There is nothing like a trip from Jerusalem to Washington to see just how much Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have in common these days.
Visiting the US capital for a conference last weekend, I was scheduled to have a few meetings on Friday with some administration officials. Just before I got to the White House, though, news broke that Trump’s former national security adviser had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russians. Let’s just say the place was not exactly an island of tranquility.
Just two days later
in Israel, MK David Bitan, the powerful Likud coalition chairman, was detained by police and interrogated for 17 hours over bribery and money laundering allegations.
Then there are the two leaders’ legislative troubles.
Trump’s massive tax reform passed by just two votes last week, while earlier legislation on healthcare failed. Netanyahu faced a similar blow this past week with the police recommendations bill: initially drafted to include his investigations, Netanyahu had no choice on Sunday
but to announce that the legislation would not apply retroactively, after tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest.
From the perspective of the Israeli prime minister and the American president, they are besieged – sieges being waged by a hostile press, by agenda-driven police forces, and prejudiced legislatures.
Trump’s announcement on Wednesday
that he is moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as Israel’s capital is a gift to both embattled leaders. It is a gift for Trump since it strengthens support among his base, and shows him to be a leader willing to take bold steps and make tough foreign policy decisions. It also temporarily diverts attention away from his trouble with the FBI.
For Netanyahu, it has a similar effect. While Trump is the president who made history recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Netanyahu is the prime minister who helped make it happen. Now it is possible that Trump would’ve made the decision under a different prime minister, but Netanyahu pushed the president on the issue from the first moment he entered the Oval Office. It was always at the top of the prime minister’s agenda.
Part of this is without doubt a sincere effort by the prime minister to ensure Israel’s long-term diplomatic and security interests. Part of this, though, is also political, an opportunity for Netanyahu to show the public why he is specifically needed and explain how only he can bring Israel diplomatic success and fortune.
Trump’s reasoning to move ahead with the Jerusalem pronouncement resulted from a number of factors. First was his commitment to his core constituents: evangelical Christians who expected the president to stand by his promise from the campaign. Then there was Sheldon Adelson, possibly his largest financial supporter, who also expected the president to follow through on his promise and whose money Trump will likely want to rely on ahead of his 2020 reelection bid.
But all this really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Trump corrected a historical injustice committed against the Jewish state for the last 70 years. No other country in the world has had the location of its capital city dictated to it. Why should Israel?
Just as important was the message Trump was sending to radicals and terrorists. In the days leading up to this decision, Arab leaders warned the president that if he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, violence would erupt in the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt and beyond. Regional stability – not that there really is any these days – would be undermined.
With Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran threatening violence, social media became flooded with apocalyptic doomsday prophesies of what would happen after Trump made the announcement.
It is certainly possible that violence will break out, but a country cannot allow itself to be held hostage by terrorist threats. Had Trump or Israel capitulated to these threats, they would have granted a victory to terrorists. In the long term, this would have been even more dangerous than whatever violence – if there will be any – might break out in the days to come.
For Jerusalemites, the decision on Wednesday
did not change anything. The city looked the same – frosty, a bit wet, and, as always, in need of a good street cleaning. Nevertheless, Trump’s move does send three clear messages to three different groups of people.
First, it tells the Palestinians that it is time to wake up. The illusion that terrorism will defeat Israel or that Jerusalem does not belong to Israel is false. The Palestinians need to carefully consider their next move. Trump will let them vent, but if they say no to the peace proposal Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman are working on, they could find themselves dealing with a president willing to potentially give Israel the green light to annex parts of the West Bank.
The second group are the Europeans. For years, Europe has been Israel’s biggest critic vis-à-vis the conflict with the Palestinians. From today, the US stands separate from Europe, more so than in the past. This will have an impact on the Quartet and on future attempts by Europe to play a role in solving the conflict.
The third group is Israel, since there is no such thing as a free lunch. Yes, the embassy move was done without connection to the peace deal Kushner is working on. But when that peace deal is presented, Israel will not easily be able to push back. When Trump asks Israel to make serious concessions, it will be difficult to say no to a president who has just given you a gift of such magnitude.
But this isn’t the entire story. While recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was not part of the Kushner-Greenblatt-Friedman peace plan, it fits in nicely.
With this decision, Trump is demonstrating a diametrically different strategy than Barack Obama. A few months after taking office, Obama convened US Jewish leaders and explained to them how he was going to create daylight with Israel as a way of getting it to make peace. In simpler terms, Obama thought that a weak Israel, more dependent on America, would be easily pressured to make concessions to the Palestinians. Trump is showing the opposite. His staff understands that in order to get Israel to take the necessary steps for peace, Israelis need to feel safe, secure and confident.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital gives Israelis a feeling that Trump has their back. If the prime minister now announces concessions to the Palestinians and tough compromises, they will be more easily offset by moves like the one regarding Jerusalem.
This will also leave its mark on Israeli politics. Without the Jerusalem decision, it might have been difficult for Netanyahu to maintain his coalition after Kushner presents his peace plan in a few months. But now, it will be difficult for Bayit Yehudi or any other coalition member to oppose a deal that is being mediated by the same administration that did what no one else was willing to do for 70 years. Even if Naftali Bennett, for example, would want to leave the coalition at some point down the road due to peace talks, his constituents won’t easily let him.
According to officials familiar with the work being done on the White House’s peace plan, it is extremely detailed and far more comprehensive than just a few pages of parameters as some in Israel initially expected. Greenblatt’s team, for example, has studied all of the core issues and broken them down into sets of recommendations, like drafting a detailed plan on how to resolved the issue of Jerusalem.
When and how will the plan be rolled out? That is something the administration is still debating. The plan will likely be ready in the next few weeks, but it has yet to decide how to unveil it. Will it convene a summit headed by Trump and joined by Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas? Or will the US president simply send Kushner, Friedman and Greenblatt to present the plan to Jerusalem and Ramallah?
For now, the administration will give the Palestinians time to blow off steam. But I wouldn’t expect things to stay quiet for too long. This administration has shown it is determined to make progress. As Trump said on Wednesday
: “Let us rethink old assumptions and open our hearts and minds to [the] possible and possibilities.”