On January 20, 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will finally have a Republican president sitting in the White House.
Netanyahu has often been called a “Republican” himself, and many observers of US-Israel relations believe he eagerly awaits Inauguration Day, when for the first time in his decade-long reign he will not have to face a Democratic president.
On the face of it, Donald Trump’s victory seems to be a dream come true for the Israeli prime minister. The president-elect has repeatedly vowed to unconditionally back the Jewish state in any possible way: he promised not to try to force a solution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; slammed the Iranian nuclear deal; pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and removed the two-state solution from the Republican party platform.
Netanyahu also knows and appreciates the vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, who has a long record of support for Israel.
Some of the names rumored to be part of Trump’s future cabinet will be music to Netanyahu’s ears. Newt Gingrich and John Bolton, for instance, are rumored to have good chances of becoming the next secretary of state, and Rudy Giuliani expects to be appointed attorney-general. Many others in Trump’s inner circle have long records of outspoken and unconditional support for the Jewish state and Netanyahu’s policies.
On the other hand, Netanyahu knows that Trump is unpredictable and might change his Middle East policies on a whim. The prime minister surely hasn’t forgotten that Trump said he wants to remain “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or that he contemplated asking Israel to repay the billions in military aid it received from the US.
In December, Netanyahu issued a statement rejecting Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, stressing that “Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens.”
On Wednesday, several hours after Trump’s upset victory, Netanyahu released a videotaped congratulatory message in which he called the president-elect his “friend.” In a statement issued after their phone call later in the day, the Prime Minister’s Office said the two men “have known each other for many years.”
There is no publicly available evidence for this claim. True, ahead of the 2013 Knesset elections, Trump taped a 35-second clip endorsing Netanyahu and calling him a “terrific guy.” The producer of that video, British-Israeli PR professional Jonny Daniels, said the two men spoke after the video was published, but that he was not sure they had ever met in person.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu and Trump had met before their September 2016 meeting, but could not provide more detail.
And even if the professed Netanyahu-Trump “friendship” amounts to more than a handful of phone calls and one meeting, it most likely does not come close to the 20-year-long, deep (though certainly complicated) relationship the prime minister has with Hillary Clinton.
The prime minister first met the former first lady, senator and secretary of state in 1996, when her husband was president. Since then they have met on countless occasions, sometimes yelled at each other, but eventually found a modus vivendi and even developed an amicable relationship.
“Despite our policy differences, Netanyahu and I worked together as partners and friends,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir. “We argued frequently, often during phone calls that would go on for over an hour, sometimes two… I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance you could get something done together.”
To be sure, Netanyahu is deeply troubled by some of Clinton’s policy positions, such as her lukewarm support for the nuclear Iran deal and her belief in the urgent need for a Palestinian state (though she has vowed not to pressure Israel into making concessions).
And yet it stands to reason that Netanyahu thought he would have gotten along just fine with a Clinton administration. In an email leaked to Wikileaks, a “senior Israeli official who is very close to the Prime Minister, and knows his thinking” is quoted saying that Hillary is “more instinctively sympathetic to Israel” than President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu always had a “surprising good relationship” with Clinton, the Israeli official revealed, and considered her “easy to work with.”
Clinton herself signaled a strong desire to create a positive working relationship with Netanyahu. Inviting him to the White House to patch up US-Israel relations — which suffered greatly last year in the wake of the Iran deal — is “near the top” of her list of priorities, she said recently.
Would Netanyahu have preferred Clinton over Trump? We might never know. But we are about to find out what exactly the new president plans for the Middle East — if anything — and whether the two the men will get along.
On Wednesday, the president-elect and the prime minister spoke on the phone for about 15 minutes. They exchanged pleasantries and discussed “regional issues,” according to Netanyahu’s office. Trump also invited Netanyahu to the White House “at the first opportunity.” Netanyahu gladly accepted.
By the time the two leaders meet in the Oval Office, Netanyahu might have a better idea of whether President Trump is as “easy to work with” as Hillary Clinton would have been.