Analysis | Netanyahu and Putin are both waiting for Trump

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Global anger deepened all the more this week in the wake of yet another deadly Israeli strike on Gaza. The bombardment triggered a blaze that swept through parts of a makeshift tent camp in the environs of Rafah, the territory’s southernmost city, killing at least 45 Palestinians and injuring hundreds more. Images of charred bodies and screaming children proliferated in the aftermath, adding to the already considerable pressure on President Biden to change course in its staunch support for Israel’s campaign.

After the strike, White House officials struggled to explain how the ongoing Israeli offensive in Rafah did not cross Biden’s blurry red line. “We still don’t believe that a major ground operation in Rafah is warranted,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “We still don’t want to see the Israelis, as we say, smash into Rafah with large units over large pieces of territory.”

Whatever the criteria surrounding “large units” and “large pieces of territory,” the stark reality is that Israel has already driven out hundreds of thousands of people who had been sheltering in Rafah after fleeing other parts of the Gaza Strip. Its capture and closure of the main border crossing into Egypt cratered a struggling humanitarian operation. Aid agencies describe the war-ravaged Gaza Strip as a place where Palestinians have nowhere safe to go. And Israeli officials are adamant that they won’t let up anytime soon in their quest to vanquish militant group Hamas.


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Tzachi Hanegbi, national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told local radio this week that his government expected to wage its operations in Gaza for “at least another seven months.” He said the extended mission would be “to fortify our achievement and what we define as the destruction of the governmental and military capabilities” of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in the territory.

Satellite images taken 22 days apart show the razing of large areas in east Rafah in May. (Video: Planet Labs)

In seven months time, a rather different political dispensation may exist in Washington. Netanyahu reportedly met this month with three foreign policy envoys working with former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump — who could yet win the election despite being convicted Thursday on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in his New York state hush money case. Though it’s unclear how he would have handled the crisis differently from Biden, the former president has invoked Biden’s friction with Netanyahu as evidence of U.S. failure and expressed little public sympathy for Palestinian suffering. Trump has told donors that if he returns to the White House, he would severely crackdown on pro-Palestinian groups in U.S. universities and even deport foreign students participating in these protests.

Netanyahu, who benefited immensely from Trump’s first term, is arguably hoping for a similar dividend in the event of a second. In the interim, he has openly rejected the Biden administration’s hopes for the Palestinian Authority to take the lead in the postwar administration of Gaza, and he and his allies have shown no interest in even engaging in the White House on reviving pathways for a Palestinian state. And contrary to the Biden administration’s wishes, Netanyahu may soon act on a Republican invitation to address a joint session of Congress.

Standing up to Biden — whose favorability among Israelis has dropped in recent months — may help shore up the support Netanyahu needs from the Israeli right and curry favor among their counterparts in the United States. It also accelerates a deeper shift in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

“Over the past 16 years, Netanyahu has departed sharply from his predecessors’ studious bipartisanship to embrace Republicans and disdain Democrats, an attitude increasingly mirrored in each party’s approach to Israel,” my colleagues wrote this week in a piece examining the prime minister’s role in widening a growing divide — even as Biden remains a staunch supporter of Israel and is reviled by many on the U.S. left for being complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza.

“I think the job for Ukraine this year is to hold tight, to consolidate their lines. To use the new ATACMS long-range missiles to strike at Russian targets within occupied Ukraine … In terms of a real Ukrainian breakout to push the Russians back, as they tried to do unsuccessfully last year, I think that’s going to wait for next year.” – David Ignatius (Video: Washington Post Live)

It’s not just Netanyahu who is waiting for Trump. The evidence is more clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding out for a Trump victory, which would probably help the Kremlin consolidate its illegal conquests of Ukrainian territory. My colleagues reported last month that Trump and his inner circle have outlined the terms of a potential settlement between Moscow and Kyiv that they would attempt to usher in if in power. “Trump’s proposal consists of pushing Ukraine to cede Crimea and the Donbas border region to Russia, according to people who discussed it with Trump or his advisers and spoke on the condition of anonymity because those conversations were confidential,” they reported.

Such a move would fracture the transatlantic coalition built up in support of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion. It would cement the Republican turn away from Europe’s security at a time when Western resolve around Ukraine is flagging. And it would be yet another sign of Trump’s conspicuous affection the strongman in the Kremlin.

“In his eight years as the GOP’s standard-bearer, Trump has led a stark shift in the party’s prevailing orientation to become more skeptical of foreign intervention such as military aid to Ukraine,” my colleagues wrote. “Trump has consistently complimented Putin, expressed admiration for his dictatorial rule and gone out of his way to avoid criticizing him, most recently for the death in jail of political opponent Alexei Navalny.”

My colleagues reported this week about growing tensions between Kyiv and officials in the Biden administration, with Ukraine pushing its Western allies to loosen rules over the usage of some of their weaponry on targets on Russian soil. Pessimism has set in over what Ukrainian forces can achieve militarily this summer, as Russia launches new offensives.

“I think the best we can hope for until the election is a stalemate,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security and now vocal critic, recently said. “Putin is waiting for Trump.”

Trump’s team “is thinking about this very much in silos, that this is just a Ukraine-Russia thing,” Hill said. “They think of it as a territorial dispute, rather than one about the whole future of European security and the world order by extension.”

“Former president Trump’s inexplicable and admiring relationship with Putin, along with his unprecedented hostility to NATO, cannot give Europe or Ukraine any confidence in his dealings with Russia,” said Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. “Trump’s comments encouraging Russia to do whatever it wants with our European allies are among the most unsettling and dangerous statements made by a major party candidate for president. His position represents a clear and present danger to U.S. and European security.”

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