Approached by reporters on the tarmac of a California airport last Wednesday as the tally from the Sept. 17 Knesset elections was still being calculated, President Donald Trump measured his words.
When asked whether he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — whose political future appeared to be hanging in the balance of what was clearly leading to the current deadlock—Trump replied: “I have not. Those results are coming in, and it’s very close. Do you have any updates? You people [the press] usually should know before the president, right?”
Trump added, “Everybody knew it was going to be very close. We’ll see what happens.”
Grasping the point of the question, which had to do with his much-touted close personal bond with Netanyahu, he concluded by saying, “Look, our relationship is with Israel.”
It was like a shot that could be heard around the world.
For days on end, media outlets highlighted this little exchange as evidence that Trump is a fickle fair-weather friend turning his back on an embattled buddy.
Yes, journalists known for their hostility to both leaders gleefully portrayed Netanyahu as a pitiful figure whose campaign posters included a photo of himself with the American president, and described Trump as a man giving his Israeli counterpart the cold shoulder.
In Israel, too, much ink and airtime have been devoted to the so-called “end of the bromance.”
The unveiled schadenfreude exhibited by two of Channel 12’s prominent female anchors was especially jaw-dropping. In the first place, it took the form of feigned empathy. Secondly, it sounded like a couple of besties gossiping at a cafe, rather than a professional power duo providing post-election analysis. The girl-talk went something like this:
Anchor 1: “Do you think that Netanyahu’s feelings are hurt by Trump?”
Anchor 2: “No, Netanyahu doesn’t operate on that level the way that you and I do.”
Anchor 1: “Well, I certainly would be hurt. In fact, I’m insulted on Netanyahu’s behalf.”
Now, there’s a hoot, coming from someone who has been bent on and making few bones about seeing him defeated.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most newsworthy element of Trump’s remark — that his administration’s pro-Israel stance is intact and will not change, no matter who ends up at the helm in Jerusalem — is being overlooked, if not twisted to sound like some kind of a betrayal.
In fact, his words should be cause for praise, not scorn. Furthermore, imagine the mincemeat that would be made of him today had he phoned Netanyahu before waiting until the identity of the next Israeli premier was established.
Though the Trump-Netanyahu “bromance” undoubtedly involves no small degree of mutual admiration, it was sparked and continues to be based on the shared interests of America and Israel.
In a Jerusalem Post interview in February 2009 — less than a month into the new administration of President Barack Obama, and about a week before Netanyahu became Israel’s prime minister for a second time, following a decade-long hiatus — Elliott Abrams talked about this very question of relations between heads of state.
Abrams, who had just completed serving two terms as a special assistant to former President George W. Bush (the second of which as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy) said that chemistry “matters, but its importance can be exaggerated.”
He continued: “To be sure, it makes it a lot easier when people at the top have a good relationship. But it doesn’t really affect policy, which is determined on the basis of national interest. We’re talking about democracies, for the most part … which have processes involving different branches of government or parliaments, as well as a whole slew of career diplomats and so on. So, it’s never simply a one-on-one relationship. Where the relationship does matter is in how work gets done. It makes it very hard if the people at the top mistrust each other.”
Abrams may not have realized how prescient these words would turn out to be, given the strained relationship between Obama and Netanyahu that would last for eight years.
But this was not simply an issue of clashing personalities. On the contrary, it was due directly to Obama’s stated aim of putting “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem. In other words, it was an ideological and political rift—an American president’s rejection of Israel, not its specific leader.
This is not to say that Trump and Netanyahu don’t enjoy genuine camaraderie. But Trump’s signaling that he will not abandon Israel — even if Netanyahu’s key rival, Blue and White Party chair Benny Gantz, becomes the guy leading the Jewish state — is good news, not a sign of a bad “bromance” breakup.