Kafe Knesset for May 25
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McMaster left out of Bibi-Trump meeting: The White House National Security advisor General H.R. McMaster did not participate in the Trump-Netanyahu meeting on Monday, Kafe Knesset has learned. McMaster had a long, three-hour meeting with Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman on Monday evening, but according to multiple Israeli sources, he did not participate in the leaders’ summit that took place beforehand at the Jerusalem King David hotel.
The President and the PM met on Monday evening, and started their encounter in a one-on-one meeting. Two Israeli officials said that later on the forum was expanded by several advisors, to a Plus-3 forum. The President was then joined by Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman. The Israeli team was augmented with Ambassador Ron Dermer, Special Envoy Isaac Molcho and foreign policy advisor Jonathan Schachter. According to an Israeli official who was present at the venue, at some point, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was invited to join the expanded meeting. However, McMaster sat outside the King David room during the course of the entire meeting.
Two sources in the PM’s office said that Israel did not determine who would sit in from the US side. And it is worth pointing out that McMaster’s counterpart in Netanyahu’s office also did not participate in the meeting. However, the Israeli National Security Advisor seat is currently filled by a temporary appointment, Eitan Ben-David, and as such, is not considered as substantial an advisor as McMaster. Two former US administration officials told Kafe Knesset that McMaster’s absence from the meeting is “highly unusual. For the President to prioritize his son-in-law and his lawyer over the National Security Advisor for these kind of strategic discussions is unconventional, to say the least.”
In the week ahead of the Israel visit, some of McMaster’s statements raised some eyebrows in Jerusalem. First, he announced that the President intends to use the meeting to express “his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians,” which, by the way did not end up happening. Then, during a press briefing, he twice refused to say whether the Western Wall is part of Israel, dodging questions on the topic with the answer: “That is a policy decision.” At the same time, a NY Times report last week claimed that President Trump “has complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings, and has referred to him as “a pain.”
A spokesman for the NSC declined to comment about McMaster’s absence from the meeting.
Bibi thanks Congress: Yesterday, in between Jerusalem Day speeches and ceremonies, Netanyahu acknowledged and confirmed the additional $75 million assistance to Israel recently approved under the Omnibus Appropriations bill for the remainder of FY2017. Against the backdrop of the mega-billion Saudi arms deal, the PM confirmed that during the President’s visit “The US has pledged to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East. Three days ago, the US added $75 million in assistance to Israel. We greatly appreciate the important assistance and support, but I want to emphasize once again: History has proven that Israel’s security depends on our ability to defend ourselves, based on our own strength, against any threat.”
Israeli officials told Kafe Knesset that in recent days, the Israeli embassy in DC updated Jerusalem that the Administration indeed does not intend to ask Israel to return the additional $75 million, even though the surplus breaches the Israeli commitment not to accept any extra funding from Congress under the new MOU signed last year with the Obama administration. According to the officials, the Israeli Appendix Letter commitment that was attached to the landmark military aid agreement last year indeed included a commitment to refund to the Administration any money the Congress would choose to transfer independently over the next two years, but “the letter said explicitly that the demand was only in case the Administration objects. Since the President signed the Omnibus Appropriations bill, he apparently does not oppose it, so Israel does not have to return the money,” the official said.
The Oren Hazan buffer: Israeli officials have given a lot of thought to decorum following Trump’s visit. Officials have come up with two quick fixes that they hope will make the next big visit by a foreign leader go more smoothly, without any embarrassing moments. Basically, the plan is to create a buffer between the Knesset’s wackiest Member, Oren Hazan of the Likud, and any important visitors. That is kind of a joke but also kind of true. After Hazan crashed Trump’s welcoming ceremony and pushed his way into the receiving line, ignoring pleas from the protocol chiefs, and getting a selfie with the President, Netanyahu is scrapping the longstanding tradition of receiving lines at Ben-Gurion Airport. According to pro-Bibi daily Yisrael Hayom, ministers will no longer line up to meet world leaders on the tarmac. Hazan is not the only reason for the change in protocol – it’s also because the handshakes took too long, with every minister trying to chat with POTUS. Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, for example, told Trump that he should be “the first president to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” and Netanyahu’s camp saw the statement as aggressive, according to the report.
Part two of the Trump-visit post-mortem will take place in the Knesset next week. After Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein admitted that the White House considered a Trump speech in the legislature but decided against it because the Israelis could not get a guarantee that MKs would not heckle him. Hazan is a known heckler, but, admittedly, he has not interrupted a world leader yet. This is more about Arab MKs, who have done things like tell former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to join the Likud. The Arab MKs also walked out while ex-UK PM David Cameron was in the plenum. Next week, the Knesset House Committee will vote on a change to its rules such that when a foreign leader speaks in the Knesset, an MK can be booted the first time he or she interrupts. Normally, the rule is three strikes and you are out.
Bibi’s French connection: Bibi has a longtime friend in the French parliament, Meyer Habib, a center-right député in the National Assembly. Habib represents French expats living in Mediterranean countries. French-Israelis make up more than half of Habib’s constituents. Netanyahu decided to lend his friend a hand on Wednesday and Habib posted a video on his Facebook page of the prime minister speaking in French and Hebrew in favor of the MP. Habib is up for re-election next month. According to Netanyahu, Habib has been behind initiatives for Franco-Israeli cooperation, including Israeli security forces teaching the French how to fight terror. Netanyahu also pointed out that Habib pressured ministers and members of the Knesset to change laws to make life easier for new immigrants from France, including having pharmacists’ and dentists’ certifications recognized without having to go through an onerous Israeli testing process. Habib is running against 17 other candidates, including French-Israeli Daphna Poznanski-Benhamou, who was elected to the expat seat in 2012, The French Constitutional Council annulled Poznanski’s election due to campaign finance violations. Habib won his seat in the special election to replace her.