Volatile, thin-skinned, self-centered: Trump to meet his match in Netanyahu

The Israeli prime minister has echoed the US president’s view that there will be ‘no daylight’ between them on issues such as settlements and the Iran deal

As Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, prepares for his first meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday, the main purpose of the encounter appeared to be a public demonstration of unity with the US.

“There isn’t going to be any daylight. No gaps,” one of Netanyahu’s advisers told reporters, using the same phrase that Trump himself had deployed on the campaign trail.

The prime minister departed for Washington amid reports that he had warned fractious members of his rightwing coalition of the need to tread lightly with Trump.

According to Israel’s Channel 2 Netanyahu cautioned ministers pushing for an increase in settlement building – and even partial annexation of the occupied territories – to take Trump’s “personality into account”.

“We should be careful,” Netanyahu reportedly added, “and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.”

Beyond the optics of unity, larger questions also remain over a number of key issues including Israel’s demands for stronger US action on Iran, the Israel-Palestine peace process and wider US policies in the Middle East.

The likely agenda was described ahead of the meeting by Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu who described the first task as improving US-Israel relations after the Obama years.

“I think [Netanyahu] has to bring the relations between the US and Israel to a higher level, while remembering that … Israel should be able to act according to its own interests.”

Amidror said the three key areas for Israel were the “bad agreement” with Iran over its nuclear programme; Iran’s destabilising influence in the wider region and the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians.

The visit will include one novelty for Netanyahu – despite his familiarity with Washington. For the first time in the Israeli prime minister’s four periods in office he will be going to meet a president who is (at least nominally) Republican.

Beyond that, nothing is certain with Trump, whose first weeks in office have been marked by a chaotic, combative and sometimes contradictory style.

The US president has promised to reset the fractious relationship with Israel, but he has vacillated wildly on what policies he would pursue.

Trump and those close to him have pledged to secure the “ultimate deal” in the Middle East, but offered little detail; they pledged to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem – a potentially incendiary move – before apparently backtracking, and said that Jewish settlements were not necessarily an “impediment” to peace before then suggesting in quick order that they were a problem.

Complicating the issue is Netanyahu’s own position.

Weakened by a series of police investigations, Netanyahu is facing pressure from the far right and a faction within his own party that seeks a surge in settlement building, annexation of parts of the occupied Palestinian territories and a disavowal of the two-state solution.

In response Netanyahu has also swerved between positions as he has tried to triangulate the conflicting poles of his rightwing coalition and pursue the one thing he cares about above all others: remaining in the prime minister’s office.

On the personal level too, the meeting will bring together two combustible personalities – thin-skinned, self-centred and sharing the same obsessive desire to control or denigrate the media.

Both too have a tendency to lecture: Netanyahu famously irritated both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who after an encounter with the Israeli prime minister in 1996, asked aides: “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”

That comment was recounted by the former US official Aaron David Miller – author of The Much Too promised Land – who in a recent article for Politico suggested the two men were eventually bound to clash.

“In Trump and Netanyahu we are dealing with two difficult and combustible personalities who, despite their radically different backgrounds, have much in common – and that may not be such a good thing,” he wrote

On the substantive issues too, it is not clear where and how deep the points of agreement are.

In recent weeks Israeli media have reported Netanyahu’s desire for something less than full statehood for the Palestinians – or “state-minus” – a vision he has not elaborated which would seem to be at odds with Trump’s “ultimate deal”.

Speaking about what he hoped for from the Netanyahu visit, former Israeli ambassador to Washington, now an MP and deputy minister, Michael Oren reinforced the point that Trump would be told that Palestinians had no intention of a deal.

“It has to be stressed that no Palestinian will accept the formula of two states for two peoples, because they don’t recognise us to be a people. We recognise them, they do not recognise us,” he told Israel Radio.

Which, in the end, suggests more of the same.


Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem

The GuardianTramp

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