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Trump and Netanyahu keep on colluding

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When President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House on Monday, the latter cheered the former with a joke. In front of journalists, Netanyahu told Trump that he had brought a “case of the finest wine” from the Golan and asked if he could make a gift of it to the president’s aides, since Trump himself is a known teetotaler. The Israeli prime minister then justified his request with a gag that led to guffaws from the White House staff: “I hope they don’t open an investigation on us!”

The whole exchange spoke volumes about the duo’s close relationship. Netanyahu was basking in Trump’s recent political victory: The news, revealed a day prior by Trump’s attorney general, that the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election had concluded that the president did not conspire with the Kremlin. Never mind the indictments and criminal charges that ensnared a host of Trump’s colleagues and associates over the past two years, or the efforts this week by the administration and Republican lawmakers to keep the full report from public view. Now was the time to celebrate, not least with Golani wine.

And Trump returned the favor. On Monday, he signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which was seized by Israel from Syria in 1967 and legislatively annexed in 1981. While the international community still considers it occupied territory, Trump’s declaration, like other Israel-related decisions made by his administration, reversed decades of U.S. policy.

Critics warned that Trump was grandstanding on symbolism while setting a troubling new precedent that could justify other countries expanding their territory through conquest. But, as my colleagues noted, all those considerations played second fiddle to another imperative — the delivery of a “political gift” to Netanyahu, who faces a tough battle ahead of Israeli national elections on April 9.

It was yet another example, analysts argued, of how the two right-wing leaders reinforce each other across the oceans. Trump has boosted Netanyahu with a succession of one-sided moves welcomed by the Israeli right, including the White House’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its stripping of funds from Palestinian aid programs. Netanyahu, a darling of U.S. conservatives, has gone out of his way to back Trump’s major policy efforts, including his unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal and his long campaign to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

“Cut from the same political cloth, Trump and Netanyahu have forged a symbiotic alliance,” wrote Shalom Lipner of the Atlantic Council. “Trump’s benevolence toward Israel — attributed singularly to Netanyahu’s success in cultivating his friendship — buoys the prime minister’s prospects. And when he responds gratefully by heaping praise on Trump, Netanyahu bolsters the president’s standing among his core Republican and evangelical supporters.”

This has real political costs — namely the steady weakening of support for Israel among Democrats. Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington, told Today’s WorldView that, from his perspective, “the single greatest tragedy of the Netanyahu era was his turning of Israel into partisan political football.” He added that both Trump and Netanyahu’s kinship with a host of illiberal, nationalist leaders elsewhere cut against the “core values” of “an overwhelming majority of American Jews.”

For now, though, Netanyahu has bigger problems to reckon with at home. Unlike the situation in Washington, the Israeli attorney general is seeking the prime minister’s indictment in three separate corruption cases. Netanyahu’s arrival in the United States over the weekend coincided with new accusations that he inappropriately authorized the sale of German-made submarines to Egypt in a purchase that allegedly benefited him and close associates, including relatives who had a stake in the company that conducted the transaction. While Netanyahu dismissed the news as “lies,” his opponents, including Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief rival and a former head of the Israel Defense Forces, are demanding a thorough investigation.

Undaunted, the Israeli prime minister, like the American president, has become an expert at railing against his enemies as the charges of corruption mount. “Netanyahu, or Bibi, as he is commonly known, long cast the ‘hostile media’ as the enemy — before cribbing Trump’s favored term, ‘fake news’ — and he has used what critics call scare tactics to galvanize his base,” wrote my colleagues Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash last week. “Political analysts say that Trump’s success has inspired the Israeli leader to push further.”

They observed that Trump’s repeated insistence that “there is no collusion” with Russia was mirrored by Netanyahu’s “similarly oft-repeated refrain [that] ‘there will be nothing because there is nothing,’ in reference to the potential criminal charges against him.”

After his photo op with Trump, Netanyahu decided to cut his stay in Washington short after a rocket attack fired by Hamas hit a home outside Tel Aviv, injuring seven people. The Israeli prime minister coordinated his government’s response from Blair House, the stately residence offered to visiting leaders adjacent to the White House, before leaving in the evening.

“Israel’s military said its warplanes had struck a three-story building that served as a secret headquarters for Hamas military intelligence operation and a five-story building also used for military purposes in the Rimal neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip,” my colleagues reported. “It also announced the office of Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political bureau, was destroyed in a later airstrike.”

Militants in Gaza reportedly fired back dozens of rockets, many of which were intercepted by Israeli defenses. Hamas, which in recent weeks faced angry protests by Gazans against its misrule, urged Palestinians in the blockaded territory to unite against Israel. It claimed its initial rocket fire was an accident, and, through Egyptian intermediaries, agreed to a cease-fire by Monday evening.

Though experts suggested a protracted conflict was not actually in Netanyahu’s interest ahead of the elections, it’s clear that under his watch — and aided by Trump — a meaningful peace process with the Palestinians and the faint hope for a viable Palestinian state have withered.

“Trump has made sure that Israel will be in a perpetual state of war with its Arab neighbors for many decades to come,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, speaking to Reuters about actions from the White House that have undercut Arab and Palestinian interests. “What Trump has done is to hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of the peace process and Arab-Israeli reconciliation. This is a fundamental turning point. There is nothing left to discuss anymore.”

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