Tel Aviv Diary: Trump and Bibi Cling to Each Other

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference at Kirribilli House on February 22 in Sydney. Marc Schulman writes that Donald Trump had called Netanyahu to discuss Iran while Netanyahu was being interrogated by police on corruption charges. Jason Reed/Pool/Getty

On Tuesday morning, Yisrael Hayom (Israel’s most widely read newspaper) had three stories on its front page. Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman stating that the Trump administration had warned Israel against annexations; news of the new travel ban announced by the Trump administration; and finally, the most interesting one, President Donald Trump had called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Iran, while Netanyahu was being interrogated by police on corruption charges.

Netanyahu has been embroiled in multiple corruption investigations for the past few months and this is the fourth time he was being interrogated as a suspect by police. 

In the midst of the four-hour interrogation, President Trump who (without media presence) had just signed his new travel ban on visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries, decided to call the one foreign leader in the world who seems to support him wholeheartedly—Bibi Netanyahu. Trump could be sure he would hear nothing but praise from Netanyahu.

Indeed, in the brief White House read-out of the call it was noted that Netanyahu had praised Trump for speaking out against anti-Semitism in his speech to Congress. The subject of the call was said to be Iran.

A conspiracy theorist noted that Netanyahu is flying to Moscow on Thursday to meet Putin. But no one pays any attention these days to a conspiracy theorist who has no proof. The fact that the call took place in the middle of the police interrogation shows one of two things—either Netanyahu asked for the call to impress the police interrogators how important he was and he was using Trump to that end, or there was total lack of staff work in the White House before the call and they were clueless that Netanyahu was in the midst of being interrogated at the time.

Related: How Bibi ditched the secret peace deal

The timing of the call was even more ironic, as the call was taking place approximately at the same time Israel's Knesset was passing its own version of a travel ban. This bill calls for barring anyone who supported a boycott of Israel or even of products made in the settlements in the West Bank from visiting the country.

The new bill passed with minimum opposition and applies to Jews and non-Jews alike who want to visit Israel. Of course, if it was imposed on Israelis a good part of Tel Aviv would not be allowed into Israel (since many quietly boycott products of the settlements, believing that settlements do more harm than good for Israel). This new bill is one of a number of bills delegitimizing criticism—not only of Israel, but of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, and to a lesser extent Gaza. 

While the Israeli right has cooled a little in its ardor for Trump (as it has become clear the administration's policies on West Bank settlements may not be that different from those of the Obama administration), there does seem to be a certain similarity in the lack of understanding of the fundamentals of democracy and dissent between parts of the Trump administration and the Israeli right. The passage of the law barring visitors who support of boycotts of Israeli is just one example of several laws the Knesset has passed in the last year that seek to delegitimize opposition to government policies.

The best example of the right-wing's failure to understand what a democracy entails came earlier in the week, when Likud MK Miki Zohar was interview by Ami Kaufman on I24 News. When asked about the future of a two-state solution, Zohar stated it was dead and that there would be one state, however, the Arabs would get full civil rights—except the right to vote. When pressed, Zohar persisted in his claim that that would still constitute a democracy. 

In the midst of all these events, this week the Senate will be holding final hearings to approve President Trump's appointment of David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Friedman, who has been a supporter of the settlements in the West Bank—even to the extent of being the President of an organizations that supports them—is an anathema to the Israeli left-wing and to left-wing supporters of Israel in the U.S. J Street and others have been waging a campaign against Friedman's appointment. However, this campaign is as misguided as the campaign by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee against the Iran deal.

Going against a sitting U.S. president on issues relating to Israel should only happen when the very survival of Israel is at stake—as AIPAC learned during the Reagan administration with the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, and as it learned again with the recent Iran agreement. Such efforts are doomed to fail and only serve to weaken the organization that dares protest.

Moreover, as history has shown, the role of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, regardless of how beloved he might be (e.g., Daniel Shapiro) is very secondary. Most key policy decisions take place on the level referred to above, i.e., a phone call or meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the American president.

As today's headline in Yisrael Hayom shows, Trump continues to dominate the news—not only in the United States, but in Israel as well. What seems to be different, however, is that in the United States a very vocal opposition has developed to Trump's policies.

In Israel, the drift rightward has been slow, but steady. As such, the very divided and disheartened opposition seems incapable of doing much to slow actions of the coalition. At the moment, the opposition is pinning its hopes on the police investigation of the prime minister bearing fruit. In a way, this is not all that dissimilar from Trump opponents looking for a smoking gun in his connection with the Russians.

Over the years, America and Israel have often stated their shared values are the foundation of the alliance between the two countries. In the past few months, it appears those “shared values” include a weakening of understanding the fundamentals of democracy.

Marc Schulman is the editor of HistoryCentral.com.