Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won an unprecedented declaration of support from President Donald Trump, and thanked him by comparing him to biblical and Zionist heroes. Netanyahu isn’t the first politician to receive a presidential blessing from America ahead of an election, but it’s tough to remember a similar instance in which an Israeli leader is not only praised and embraced, on a personal and national level, but also without being expected to provide anything in return.
In declaring U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, Trump has with his pen destroyed a basic principle of international relations in recent decades: that borders are determined by diplomatic agreement and territories aren’t taken by force. Trump totally justified the occupation of the Golan in the Six-Day War, and supported Netanyahu’s declaration that the heights would remain in Israeli hands forever. Netanyahu denies chapters of his biography – when he negotiated for the return of the Golan in exchange for peace with Hafez and then Bashar Assad, at a time when Syria was still referred to here as a state and not “the Assad regime.”
Trump’s proclamation erasing the 1967 lines had a partial precedent in George W. Bush’s letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, on the eve of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, a letter that Israel interpreted as recognition of its settlement blocs in the West Bank. But the letter was worded by much more cautious lawyers, and ensured that final borders between Israel and the Palestinians would be set only by an agreement, and, most importantly, it was issued in exchange for the evacuation of territory and settlers and an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line in the south.
That was the custom: Expressions of American support in the past always entailed Israel’s providing something in exchange to the Arabs as part of the peace process, or with reining in military measures. This is how Netanyahu received generous military aide from former president Barack Obama, in exchange for refraining from an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and sufficing with the caricatures he displayed at the United Nations and in speeches against the nuclear deal. And that’s how Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert won a generous heap of photo opportunities and presidential praises.
Trump has totally severed the tie, the famous linkage between American gifts to Israel and the Arabs. He didn’t mention the “deal of the century” in his remarks, a peace plan he has promised to publish since the time of his election but which is still stuck somewhere in a White House drawer.
Today was Netanyahu’s day, with no partners. Trump’s friend Bibi is standing for reelection, dogged by investigations and submarines and this isn’t the time to weigh him down. The deal of the century will land perhaps, but only on the table of the next government to take office in Jerusalem.
The only American demand made of Israel today is to cool its trade, investment and technological exchange deals with China. This message was conveyed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his visit to Jerusalem last week. Pompeo was sent to be the “bad cop” and was surprised by “good cop” Trump’s tweet about the anticipated Golan annexation.
From past experience, the Americans are known for the brutal demands they make of Israel with regard to the Chinese issue, and aren’t ready to sit still for any arguments or persuasions. But these matters are far from the public eye and discourse, not relevant in an election, and their results in any event will only be borne out later.
Netanyahu overdid his thanks to Trump. The recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, which changes nothing on the ground, is not really as important as the historical comparisons he drew – with Koresh’s declaration about restoring the Babylonian scrolls to Zion, the building of the Second Temple, Balfour’s declaration in favor of the establishment of a national Jewish home in Palestine. Even moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem last year.
But this isn’t the time to delve so deeply into these matters. Trump will stand by Netanyahu in the election, and the least the prime minister could do was compare him to history’s great friends of the Jewish people, as the AIPAC conference was convening in Washington. And to bring a carton of Golan wines to the White House. One wonders who paid the bill this time – Arnon Milchan, Nathan Milikowsky or the accountant at the Prime Minister’s Office.