JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming White House visit aims to cement ties to a surprisingly supportive U.S. president — but it also presents a political minefield.
While Netanyahu appears to have hit it off with President Donald Trump, he will have to tread carefully during their meeting or risk being seen as endorsing divisive policies that have alienated key constituencies in Israel and the United States.
"On the one hand, the prime minister is going to want to and absolutely should establish a close working relationship with the new president," said Dan Shapiro, who earlier this month completed his term as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel.
But on the other hand, Shapiro said "there is a risk that by seeming to associate too closely with certain proposals, and perhaps in some ways with him personally, there’s an alienation factor for other key (American) constituencies that have been part of the bipartisan pro-Israel coalition. That is something the prime minister may want to keep in mind."
In a sign of what could lie ahead, Netanyahu over the weekend set off a diplomatic incident with Mexico with a tweet supporting Trump’s border wall — a posting that Israel apologized for on Tuesday.
Netanyahu also stayed conspicuously silent while American Jewish groups condemned an awkward White House statement about the Holocaust that made no mention of Jewish suffering. He also avoided speaking out on Trump’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, despite deep misgivings among many American Jews and fears here that Israelis of Middle Eastern descent might also be affected.
On the surface, Trump appears to be a welcome change for Netanyahu from Obama: they repeatedly clashed over Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and the U.S-backed nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers.
Trump has signaled a vastly different approach to both issues, and in their Feb. 15 meeting, Netanyahu will likely be looking to reach understandings with the tycoon-turned-president.
He is expected to seek guidance on what sort of settlement construction will be tolerated by the Trump administration, and to push the president to revisit the nuclear deal — or at least seek other ways to put pressure on Iran.
The nationalist Netanyahu may also be looking for Trump to follow through on promises to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move long favored by Israel and vehemently opposed by the Palestinians.
In a series of tweets, Shapiro said that both men will want their meeting to be a "lovefest," but suggested that Netanyahu should beware. "The real question is what does Trump want from the meeting?"
Netanyahu got a possible taste of the future what with his handling of Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.
Responding to Trump’s praise for Israel’s own border walls, Netanyahu sent out a Trump-like tweet: "President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea," he wrote.
Mexico quickly demanded an apology, and Netanyahu was forced into damage-control mode. Appearing to take another page from the Trump playbook, he angrily accused the media of inflating the issue.
Shapiro said Netanyahu moved perilously close to involvement in U.S. affairs, apparently under pressure from Trump.
"It surprised me, that he kind of weighed in on a very divisive domestic American issue, considering that desire to maintain bipartisanship, and on an issue that doesn’t really have a core Israeli interest," he said. "It struck me as certainly possible that the administration sought that endorsement from him as kind of an early sign of friendship."
Netanyahu’s conservative worldview tends to be in sync with the U.S. Republican Party and he has a long record of appearing to side with Republicans.
But Trump is no mainstream Republican, and his recent policy pronouncements could trigger backlashes from some of Netanyahu’s most important constituencies.
Trump angered U.S. Jewish groups across the political spectrum with his comments on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he made no mention of the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews. Even the Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group that has been supportive of Trump, expressed "chagrin and deep pain."
Trump’s ban on refugees and visitors from the seven predominantly Muslim countries has also upset many American Jews, some of whom have strong memories of their forefathers fleeing persecution in Europe.
In Israel, it set off a scare that tens of thousands of Israelis who were born in Muslim countries might also be caught up in the ban. The U.S. Embassy in Israel clarified that on Tuesday, saying Israelis of all backgrounds were eligible for visas as long as they are not dual citizens of the countries affected by the ban — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Few Israelis would be affected.
Trump’s travel ban also threatens to upset Israel’s Muslim minority, which has long had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu. Caught between a new U.S. president who shows little patience for critics and groups who fiercely oppose Trump, Netanyahu has kept noticeably silent.
David Horovitz, editor of the centrist blog Times of Israel, said Netanyahu should show the courage to speak up. He also urged the Israeli prime minister to act as a "fire prevention officer" in an explosive Mideast region, with a U.S. president who has a "potentially very short fuse."
"His embrace of Trump’s Mexican wall did not make for a good start — speaking out when he had no need to. His failure to highlight the Jewish problem with Trump’s Holocaust Day statement was still more discouraging — staying silent when he should have spoken out. He needed to find the words to convey concern at the too-sweeping entry bans," Horovitz wrote.
He also urged Netanyahu to assert some leadership. "For now, he’s looking like Donald Trump’s yes-man," he said.