Given their long, tempestuous and mostly acrimonious relationship over the past seven-and-a-half years, Wednesday’s meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, touted as their last, could have been a grand finale. At one extreme, the two leaders might have expressed their true emotions and undergone catharsis, bro-hugging and making up at the end, while at the other they might have finally vented their pent-up frustrations, descending into an unseemly shouting match that their advisers would do their best to stifle.
But Netanyahu and Obama are probably not going to get the kind of dramatic closure that they rightfully deserve at the end of their two-term transatlantic soap opera, and the main reason for that is Donald Trump. Less than 50 days before the election, the GOP candidate casts a giant shadow over the bilateral summit, directly affecting the thoughts and behavior of Obama, in particular, but those of Netanyahu as well.
That shadow has grown to humungous proportions in recent days as Obama, like many other Democrats, struggles to come to grips with the hitherto unthinkable possibility that it would be Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, who might replace him at the White House. Clinton’s fall and Trump’s rise in the polls have already left their mark on Obama’s campaign appearances, which have become increasingly intense, if not desperate, and his worries could be exacerbated now that the New York and New Jersey bombings are linked to Islamic terrorism and, presumably, boosting Trump even further. It would be a “personal insult” if African Americans did not vote for Clinton, he told the Congressional Black Caucus on Saturday. This is now his supreme mission in life and everything else, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and Netanyahu in particular, pales in comparison.
This means that while news reports and White House statements have left no doubt in recent days that Obama would very much like to leave a more positive mark on his pretty dismal peacemaking legacy, he will also do his best to calm Netanyahu’s understandable jitters and prevent him from launching pre-emptive prevention measures before November 8. And if Obama ever thought that the conclusion of the military aid Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries gives him room to maneuver Netanyahu into a corner, he will probably do his best now to prevent the Israeli prime minister from feeling trapped and lashing out in return.
In recent days, in fact, Netanyahu has assumed the unusual role of Obama’s chief advocate in Israel. Forced to defend the MOU from vicious attacks by his predecessor Ehud Barak and other critics, Netanyahu has extolled Obama’s commitment to Israel’s defense and thanked him profusely for his generosity. Netanyahu would like to contradict the allegation that his tense ties with Obama cost Israel billions of dollars and other security benefits that might have otherwise been included in the aid agreement, and nothing would serve him better than a touchy-feely summit with Obama that showed grumpy Israelis that bygones were mostly bygones.
Some analysts have speculated that the emergence of Trump played a decisive role in convincing Netanyahu to conclude the talks on the aid package now rather than wait for a new president. A more important factor might have been the sustained pressures exerted on the prime minister by the army and the defense establishment, which protested the continuing uncertainty and its negative influence on multi-year planning. What is true, however, is that Netanyahu preferred to conclude a deal with Obama so that it would bind the entire American political spectrum, including the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Although Netanyahu continues to justify and defend his confrontation with Obama over the Iran deal as well as his controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, he grudgingly admits that both damaged Israel’s standing with many Democrats, especially those who admire Obama more than Clinton. The New York meeting is a good opportunity to make amends.
Netanyahu may have also assumed, like many others, that Clinton’s victory was virtually assured, doubling his intention not to be perceived as interfering on behalf of the GOP, as he did in 2012. Perhaps he is now concerned that he went too far in the other direction, a message conveyed by in recent days by Senator Lindsey Graham, who protested Netanyahu’s agreement not to ask for more funds from Congress on top of the MOU. If Lindsey is channeling their shared benefactor Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu might very well be quivering in his pants.
The prime minister has tried to avoid meeting with both candidates but one can safely assume that he is more concerned by a photo op with Trump, in which the GOP candidate might say something outlandish that would put Netanyahu in hot water, rather than Clinton, who has a long ups-and-downs history with Netanyahu, who is much more disciplined than Trump and who has a vested interest right now in getting on Netanyahu’s good side, especially with the race growing tighter and her needing every vote she can get.
Even though a recent American Jewish Committee poll showed that Clinton was leading Trump among American Jewish voters by a whopping 61%-19%, that still leaves a worrying 20% either undecided or preferring to vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Jill Stein. A month ago, when Clinton seemed to be breaking away from Trump with a double-digit lead, the Jewish vote didn’t seem significant. In a close race, however, it could prove critical, especially in battleground states such as Pennsylvania (300,000 Jews or 2.3% of the population), Florida (650,000 Jews or 3.3% of the population), Colorado (100,000 Jews or 2% of the population), Ohio (150,000 Jews or 1.3% of the population), Virginia (100,000 Jews or 1.2% of the population) and even, if its close, Georgia (130,000 Jews or 2% of the population.).
A bad meeting between Obama and Netanyahu won’t drive many Jews to Trump, though it might influence some liberal-hawk Republicans who have already moved to Clinton and could push others to vote for Johnson or Stein or simply stay home. Given the unusually high stakes and the fact that a Trump victory terrifies Democrats a thousand times more than previous run of the mill Republican candidates, that’s probably a risk that Obama isn’t willing to take, and even if he is, Clinton will be giving him a piece of her mind, even as we speak. With Trump looming as an end-of-days apocalypse, messing with Netanyahu isn’t a luxury Obama, Clinton or even America can or want to afford.