Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu were the closest of political allies during the four years they overlapped in office, at least in public. Not anymore. “I haven’t spoken to him since,” Trump said of the former Israeli prime minister. “F**k him.”
What he’s saying: Trump repeatedly criticized Netanyahu during two interviews for my book, “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East.” The final straw for Trump was when Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Biden for his election victory while Trump was still disputing the result.
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“The first person that congratulated [Biden] was Bibi Netanyahu, the man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with. … Bibi could have stayed quiet. He has made a terrible mistake.”
Why it matters: Now opposition leader, Netanyahu is waging a continuous campaign to win back the Prime Minister’s Office while on trial for corruption.
One of his primary political calling cards is his close relationship with key players in U.S. politics, and with one man in particular who remains hugely popular in Israel: Trump.
My interview with Trump will feature in a new season of Axios’ “How It Happened” podcast, to be released on Monday. Subscribe.
The big picture: For domestic political reasons, both Trump and Netanyahu cultivated the public perception that there was no daylight between them as they worked closely together on key issues. But by the end of his presidency, Trump had concluded that Netanyahu didn’t really want peace with the Palestinians and was using him on Iran.
Trump also felt he’d helped ensure Netanyahu’s political survival, but didn’t get the same in return. He positively fumed about the video in which Netanyahu congratulated Biden.
“I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi. But I also like loyalty. The first person to congratulate Biden was Bibi. And not only did he congratulate him, he did it on tape,” Trump told me, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Reality check: Netanyahu was far from the first world leader to congratulate Biden. In fact, he waited more than 12 hours after the U.S. networks called the election.
But Trump claimed he was shocked when his wife Melania shared Netanyahu’s video with him: “He was very early — like, earlier than most. I haven’t spoken to him since. F**k him.”
The former president was fixated on the fact that while the likes of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin held off — “they felt the election was rigged,” Trump claimed — Netanyahu acknowledged Biden’s win.
“For Bibi Netanyahu, before the ink was even dry, to do a message, and not only a message, to do a tape to Joe Biden talking about their great, great friendship — they didn’t have a friendship, because if they did, [the Obama administration] wouldn’t have done the Iran deal,” Trump said. “And guess what, now they’re going to do it again.”
Setting the scene: Those remarks came during a 90-minute, face-to-face interview at Mar-a-Lago in April, during which Trump repeatedly contended that he’d done more for Israel and for Netanyahu than any other president.
He cited his decisions to withdraw from the Iran deal, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, keep troops in the region and recognize the occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel.
He noted that he announced the Golan Heights move “right before the election” in April 2019, when Netanyahu had been trailing in the polls. “He would have lost the election if it wasn’t for me.”
Reality check: It’s unclear whether the move actually swung the result of the election, which ended in a deadlock, but a poll conducted ahead of the vote by the Israeli Institute for Democracy found that 66% of Israelis thought Trump’s decision strengthened Netanyahu’s stature.
Netanyahu featured Trump on his election billboards. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty
18 months later, when Trump held an on-camera call with Netanyahu 10 days before the U.S. election to mark the normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan, Trump asked Netanyahu whether “Sleepy Joe” could have cut such a deal.
“Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America,” Netanyahu replied cautiously. Trump bristled.
There were also more substantial disagreements between Trump and Netanyahu over Iran, Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, and Trump’s desire for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Even as he criticized Netanyahu, Trump expressed some admiration for him as a politician. He also showed great interest in Netanyahu’s legal troubles, though he said he’d never discussed them with Netanyahu himself.
I spoke to Trump again in July, this time on the phone, after Netanyahu had been ousted from power after 12 years.
“Well, I like him, but he has been there a long time,” Trump said when asked about Netanyahu’s exit.
Trump repeated his grievances with Netanyahu, albeit in a milder tone. “I can tell you that people were very angry with him when he was the first one to congratulate Biden,” he said.
“The video was almost like he’s begging for love. And I said, ‘My, my how things change.’ So, you know, I was disappointed. That hurt him badly with the people of Israel. As you know, I’m very popular in Israel. I think it hurt him very badly.”
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