On Sunday evening, just two days after Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, he held a 30-minute telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the first phone calls he held with foreign leaders.
Before speaking with Netanyahu, Trump spoke with neighbors: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The day after speaking with Netanyahu, he held a conversation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the next day he spoke with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He has yet to speak to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Whether intentional or not, whether merely the result of who is available at a particular time or pure favoritism, the order of these types of public phone calls does send signals. Just ask the Palestinians.
On January 21, 2009, newly inaugurated president Barack Obama’s first phone call to a foreign leader was to Abbas. Only after speaking to the Palestinian leader did he then call then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
And the Palestinians gloated, at least according to an article in New York’s Daily News
headlined “Prez jumps in on Mideast and stirs a phone flap.”
According to Abbas’s spokesman at the time, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Obama underlined to Abbas that “this is my first phone call to a foreign leader, and I’m making it only hours after I took office.”
Though the overall significance of whom a new president calls first can be debated, one thing for certain was that with that first call to Abbas in 2009, Obama sent a clear message to the world about the importance he would place on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Coming just after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, that call was also a signal that he would be dealing with Fatah, not Hamas. The very next day, he appointed George Mitchell as his special Mideast envoy, and it was quickly off to the Mideast races.
FAST-FORWARD EIGHT years, and the new president’s third phone call is to Netanyahu. The two have known each other for decades. In 2014 Trump defended Netanyahu on his Twitter account from insults coming from the direction of the White House.
“Obama admin. called @netanyahu ‘chikenshit’,” Trump posted on his Twitter account, which was then far less well known or significant. “Ironic since Bibi was an IDF Special Forces commando while Obama was a community organizer.”
Trump adviser and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told The Jerusalem Post
this week that the president has a “very, very deep respect” for Netanyahu, and that the two men have a “warm relationship” – using a pair of words noticeably absent over the last eight years when describing the relationship between the Israeli prime minister and US president.
Little emerged publicly from that 30-minute conversation, with Trump distilling it to the following: “very nice,” and the Prime Minister’s Office putting out a brief statement saying that they held a “very warm conversation.”
“The prime minister expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel,” that statement said.
It is unlikely that those words “no daylight” were chosen at random. Emphasizing the need for no daylight between the US and Israel, Netanyahu underlined one of his main problems with Obama – the former president’s interest in pulling open the blinds and letting the daylight shine in on the differences between the two countries for all to see. The tone of this policy was also set early on in Obama’s tenure. In July of 2009, after his landmark speech to the Arab world in Cairo and his first White House meeting with Netanyahu, during which he demanded a complete and total settlement freeze, Obama met with 16 officials of Jewish organizations.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Obama that diplomatic progress in the Middle East generally took place when the public perception was that there was “no daylight” between the two countries.
He argued that while the two countries can disagree and speak candidly in private, publicly they must be seen as walking hand in hand.
Obama’s response was quick and simple.
Referring to the Mideast policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, he replied: “Eight years of no daylight, eight years of no progress.” That set the tone for the next eight years, which included patches of glaring daylight over Iran and the Mideast diplomatic process, culminating most recently with the US abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
Netanyahu, as evident by his office’s readout of his first call with Trump, now wants that daylight shut out. And, at least for the first week, it was.
JUST PRIOR to Sunday’s phone conversation, the Jerusalem Municipality issued permits to build some 566 units in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line: Ramot, Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Ze’ev.
In the past, this type of announcement would have automatically triggered an angry response from Washington, which, even going back to the days of Bush’s secretary state Condoleezza Rice, had begun protesting new construction in post-1967 Jerusalem.
Obama saw Rice’s condemnations of building in “settlements” like Gilo and Neveh Ya’acov, and raised them significantly.
He could be counted on to chastise Israel for building in Ramot and Har Homa inside Jerusalem, just as in Efrat and Ma’aleh Adumim in the settlement blocs, let alone Yitzhar and Itamar beyond them.
Sunday’s announcement, by contrast, went without a comment in Washington.
Not a word. Germany condemned, as did France, but there was silence from Washington.
And that was before the Trump-Netanyahu phone call.
Two days after the phone call, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman issued a statement announcing the construction of 2,500 housing units in Judea and Samaria. Most of these were planned for areas inside the major settlement blocs that Israel believes it will control under any arrangement. What was different about this announcement was that it was – indeed – an announcement, one formally put out by Liberman.
This was not information uncovered by Peace Now, or a protocol leaked out from a municipal planning committee. This was Netanyahu and Liberman standing up – just a month after the UN anti-settlement resolution and then-secretary of state John Kerry’s 70-minute tirade against the settlements – and saying loudly and unapologetically that Israel will continue to build.
And in Washington... nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. New White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked about the announcement, neither approved nor condemned it.
“We’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and we’ll continue to discuss that,” he said. “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States, he [Trump] wants to grow closer with Israel, to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East.”
That’s quite a difference. As Giuliani said, “That is a different response than what used to happen just a couple of weeks ago, which was almost uniform condemnation of Israel when it did something like that.
No comment is a lot different than saying you shouldn’t do it, or that it is wrong, or hurts the peace process.”
In other words, “no daylight” in public.
Asked if he thought Netanyahu coordinated the move with Trump in advance, or at least gave him a heads-up, Giuliani said that while he did not know the nature of their conversation, “it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.”
It would also not be surprising if the two men talked about Trump’s campaign promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem as well. Unlike some other promises Trump moved swiftly to fulfill in his first week in office, this particular promise could wait.
The president has not changed his mind, Giuliani said, it’s just that now, sitting in the Oval Office and being pressured from all different sides, things look a little different.
“I think that now that he is in office, there are a lot more facts and arguments and people you have to consult with before you make a final decision, and it is a more deliberative process.”
Spicer issued a statement Sunday, saying: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”
At a press conference the next day, he hedged even more, saying: “It’s very early in this process,” and that Trump’s “team is going to continue to consult with stakeholders as we get there.” If there was already a decision, he said, “we wouldn’t be going through a process.”
In other words, not so fast.
This was an extraordinarily eventful week in Washington. On Monday Trump ditched one of Obama’s signature trade deals; on Tuesday he reversed a pillar of his predecessor’s environmental policies by green-lighting the Keystone Pipeline; and on Wednesday he signed executive orders paving the way for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico and efforts to deport illegal immigrants.
In between all that he also set down some markers on Israel. The public tone would change dramatically, and there will be a high degree of coordination with Netanyahu.
But – as evident by the hesitation on the embassy move – there are limits.