The Israeli press has an unusual way of evaluating the success of a prime ministerial visit to the Oval Office.
Journalists traditionally focus on the so-called “chemistry” between the two leaders, while noting, if relevant, how they met privately for longer than initially scheduled, usually a sign of good tidings.
We already know that there is positive chemistry between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. They have known each other for years. No need to look back too far. In 2013, Trump, then a private businessman, recorded a pro-Netanyahu campaign ad ahead of elections in Israel.
Netanyahu and Trump’s son-in-low and adviser, Jared Kushner, also have joint history.
Kushner’s father, Charles, has been a Netanyahu supporter for nearly two decades.
He reportedly brought Netanyahu a number of times to his companies for speeches between 1999 – when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak – and his return to government in 2003.
Trump and Netanyahu also have a joint political interest in making their meeting appear to be a huge success.
Trump will want to show the American public that he respects and admires allies, unlike – he will point out – his predecessor, Barack Obama. Netanyahu, on the other hand, will want to show Israelis that he finally knows how to get along with a US president.
Seems like a recipe for the perfect meeting, right? Not necessarily.
Since taking office, Trump has not stopped surprising Israel. During the campaign, Trump was hailed as the savior of the Right, with his advisers saying he would allow Israel to press the reset button on almost everything in the region. The Iran deal would be annulled, they said, and the peace process with the Palestinians would be reevaluated to the point that a two-state solution would be taken off the table.
That explains Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett’s demand that Netanyahu revoke his support for a two-state solution in his meeting with Trump. Bennett and others on the Right listened to these supporters and genuinely believed that the paradigm had shifted.
The problem is that it hasn’t.
The signs started to appear immediately after the elections. Trump gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal and spoke about how Israeli-Palestinian peace is the ultimate deal, one he plans to work toward. He then met with The New York Times editorial board and revealed that Kushner would serve as his main envoy to the Middle East peace process.
Then, on the night before his inauguration, at a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Trump again mentioned the long evasive Middle East peace and said that if Kushner couldn’t make a deal then no one could.
If he didn’t care, as his supporters had claimed, then why was he talking about the peace process all the time? Had Trump changed? While some raised the possibility that Israel had misread Trump from the beginning, his supporters in Israel refused to accept that. They held on to the notion that his policies would be different.
But then came the 180-degree turnaround on the US Embassy and its move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. During the campaign, when he made the promise that he would move the embassy, his supporters acknowledged that other presidential candidates had made similar promises in the past and then reneged.
With Trump, they insisted, it would be different. He would move it.
Some claimed that the embassy move would be announced on Inauguration Day. When it wasn’t, they predicted it would be announced the following Monday.
When that didn’t happen, it became clear something had changed. Then the White House announced that, while the embassy move is under consideration, it was just that – under consideration.
Then came the conflicting statements on Israel’s settlement activity and the interview Trump gave Israel Hayom last week, in which he said Israel needs to be “reasonable” to make peace happen and revealed that, in his opinion, the settlements “don’t help the process.”
So what happened? What changed? Was this always Trump or is this a new Trump, who as president, has realized what Ariel Sharon famously described when he became prime minister as “the things you see from here you don’t see from there”? A lot is riding on the Wednesday meeting and it pretty much all depends on what Trump decides to do.
He can give Israel a bear hug, make promises and for the cameras at least show that the relationship has never been better. In private though, he could decide to rebuke Netanyahu for increased settlement activity and push him to make concessions to the Palestinians.
On the other hand, Trump could decide to let Netanyahu lead. It already seems like Jared Kushner has bought into the idea that Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer have been pushing for some time now, that peace with the Palestinians will only be obtained in a larger-scale regional framework and not just in direct negotiations with Ramallah.
Either way, Netanyahu will come back to political trouble. Bayit Yehudi and the Likud’s far-right faction have already threatened that the “ground will shake” if he endorses a Palestinian state. If he doesn’t, then those same coalition members will put immense pressure on him to build everywhere, not just in the settlement blocs.
How this ends remains to be seen. At least there will be good chemistry.