‘The president doesn’t like you guys now’: The inside story of Trump’s rage against Netanyahu
A new Hebrew book published on Sunday by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid gives a behind-the-scenes look at what is now being revealed as a rocky U.S.-Israel relationship during the Trump administration, but one that led to normalization deals between Israel and the Arab world.
“F**k him,” former President Donald Trump said about former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an interview featured in the book, titled “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East,” Trump expressed his disappointment at the “disloyalty” Netanyahu showed when he followed protocol and congratulated Joe Biden for his victory in November.
On November 7, 2020, hours after the media called the election for Biden, Netanyahu tweeted his congratulations to Biden. Five hours later, Netanyahu issued a video statement that was seen by Trump as the “ultimate betrayal.” The rage was first reported by journalist Michael Wolff.
In an interview with Ravid at Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump said the video was a step too far. “He was very early – like, earlier than most,” he said, after initially suggesting Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to recognize Biden’s victory. “And not only did he congratulate him, he did it on tape.”
Despite his call to Biden after the elections, Netanyahu walked on eggshells to avoid a public rift with Trump. Even after Trump left office, Netanyahu avoided appearing too friendly with Biden. Netanyahu reacted in a diplomatic manner when the profane remarks were first reported on Friday. “I highly appreciate President Trump’s big contribution to Israel and its security,” he said in a statement to the media. “I also appreciate the importance of the strong alliance between Israel and the U.S. and therefore it was important for me to congratulate the incoming president.”
The book also features on-the-record conversations with Trump’s inner circle and the people who were key in carrying out his policies.
How it became so personal
In an interview with the Forward on Sunday, Ravid said Trump and Netanyahu cultivated an image of this bromance, with no daylight between them, that was essential to their domestic political standing. “It was strategic for both of them to project this closeness and friendship for their base,” he said.
After the second election in 2019, when Netanyahu failed once again to garner a majority to form a government, Trump told reporters, “Our relationship is with Israel.”
“That was the beginning of a change of attitude by Trump,” Ravid said. Trump, he suggested, felt that the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of the Golan Heights and his Mideast policy were a boon for Netanyahu that didn’t produce the results he wanted to see.
In the two-hour-long interview with Ravid, Trump indicated that he was expecting from Netanyahu to do the very least to help him in his own re-election bid. “I think that when Trump speaks about loyalty, I don’t think that he speaks only about the congratulations to Biden,” Ravid explained. “It was a broader expectation that Netanyahu would give him the same political support domestically that he gave him in Israel.”
Ravid said he was surprised Trump used the profane term, which was said after 30 minutes talking about the Israeli leader. “It wasn’t like that it came out of nowhere,” he said.
To annex or not to annex?
The furor over the November call was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, Ravid writes in the book. Trump had already shared his grievances about Netanyahu’s refusal to go along with the idea of an “ultimate deal” with the Palestinians and expressed his frustration that he had to postpone the rollout of his Middle East peace plan due to Netanyahu’s failure to form a government after several rounds of elections. When the plan was unveiled at the White House on January 28, 2020, Netanyahu caused an uproar by suggesting the U.S. initiative was a green light for the annexation of the occupied West Bank.
“What the hell was that?” Trump yelled at his aides when Netanyahu left the White House that day. A former administration official said Netanyahu treated Trump “like a flowerpot” at that ceremony for his political benefit. A miscommunication between Trump’s senior aides and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman led Netanyahu to believe the administration was retracting from their initial approval. Jared Kushner, who according to Ravid, was surprised to learn on the eve of the inauguration that he was tasked by his father-in-law to work on Middle East peace, made it clear to Netanyahu: “This is not the plan.”
“There’s no way you are doing this,” Kushner recounted what he told the Israeli leader.
Avi Berkowitz, who served as Mideast peace envoy, told Ravid the relationship between the Trump administration and Israel deteriorated significantly since then. When former Israeli Ambassador to D.C. Ron Dermer requested to speak directly to Trump, Berkowitz told him, “The president doesn’t like you guys now.”
A month later, Dermer met with Kushner at the White House but was thrown out for saying Netanyahu was now doubting whether he could trust the Trump administration. “Don’t be mistaken to think that everything that happened in the past three years was for you. We did it because we were serious about peace,” Kushner screamed at Dermer, Ravid writes. “To say such a thing about us is disgusting. Get out.”
The issue came up again after the March 2020 election that resulted in a rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. The administration used the disagreements between the two partners over annexation as a reason to push the can down the road. In internal discussions at the White House, Trump reportedly sided with Kushner over Friedman, who advocated for the move to take place before the July 1st deadline that was set by the Israeli government. “They were very firm on stopping this,” Ravid noted.
Netanyahu was furious that his partners managed to convince the administration that annexation was not an Israeli consensus. “The final four days of June were the closest point in the relationship between Netanyahu and the Trump administration,” Ravid writes. Netanyahu threatened to go it alone without U.S. approval .”This will be the biggest mistake you have ever made,” Kushner told him. “Trump will come out against you.”
Berkowitz, who visited Israel to deliver the news, found “an angry and grouchy Netanyahu,” who berated him and accused him of leaking to the media. When Netanyahu repeated his threat, Berkowitz told him such a move would come with a political and a diplomatic price. “It’s almost certain Trump will tweet against you,” he said, adding that the administration would also refrain from helping Israel at the International Criminal Court in Hague.
“The president will criticize such a pro-Israel move so close to the election?” Netanyahu wondered. Berkowitz responded in the affirmative. “The president doesn’t really like you these days,” he said. “You will take your best friend and turn him into an enemy.”
The right thing at the right time
Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, then came to the rescue, Ravid writes.
On June 30, Berkowitz had another meeting with Netanyahu in which he tossed out the idea of normalizing relations with the Emirates as an alternative. Netanyahu, who was inclined to go ahead with annexation, agreed to think about it.
The UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, who was already in talks with the White House about the matter since March 2019, simultaneously offered to turn it into reality. Following a month of indirect talks and negotiations over the wording, the administration brought the two sides to agree on suspending annexation for at least three years in favor of formal relations between the UAE and Israel, Ravid writes.
At one point, Dermer tried to tweak the deal, saying Netanyahu is insisting on getting at least three Arab countries to agree to normalize relations. “Tell Ron that one country is all he’s getting, and if he doesn’t want it, let him go f**k himself,” Kushner told Berkowitz, according to Ravid.
“The UAE had their own interest to move ahead with normalization with Israel to prevent a crisis in the region and preserve a two-state solution,” Ravid said. “But they brought the ladder that allowed both the White House and Netanyahu to climb down from the tree.”
The day before the announcement was to take place, Netanyahu tried backing out of the deal, Ravid writes. But the Americans made it certain the train had left the station.
Not taking it lightly
The book also sheds a light on the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and one of the most influential figures in the Middle East, who was killed on January 3, 2020 in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport.
In his interview with Ravid, Trump revealed that he was actually disappointed with Israel’s handling of the incident. “Israel didn’t do the right thing,” Trump said without elaborating. Former U.S. officials confirmed to Ravid that Trump was expecting a more active role by Israel, and was disappointed that Netanyahu appeared reluctant to carry out the attack. “Trump was mad at Netanyahu and said that the Israelis are willing to fight Iran until the last American soldier stands,” a U.S. official was quoted as saying.
An attempt by Netanyahu to smooth things out with Trump over the matter was unsuccessful, Ravid writes. Trump was convinced that Netanyahu used him to get rid of the Iranian commander without paying a price.
Trump also dismissed the notion that the secret documents related to Iran’s nuclear and missile program that was seized by the Mossad caused the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He mocked them as old and irrelevant drawings. “I would withdraw from the nuclear deal even if Bibi hadn’t existed,” Trump told Ravid. “I did it. He didn’t convince me the same way he didn’t manage to convince Obama from the other side.”
In his interview with Ravid, Trump suggested that American Jews are not pro-Israel as in the past.
“Look at The New York Times,” he remarked, “they hate Israel. And Jews run The New York Times — the Sulzberger family.”
Where credit is due
“The Abraham Accords were a huge achievement of Trump and they wouldn’t have happened were somebody else in the White House, Republican or Democrat,” Ravid told the Forward. “The fact that Trump was willing to, on the one hand, stop Netanyahu from annexing the West Bank, and on the other hand, give tangibles to those Arab countries in order to move ahead with normalization, that is something that I’m not sure that other presidents would have been able to do.”
Ravid suggested that Netanyahu will likely seek to reach out directly to Trump to put an end to the matter.
The two leaders in exile may find themselves working with each other again in a few years if their comeback plans work out accordingly.