No one is as devastated by President Donald Trump’s defeat as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not even the crown princes of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
These Gulf leaders may have been dependent on Trump for pursuing regional mischief and are sad to see him go, but compared to them, Netanyahu has lost much more than a partner in crime: he lost his soul mate, his American alter ego.
So what made their relationship so special and what does the future hold for Netanyahu now that Trump is passé? A match made in hell. Trump and Netanyahu saw eye to eye on almost everything, starting with their hatred for Barack Obama and the Obama-Biden administration, which they expressed with much venom. For four years, they did everything possible to undo all that Obama left behind, starting with reversing his decoupling of the US and Israeli regional strategies and exiting the Iran nuclear deal.
They demonised the Iranian leadership, praised Arab dictators, and worked diligently to establish a new strategic partnership between these autocrats and Israel in order to confront the Arab people and Iran. Trump and Netanyahu criticised and even humiliated Europe for upholding its liberal values and honouring its foreign policy commitments, especially for abiding by the Iran nuclear agreement. And they held similar contemptuous and hostile views towards the United Nations and its various international agencies.
Most outrageously, they ganged up on the Palestinians, who have been suffering under Israeli occupation for decades, blackmailing their leaders and stripping them of all aid and stature to force them to submit to their dictates. In this, they were aided by Trump’s son-in-law and Netanyahu’s family friend, Jared Kushner, the sneaky arriviste who made sure that both egocentric leaders remain on good terms.
A Zionist extremist, Kushner is the architect of Trump’s infamous “deal of the century”, which adopted Netanyahu’s racist colonial logic in Palestine. But that is not all that made the Trump-Netanyahu bromance so eerie. As I wrote earlier this year, there are other more disturbing personal similarities between the two cynics.
Both are known to be serial liars; both have a history of adultery and have been divorced twice; and both have faced charges of misuse of public office for personal and political gain. And still, both have been able to command the support of religious fanatics who have come to consider the two morally challenged sinners as God’s vessels, serving, albeit unintentionally, a divine purpose.
Indeed, Trump has embraced the same ultra-nationalist, even racist, agendas that Netanyahu has long championed in Israel and the Middle East. Both men are populist showmen, rallying their right-wing constituencies around their populist personas even when they proved incompetent in managing their countries’ worst crises, including the coronavirus pandemic.
After driving itself to the edge, America gazed into the abyss and decided to pull back. The majority has rejected four more years of Tsunami Trump, fearing he would end up destroying their democracy and national unity. Instead, they voted for the restoration of the country’s democratic and liberal institutions, and for healing the nation’s wounds. But just as Trump has tried to undo everything Obama, Biden is about to reverse Trump’s reversals, and perhaps more.
He is set to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization and probably UNESCO, among other agreements and institutions Trump has challenged or abandoned. He has also vowed to end the travel ban from Muslim-majority countries. And he seems set to bring relations with the Palestinians back to their Obama-era level, resuming aid, reinstating the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington, rejecting annexation, pursuing a two-state solution, etc.
This will not be enough to change the situation in Palestine, let alone end the occupation and bring about an independent Palestinian state. Biden, who once boasted of being a non-Jewish Zionist, is not about to project his hostility to the Trump-Netanyahu axis onto US relations with Israel.
He will not veer too far from traditional US policy on Israel, regurgitating the old mantras about preserving Israeli security and regional military superiority. But there are things Biden can and should do to put Netanyahu in a bind. Biden could deny the embattled Israeli premier any of the customary support and courtesy afforded to Israeli leaders. And he may not tolerate any of the prime minister’s humiliating outbursts or hostile criticisms, which became his habit during the Obama era.
Likewise, Biden could reject Netanyahu’s unilateral moves in Palestine, or in the region, if they are illegal and are made without prior coordination with Washington. So, in short, Biden could make the coming months debilitating, inhibiting, and outright humiliating for the Israeli prime minister. He may even turn his back on Netanyahu and make him persona non grata at the White House. Bibi, as the prime minister is called in Israel, is already facing trial on three charges of corruption that carry prison sentences, making it a matter of time before his coalition or party turns on him.
That is why Biden needs to go beyond Netanyahu and deliver a clear message to the Israeli right. He needs to back his verbal opposition to Israel’s settlement and annexation policy with action, notably by leveraging US aid to pressure the Israeli government into doing the right thing. This is indispensable to reset the US-Israel relationship that has gone awry during the Trump administration. It will also be an important lesson for the next prime minister of Israel who, judging from the list of potential candidates, may be as bad as, if not worse than, Netanyahu.
It is indeed high time that the president of the US abandons appeasement, which has long proven counterproductive, even destructive, in favour of pressure or “tough love”, as they like to say in Washington, which by contrast has proven effective with Israel and beneficial for peace and security. Netanyahu has spent a lifetime in politics telling Israelis not to worry about US reactions because he knows how to deal with Washington. It is time he is proven wrong.
Biden has already defeated America’s Netanyahu; it is time he takes on Israel’s Trump. Goodbye Donald, bye Jared, and bye-bye Bibi.