Recently, israel360 users had a chance to lead a conversation about the fragile relationship between Israel, President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A veteran journalist, Herb Keinon is one of the foremost experts on U.S.-Israel relations and shared his thoughts, live from Jerusalem. The entire conversation can be found here.
israel360 user: Two dates: February 2017, Netanyahu says Trump is a “great friend to the Jewish people.” August 2017, Trump says protesters (including KKK, neo-Nazis, etc.) in Charlottesville were some “very fine people.” There’s a problem here. What kind of spot is Netanyahu in right now?
Herb Keinon: Netanyahu obviously is walking a tight-rope on this one. On the one hand he wants to retain a very good working relationship with the Trump Administration, and on the other hand there is the expectation that as head of the Jewish state he must come out against the neo-Nazis and anti-Semitism. The way he opted to walk this tight-rope was to speak on Twitter and through proxies, and to make sure that when he blasts the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, he does not criticize President Trump. U.S. Ambassador Ron Dermer—a proxy—put up a post on his Facebook page on the Monday after the Saturday Charlottesville incident, calling the killing of Heather Heyer “an act of terrorism” and saying that “the hate-fest on display there by neo-Nazis and klansmen was utterly despicable.” Dermer said he spoke to Netanyahu about the events and that the premier “asked him to convey Israel’s outrage over the attack and over the expressions of anti-Semitism and racism.” Netanyahu’s “exact words,” Dermer said, “were that these people should crawl back under the rock they came from.” On Tuesday, Netanyahu tweeted the following: “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.”
Herb Keinon: He has not made any comment since Trump’s press conference last Wednesday (August 19) and his comment about blaming both sides and some “fine people” marching there in Charlottesville. To understand Netanyahu’s real dilemma, keep the following in mind: A day after Trump’s press conference, a senior delegation of Israeli security officials went to Washington—headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen—to discuss Syria and Iran. Israel has very serious concerns about a Russian-U.S. ceasefire agreement for Syria that would allow Iran to keep its military presence there in place after the civil war. This is a huge issue for Israel right now, worried that after the war, Iranian troops will be on the Golan border, and the Iranians will build a port in Syria on the Mediterranean. Now consider the optics of Netanyahu being seen as publicly slamming Trump on Wednesday, and then asking for his administration’s support regarding Syria and Iran the next day in Washington. This just illustrates the dilemma, or—as you put it—the “spot he is in.”
israel360 user: It would seem obvious that the self-proclaimed leader of the Jewish people would be the first to condemn any group chanting anti-Semitic slogans but especially a group marching with swastikas. Yet for Netanyahu, it is not so simple. Clearly, Bibi loves the Jewish people, so what kept him from doing so?
Herb Keinon: Yes, it would seem obvious that the leader of the Jewish people would be the first to condemn a group chanting anti-Semitic slogans and marching with swastikas. And, indeed, if Netanyahu felt that this posed a serious threat to the safety and security of the American Jewish community, I imagine he would have led the pack in the condemnations. Since he sees what happened in Charlottesville as a very negative development, but not a clear and present danger to American Jewry, his response was more muted, or—as I mentioned above—done through proxies and on Twitter.
israel360 user: What is the Israeli press saying about this? Surprise at the level of anti-Semitism in the U.S.? Any change in the prevailing view of Trump since his visit to Israel? Any polling?
Herb Keinon: The Israeli press is covering this thoroughly, and, yes, I think there was surprise that in 2017 a group would shout anti-Semitic slogans and march with a Nazi flag in Virginia. There was much editorializing about how Trump seemed to embrace the far right. I do think that many Israelis are wondering about Trump’s judgement, but there has not yet been any polling about how it affects overall attitudes toward him among Israelis. I would caution, however, that while Israelis may be appalled at his handling of the whole Charlottesville affair, and while they may listen with mouth ajar at some of his statements, that will not necessarily translate into a feeling that he is not good for Israel or its security. For most Israelis, that will be determined by his actions—not his words—in the region.
israel360 user: As American Zionists, we are expected to stand up for Israel. It hurt when Netanyahu did not stand up for Jews in America directly after Charlottesville. How do we reconcile this?
Herb Keinon: This is an interesting question. To answer I would point out that although we are one people, the Jews in Israel and the Jews in America live in vastly different realities. We have different perspectives and different threat perceptions. I’ll give you an example. Many Israeli Jews were disappointed that there were voices in the American Jewish community who did not side with Israel in the Iran debate with President Obama. While there was much partisan criticism in Israel about how Netanyahu carried out the battle with Obama over the Iran deal, there was little disagreement among Jewish Israelis that this was a bad deal that would endanger the country. Yet some American Jews supported the deal. Why? Many reasons, one of which has to do with different threat perceptions. For Israel the Iranian threat is real and immediate. For Americans, including American Jews, it is more distant and theoretical. The same can be said about the Charlottesville incident, in reverse. For American Jews, the sight of Nazi flags in American streets is immediate, menacing and threatening. For Israelis, it is a small number of people on the fringe who really don’t pose any immediate threat. We are each viewing the same incident, but evaluating the threat in different ways—and I think that explains, to some degree, why Israelis have not responded the way American Jews would have liked or expected, and why American Jews did not respond the way many Israeli Jews would have liked or expected on the Iranian issue.
israel360 user: Do you think Trump will ever move the embassy to Jerusalem?
Herb Keinon: It is difficult to predict what Trump will do, but I would not hold your breath. I think the momentum on that issue has been lost. If he did not do it soon after it was still fresh in people’s minds as one of his campaign pledges, I find it difficult to believe he will do it when it is no longer a major issue on the agenda, and when he is trying to restart the diplomatic process. Trump’s Mideast team—Kushner, Greenblatt and Powell—is expected in Jerusalem this week. If they would revive the Jerusalem embassy issue, they would once again face pushback from the Palestinians and the Arab states whom they now want to enlist in the diplomatic process.