How Donald Trump became a freier by meddling in Israeli democracy

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2017. File photo

Israeli politics puts “Game of Thrones” to ” to shame. There’s the constant juggling of competing interests, the never static diversity of political parties. There are the personalities that are bigger than life. And then there are the stakes of what they’re fighting for — life and death, existential issues — which makes it all feel incredibly important.

That’s why the recent failure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forge a coalition government was, from an American perspective, so troubling. Troubling not because, for the first time in Israeli
history, the country has to go through a do-over election. Troubling instead because an American president — Donald Trump — inappropriately meddled in Israel’s internal politics, yet still couldn’t find a way to tilt the election to his ally. That’s some serious incompetence.

A great principle of democratic culture is that politicians in democracies respect the will of the people in other democracies. So, when a foreign leader tries to tell the citizens of another democracy about how to choose their leaders, it destroys the essential fabric that undergirds the social contract between the governing and the governed. But if leaders like these are going to engage in political meddling, like Vladimir Putin did to our elections in 2016, they had better ensure that they succeed.

Here are some of the political gifts that Trump gave to Netanyahu to try to help him win.

First, Trump cancelled American participation in the Iran nuclear deal, a longtime ask of Netanyahu, despite pleas against this from multiple Israeli security leaders.

Second, Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, another longtime Netanyahu ask for which there was no particular urgency to undertake.

Third, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, another longtime Israeli ask that was widely perceived as an election eve gift to Netanyahu.

And last, when Netanyahu was struggling to form a coalition, only days before the deadline, Trump issued a tweet at Netanyahu’s urging about how much he wanted Netanyahu to remain in power.
Yet despite all this support, Netanyahu failed to deliver while Trump’s gifts fell flat.

Worse for Trump, he has now turned himself into the embodiment of what Israelis enjoy mocking most: a freier. All Israelis know this word to mean being a “sucker,” which is now what he is perceived to be, as he has given all of these political gifts to Netanyahu and gotten nothing in return.

There are several lessons to take from this unseemly sequence of events.

First, Donald Trump sees no ethical boundaries when it comes to meddling in foreign elections. Just as he doesn’t seem at all concerned about the Russian meddling that, according to Robert Mueller, helped him take the White House, he also doesn’t see any problem with meddling in another country’s democratic politics.

Second, Donald Trump has proven that he doesn’t know how to effectively leverage American assets to accomplish national goals. For example, Jerusalem was always kept as a final status negotiation issue by the United States. because it was useful as an incentive for encouraging Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. But instead of using that leverage to encourage peacemaking — a goal he claims to want — he gave it away and got nothing in return on the peace process.

Third, despite providing all these gifts, the strategy didn’t work, as Netanyahu was unable to convert his gifts from Trump into a political victory. Instead, Israeli politicians turned their backs on Netanyahu’s offers and correctly saw the gifts as Israeli triumphs, not Netanyahu ones.

What this means for Israel is clear: Israelis pocketed Trump’s gifts without either rewarding him with a peacemaking success or giving an electoral win to his ally Netanyahu. And they clearly don’t see Netanyahu as having a magic wand over Trump. Maybe someone else — like mega-donor Sheldon Adelson or evangelical leader John Hagee has one — but not Netanyahu. Israelis see that Trump will give them what they want, as long as they flatter him, without their having to give him anything back in return.

But for the United States, there is a more ominous lesson from this episode. Trump’s failure to successfully reinstall Netanyahu after meddling so aggressively in Israeli politics is a troubling demonstration of both his political and foreign policy weakness. Trump has shown no juice — not even in Israel, where he’s assumed to be popular.

This begs a disturbing question: If America is seen as this weak by a friendly ally, how can we even begin to accomplish our goals with tough adversaries like North Korea, Iran and China?

This is what happens when other countries view our president as a freier.

Joel Rubin is a council member in the Town of Chevy Chase and a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.

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