Israeli and US flags flutter atop the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in preparation for US President Donald Trump’s arrival.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s visit to Israel should have been the smoothest leg of his upcoming trip to Europe and the Middle East: A carefully choreographed love-fest among politically aligned conservatives, waxing over shared values and their common fight against religious extremism. White House officials planned to project an image of unity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a deeply popular figure with the president’s Republican base, to contrast Trump with his predecessor.
But the chaos that has characterized this president’s performance at home apparently follows him abroad. Just days before his scheduled arrival, Trump has provided cause for outrage to Israel’s Orthodox Right, its far Left, its political establishment and the intelligence community on which it relies.
Senior administration officials first offered hints of their inexperience as they stumbled into a classic trap of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: naming disputes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House social media director Dan Scavino referred to Trump’s visit to “Palestine,” suggesting to some in Israel that they believe the West Bank currently exists as an independent, sovereign body. It was a departure from historical State Department protocol, and the White House felt compelled to apologize, calling both incidents “unintentional and unfortunate.”
Yet those comments were followed within hours by a US official telling the Prime Minister’s Office that the Western Wall – Judaism’s holiest site – was not in Israeli territory, but rather in the West Bank. The remark infuriated members of Netanyahu’s staff, leading to leaks of their private conversations with US officials and a public call for White House clarification. The Trump administration responded by contradicting itself on the matter, with three senior officials offering three different positions.
Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, characterized the status of Jerusalem as a “policy decision” outside of his portfolio. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the Western Wall was “clearly in Jerusalem,” stating the obvious and clarifying nothing. And Nikki Haley, the president’s UN envoy, said she could only speak for herself given the total confusion emanating from the White House.
“I don’t know what the policy of the administration is, but I believe the Western Wall is part of Israel,” Haley said. “I am not real sure what happened with that issue.”
And so Trump has no clear policy on the status of “Palestine” and the West Bank or Jerusalem and its holiest sites not five days before he is set to visit both. His staff, furthermore, has barely consulted with career State Department and national security officials in order to navigate the minefield of naming disputes he will face on the ground.
Nor can the president confidently glow over his administration’s security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, after reportedly revealing highly classified, Israeli-sourced intelligence on Islamic State to Russia’s top diplomat and spy. Netanyahu’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, was forced to offer a diplomatic defense of the president’s behavior, but few others in Israel expressed confidence in him, with some even calling for Trump to cancel his visit over the sheer number of mounting controversies.
After raising expectations in Israel that he will deliver an address atop Masada, Trump’s team canceled the event at the last minute. He will instead give a short speech at the Israel Museum, where he will lay out few details of his vision for peace. Just one week earlier, one senior administration official previewed Trump’s plans to “lay out some terms” for a path forward in negotiations, but diplomatic sources now say the administration simply hopes to get through the trip without causing an incident.
Netanyahu hails "new day" in Israel-US relations after meeting with Trump (credit: REUTERS)
“I’d be shocked if he intentionally makes any news,” one US government source said. “It’s the last thing they want right now.”