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‘I will not step on that landmine’: Netanyahu dodges open support for Trump return

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Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu dodged answering whether he supported former US president Donald Trump’s planned bid to retake the White House Sunday, citing both appreciation for the one-time ally and disapproval of his recent dalliance with antisemitic figures.

Speaking to NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu made clear he preferred not to weigh in on internal American politics and declined to definitively back Trump, with whom he had a vocal and unabashed allegiance when both were in office.

“Keep me out of it,” Netanyahu joked when asked by Chuck Todd about whether he would “like to see Donald Trump as president again,” calling the question a “landmine.”

“I’ll deal with anyone who’s elected president, those that I worked with in the past, and anyone new who comes to the plate, because the bond between Israel and America … it really is a bond of peoples and a civilizational bond, and it’s strong,” said Netanyahu, who is expected to return as premier backed by far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies. “I’ll deal with anyone, and I certainly will not step on that landmine… I’ve been in this business long enough.”

His comments came as Trump has been buffeted by criticism due to a recent dinner at which he hosted antisemitic rapper Kanye West and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, which has caused a number of past Trump backers to publicly distance themselves from the ex-president. He is also accused of fomenting the violent storming of the US Capitol by his supporters in 2021, and continues to reject the outcome of the elections that ousted him.

Netanyahu — who was accused over the past decade of favoring Republicans over Democrats, with whom he often disagreed — fostered close ties with Trump during his presidency.

As premier, Netanyahu lavished praise on Trump, calling him Israel’s greatest-ever friend in the White House and saying ties between Jerusalem and Washington were never better than under the real estate mogul, who won plaudits by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel’s capital, recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and downgrading ties with the Palestinians.

He repeated that praise during the NBC interview but also criticized the dinner with West and Fuentes, saying it was “wrong.”

“On this matter, on Kanye West and that other unacceptable guest, I think it’s not merely unacceptable, it’s just wrong. And I hope he sees his way to staying out of it and condemning it,” Netanyahu said.

In this March 25, 2019, photo, then US president Donald Trump (left) smiles at then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Though allowing that West’s recent outbursts may be down to “personality” issues rather than views, Netanyahu stressed that “whoever says it for whatever reason it is wrong. You don’t praise Hitler. Hitler was the greatest mass murderer of all time.”

“Anybody who praises him is wrong. Anybody who meets with him and gives it legitimacy is wrong,” he said.

Netanyahu added he doubts that Trump will continue to fraternize with open antisemites “because he probably understands it crosses a line.”

In his recent autobiography, which he plugged during the interview, Netanyahu described the challenges he had in getting Trump to see his point of view on the Middle East and peace with the Palestinians, including convincing the president that he does want peace and that it is the Palestinians who don’t, rather than the other way around.

Trump, at one point, when meeting then-Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, “blurted out, ‘Bibi doesn’t want peace,’” Netanyahu wrote.  “This was not ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ This was ‘Houston, we are the problem!’”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk to a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Trump, meanwhile, called Netanyahu “disloyal” for congratulating US President Joe Biden on his election victory, which ousted the Republican.

Trump said Netanyahu’s congratulatory message to Biden came too quickly after the election results were announced, results he continues to contest to this day.

“He was very early. Like earlier than most. I haven’t spoken to him since. Fuck him,” Trump said in a 2021 interview with journalist Barak Ravid.

Netanyahu was also quizzed in the Sunday interview about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

He said addressing the Ukraine issue is one of the first things he will look at if he becomes prime minister, but noted the importance of balancing the concerns of Ukraine with security relations with Russia on Israel’s operations in the Middle East.

Netanyahu said he was approached to mediate a resolution between Russia and Ukraine “about a year ago,” but he declined because he was not the prime minister of Israel at the time. He did not say who approached him.

“I can tell you that I was approached, about a year ago, to enter this and I said ‘No,’ there’s one prime minister at the time. Our prime minister tried his hand at it at the time, unsuccessfully, and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Netanyahu said.

Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett made a number of attempts to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow shortly after the start of the invasion in February.

On internal Israeli politics, Netanyahu vowed he would not allow harm to come to LGBT rights in Israel amid growing concern over his coalition deal with the homophobic Noam party, which granted the faction’s chairman authority over the Education Ministry unit responsible for informal education at Israeli schools.

“I just won’t accept any of that. It’s not something I’m saying now — I have a record now and a record in general of having two hands on the wheel… I ultimately decide policy,” Netanyahu said when asked about Noam MK Avi Maoz, who is set to become a deputy minister with some control of education programs for students.

MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy, Likud)

The interview was one of three Netanyahu has given in recent days to the US press. A number of American outlets have highlighted fears over the hardline lawmakers slated to take up key positions in Israel’s next government.

The Likud leader has yet to give similar interviews to the Israeli press.

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