accused the Democratic Party of being “co-opted by people who promote rank, anti-Semitic rhetoric and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel.”
Pence said anyone who slanders those who support the “historic alliance” between the United States and Israel should not sit on the House Foreign Relations Committee, as Omar does.
“The party that has been the home of so many American Jews for so long today struggled to muster the votes to unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism in a resolution,” Pence said before promising that Trump would always stand with Israel.
President Barack Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu in 2015 because it was so close to that Israeli election.
"We do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country," Obama said.
Still, Sachs noted that Trump's favoritism, though fairly overt, is not unprecedented.
"Bill Clinton went out of his way to support Shimon Peres in the 1996 elections against a young upstart named Benjamin Netanyahu," he said. Then-President Clinton feared that terrorist attacks against Israel would undermine the peace process, and he saw Peres as far more inclined to reach a deal than the hard-line Netanyahu.
“I did try to be helpful to him because I thought he was more supportive of the peace process," Clinton conceded last year in an interview with an Israeli television outlet.
Clinton said he tried to boost Peres in a way that "didn’t overtly involve me. ... And I tried to do it in a way that was consistent with what I believed to be in Israel’s interest, without saying anything about the difference in domestic policies, without anything else.”
Netanyahu won that contest despite Clinton's efforts to put his finger on the scale. It remains to be seen whether Trump's support will put Netanyahu over the top in this election or if Trump's pro-Israel policies will help him in 2020.
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Contributing: Maureen Groppe and David Jackson