Feb. 10, 2017 – Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the White
House in just a few days, on February 15.
During the presidential campaign Trump had said he would be “the best thing that could ever happen to Israel.” When Trump was elected, and especially when he named the polarizing David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel, the right wing in Israel and America felt triumphant. Trump claimed that the Israel-USA relationship “got repaired as soon as I took the oath of office.” Considering that the Obama administration had acted, at least to a limited extent, as a check on Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, none of this was encouraging.
For his part, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to ingratiate himself with the new president. When Trump took his first steps to build his promised wall on the Mexican border, Netanyahu tweeted his support:
President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea
This was a completely gratuitous gesture. Netanyahu inserted himself yet again into American domestic politics, he upset the mostly liberal American Jewish community, he unsettled the small Mexican Jewish community by driving a wedge between their loyalty to Mexico and their Zionism, and he created a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Mexico. Presumably, though, he made Donald Trump happy.
But as we are learning every day about the Trump presidency, a lot of stuff keeps happening that you never expect. At this point, it’s not clear how the Trump-Bibi bromance will turn out.
The two are likely to agree on Iran. They both hate the nuclear deal. But that doesn’t mean the deal is going to be abrogated. First of all, it’s a multinational agreement so the USA by itself can’t cancel it. More importantly, Trump has shown that he is susceptible to persuasion, at least by those he sees as strong players.
In the case of torture, which he vocally supported, Trump backed down after strong opposition from professionals in the Defense Department and the CIA.
Similarly in the case of Iran, Defense Secretary James Mattis says that scrapping the deal would be unwise. “It is an imperfect arms control agreement,” he has said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” House Speaker Paul Ryan has also stated that the Iran deal should be rigorously enforced, not dismantled. So there’s no reason to expect that the Iran deal will be cancelled anytime soon.
On two other very key issues, the settlements and relocating the U.S. embassy, Netanyahu has to be disappointed already.
Trump – like every Republican presidential candidate in recent elections – promised to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Now that’s not so clear. In his interview this week with Israel Hayom, Trump was pressed about the embassy promise. All he would say was “I am thinking about the embassy. I am studying the embassy, and we will see what happens.”
On settlements, the Trump White House issued a statement on February 2 saying that the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. At the same time, the statement said the existence of settlements was not an impediment to peace. That was a major departure from the policy of the Obama administration, which had repeatedly stated that the settlements were an impediment to peace. The JTA’s Ron Kampeas wrote that the Trump position was closer to that of George W. Bush.
So Netanyahu can feel a little reassured, but not completely comfortable.
For those of us who are concerned about continuing Israeli expansion in the occupied territories and the ever-receding prospects for peace, it’s even less reassuring. There are very tentative signs that the United States may still provide some limited checks on Israeli expansionism, and Donald Trump has repeatedly promised that he wants to achieve a peace deal. He has assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a major figure in the administration, to the task.
We have seen over and over in the past few weeks that Trump is a volatile and erratic leader. The prospects for something positive, never great at the best of times, are especially dismal now.
Meantime, we’ll be watching the Trump-Netanyahu encounter closely.