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Backstory Emerges on Bibi and Trump

Veteran journalist Barak Ravid gets the scoop on what Donald Trump really thinks of Bibi

Although Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu both tried to make political hay out of their publicly warm friendship, behind the scenes, the picture was quite a bit less rosy.

That inside story has been generating headlines in Israel for the past week, as veteran journalist Barak Ravid gets the scoop in a new Hebrew book on the leaders’ relationship.

“Former president Trump has a feeling that he was used by former prime minister Netanyahu on Iran, as well as on the Palestinian issue,” Ravid tells Mishpacha. Ravid’s new book, Hashalom shel Trump: Heskemei Avraham V’hamahapach b’Mizrach HaTichon (“Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Revolution in the Middle East”), drew on two lengthy interviews with President Trump this year.

According to Ravid, one thing he learned through his work on the book, and especially from his interviews with the former president (in April and July), is that personal relations between Trump and Netanyahu weren’t nearly as warm as they seemed. It was a high priority for Trump to look out for Israel. But ultimately, he didn’t really care which Israeli leader he had at his side when he signed the peace deals he was so sure he would achieve.

“He liked Netanyahu very much, and still does,” notes Ravid, “but the top of his priorities was the deals themselves. He also said that the full effects of the deals might not become apparent for many years. He told me that if he were in Biden’s place, he would expand on them and sign with more countries.”

The book, published last week, tells the behind-the-scenes story of the Abraham Accords as well as other elements of Trump’s foreign policy, such as the sanctions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Trump is a very straightforward person, not some slippery diplomat,” Ravid says. “It took him time to realize that Netanyahu was stalling regarding talks with the Palestinians, as well as on Iran. When the suspicion dawned on him, he confronted Netanyahu directly. Netanyahu’s evasive answers were a clear indication to Trump that he had used him and hadn’t been entirely upfront.”

I asked Ravid if he has the sense that Trump is still disappointed. “Time always brings a sense of proportion. But his fundamental grievances with Netanyahu remain. Netanyahu’s decision to congratulate Biden was the final straw.”

That last, as has been widely noted, is an unfair charge, given that Netanyahu waited until after other world leaders had congratulated the president-elect, and even then only referred to him as “my friend Joe Biden.”

Trump took justifiable pride in Israel’s peace deal with the UAE, but he met with frustration on trying to advance peace with the Palestinians. He and his team worked hard on what he called the “Deal of the Century” and was confident that it would end the long conflict, and that he would succeed where previous presidents had failed. He released the plan in the middle of Israel’s third election campaign, and tried to engineer support from both incumbent prime minister Netanyahu and his challenger, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz. Ravid describes the inner workings.

“A day before the ceremony at which Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ was unveiled, Netanyahu and Gantz came to the White House for meetings with Trump, who wanted to assure himself of both party leaders’ support. This was during Israel’s third election campaign. The political crisis in Israel had reached the point that Netanyahu actually asked the White House not to invite Gantz. When he couldn’t get that, he asked that at least no videographer be present at the Gantz-Trump meeting. That wish was granted.”

Trump’s machinations, however, ultimately came at no avail, and in the end he was spurned by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

“Gantz was very worried throughout that Trump would spring some trap on him, so he was very guarded. Netanyahu didn’t want Trump’s peace plan to be made public before the elections. Everyone thinks that was a campaign gift from Trump to Netanyahu. That’s a mistake. Netanyahu tried to prevent the deal, but failed.”

Netanyahu’s resistance to the White House’s advances on the Palestinian front became obvious to Trump when the UAE deal was finalized. It led to a watershed moment in the relationship between the two leaders.

“For Trump, the penny dropped when the leaders were delivering their remarks at the signing of the Abraham Accords. Trump was astonished to hear Netanyahu talking about Israel’s annexation plans. Netanyahu talked about imposing sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and the Jewish settlements in a third of Judea and Samaria. Trump looked at Jared Kushner in total confusion.

“As soon as the leaders had departed, Trump felt the need to find out it that was about. He raged at Netanyahu and accused him of using the White House to make a political speech with no respect for his host. Trump got his revenge a few months later. The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, came to a meeting at the White House with the aim of trying to persuade him to allow annexation of the territories. Trump cut him off and refused to discuss the matter.”

The picture that emerges here will likely surprise those who thought Trump was a reliable partner who supported all of Netanyahu’s aims. Instead it has become clear that the American president had his own interests at heart in all his dealings with Bibi.

News reports about the book have also highlighted Trump’s remarks to Ravid about Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, describing him as “so nice,” “almost like a father,” and “definitely a partner for peace.” That, combined with Trump’s reported fury at Netanyahu’s congratulatory phone call to Joe Biden after the election, portrays the former president as a personality much more susceptible to emotional swings and flattery than his supporters might acknowledge. And it suggests that Netanyahu was very canny in his handling of the relationship.

I asked Ravid if he knows whether Trump is following Netanyahu’s further career developments, and in particular the ongoing corruption trial.

“Trump is following Netanyahu’s trial with interest. When we came to the subject of Netanyahu’s investigations, Trump asked that we stop recording and held forth on the topic for at least half an hour. He showed an uncommon mastery of the subject and was especially well versed in the charges against Sheldon Adelson, whom he greatly respected. He asked several times in the course of our conversation, ‘How did Netanyahu make millions in a situation where he had no money?’ He showed genuine interest in Netanyahu’s cases.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 890)

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