Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
The New York Post reported this week that President- elect Donald Trump has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend his inauguration. Netanyahu should politely, respectfully, decline. Even though the Prime Minister’s Office has denied receiving an invitation, thinking through why Netanyahu should say no if invited can clarify Israel’s strategy for the Age of Trump.
The temptation to attend is understandable. Who wouldn’t want to highlight Trump’s warmth after eight years of Obama’s frostiness, while enjoying some ego-stroking from adoring, self-satisfied Trump supporters abroad, especially after hours of police interrogations at home? Still, the inauguration is a domestic event, which ambassadors usually attend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is staying home. British Prime Minister Theresa May is staying home. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is certainly staying home (and no doubt dreading the first meeting between Canada’s “prime hipster” and America’s “chief huckster”).
Netanyahu should too.
Beyond protocol, as the Jewish people’s leader, Israel’s prime minister should respect American Jewish sensibilities. More than two-thirds of American Jews didn’t just oppose Trump but loathe him. An Israeli-American Trumpian love fest after eight years of Obama’s brittleness will be hard enough to take.
Netanyahu should ease into the relationship, wary of having the lingering anger about Trump’s demagogic, often bigoted campaign transferred to him – and Israel.
Hit pieces are already accumulating blasting “Liberal Zionism in the age of Trump,” falsely accusing Zionists of justifying right-wing pro-Trump antisemitism because Trump is pro-Israel. Tone counts, while the Talmud teaches that intoxication leads to sin. Just as President Barack Obama’s settlement obsession caused a snippiness toward Israel that trumped his gestures of support, if Netanyahu is too giddy about the new regime, if he expands settlements aggressively, he, too, could stumble. The America-Israel friendship is rock-solid yet often rocky. Building up any president too much when things are going well risks exaggerating his power over Israel when tensions arise.
Beyond all the distracting theatrics, Israel needs substantive bipartisan support from the US, which even under Obama remained Israel’s strongest friend.
A brouhaha over Netanyahu’s overstepping by attending the inauguration will alienate Democrats and liberal Jews. Rather than sacrifice credibility for an inaugural playdate or another illegal outpost, Netanyahu and Trump should concentrate on reframing the issue of Israel’s sovereign right to determine its own capital city.
Both should reject the status quo. Place the burden of proof on those disrespecting Israel’s right to choose its own capital not those demanding a move to Jerusalem. As America’s Jerusalem Act of 1995 proclaims: “Each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital” and the “United States maintains its embassy in the functioning capital of every country except” Israel’s.
If Germany can pick its capital city and essentially decide where the American embassy should be, and England can pick its capital city and essentially decide where the American embassy should be, why can’t Israel pick its capital city? Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is just undoing an unprecedented insult to the Jewish state. If he makes the move, President Trump would be fulfilling a promise the Democratic dove George McGovern made in 1972. McGovern’s Democratic Party platform promised to “Recognize and support the established status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” and proclaimed: “As a symbol of this stand, the US Embassy should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Most other presidents and nominees since echoed that vow – mandated by Congress in 1995’s Jerusalem Embassy Act. Trump will also enjoy defying Palestinian threats and threats of riots in Muslim cities – real presidents don’t succumb to bullying.
Having framed the argument more effectively, both should think carefully before actually making the move – and here lies the essential lesson Trump must learn and Netanyahu often forgets. It is easy to lash out, as Netanyahu did after the UN Resolution, recalling ambassadors to Senegal and New Zealand, blocking the Ukrainian prime minister’s visit and antagonizing other diplomats. But what did his tantrum accomplish? The Independent sneered that Netanyahu reacted “to an international community deemed intent on isolating Israel,” by isolating Israel voluntarily. Trump also often reacts impulsively, tweeting madly at 3 a.m.
Restraint is an art, especially after you’ve established the power to act. Just like we don’t consume double fudge chocolate cakes daily even if we can afford them, leaders don’t make every move they could make either. Mature statesmen wield power cautiously, strategically, more like Jedi knights using the Force rather than drunken gunslingers shooting up the Wild West. If Obama failed because he never learned how to deploy America’s Force and retires looking wimpy, both Netanyahu and Trump risk unleashing the Force willy-nilly – especially, if they start playing off each other.
Even a principled move like undoing the insult of ignoring Israel’s choice of a capital city should be used carefully, deployed for maximal effect, at the right time, depending on the dynamics with the Palestinians and the rest of the world. Palestinian politics demonstrates how useless symbolic victories can be – they still lack the state they claim to desire and are no closer to destroying the Jewish state they hate.
If I were Netanyahu, I would mollify liberal American Jews by leading immediately on a different important Jerusalem issue – restoring the Western Wall compromise to respect egalitarian Jews.
Trump and Netanyahu must carefully weigh America’s goals, Israel’s goals – strategizing about how these two great democracies, working together thoughtfully after eight years of misfires, can maximize both.
The writer, professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Ruderman Program at Haifa University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea.