Editor's Notes: A pre-storm bear hug

The general assessment in Jerusalem is that this is just the beginning.

By
May 26, 2017 16:13
melania trump donald trump benjamin netanyahu

US President Donald Trump, first lady Melania, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in Jerusalem May 22, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Imagine you have been elected president of the United States and one day, after gathering your staff, you inform them that one of your goals will be to broker the “ultimate deal,” a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

You then ask your staff for advice on how to get it done. Your advisers do some research and explain that what Israel needs is to feel safe and secure, that America has its back and will continue to ensure its qualitative military edge and protect it at the United Nations. Only then, your advisers tell you, will Israelis feel confident they can take risks and make the compromises and concessions needed to achieve a peace deal.

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Now, with that in mind, think about the last seven months, since Donald Trump was elected president.

First, he announced that Jared Kushner, his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law whose family has longstanding ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would serve as his senior adviser.

He then appointed David Friedman, an old friend and bankruptcy lawyer he had used in the past, to be the ambassador to Israel. Friedman wasn’t exactly a neutral appointment. A former president of the American Friends of Beit El, Friedman was a long-time supporter of the West Bank settlement enterprise and a strong advocate against the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Trump then announced that Jason Greenblatt, an executive vice president at the Trump Organization and another Orthodox Jew who studied years ago in a yeshiva in the West Bank, would become – under Kushner’s supervision – his main envoy to Israel and the Palestinians.

Then, to top it all off, he made a historic trip to Israel this week. He started by taking the first direct flight between Riyadh and Tel Aviv and then became the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for the Jewish people.



In addition, while other presidents such as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all visited Israel during their terms in office, none came so early, let alone like Trump, on their first trip overseas.

I cannot say for certain that all of this was done by Trump simply to provide Israelis confidence, but even if that was not the case, his bear hug approach is working.

His trip to Israel this week, which ended with his impressive speech at the Israel Museum, has not only endeared Israelis to the US president but has also given them a genuine feeling that the man who occupies the Oval Office really does have their back. As the president said, ISIS and Iran might threaten to destroy Israel but they won’t succeed. “Not with Donald J. Trump,” he said to a standing ovation. “Believe me.”

It was easy this week to believe Trump. There were no slips, no gaffes and even if the note he signed at Yad Vashem was a bit bizarre – he wrote, “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends. So amazing and will never forget!” – he managed to spend two days in the deep end of one of the most complicated conflicts in the world without a major mishap.

He made seven public appearances and while he spoke frequently about peace and its advantages for Israel and the region, he never once mentioned the two-state solution, a Palestinian state or settlements.

He showered Israelis with love and they sent it right back to the extent that politicians from across the spectrum – on the Left and the Right – had difficulty saying something critical about Donald Trump. It’s not easy to unite Israel’s fragmented political system but Trump, the great polarizer, succeeded.

The question on everyone’s mind though is, what’s next? Was this the end of Trump’s interest in Israel or just the beginning? Will he now return home to the investigations about his campaign’s alleged affiliations with Russia and become too busy to think about the Middle East, or will those same investigations push him to try and score a goal somewhere overseas like Israel?

The general assessment in Jerusalem is that this is just the beginning. Greenblatt’s return to Israel on Thursday as well as comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seem to indicate that this is the case. If so, the problems are just beginning.

For Netanyahu, this will soon get complicated since to get talks started, he will need to pay a price, and that will come as soon as June 7 when the committee that approves new housing in West Bank settlements meets for the first time in months.

Will it approve construction or not? If not, what will Naftali Bennett and Bayit Yehudi do? If Trump increases the pressure on Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction or to extend another grand gesture to the Palestinians, Bennett will have an excuse to pull out of the coalition and becomes a fierce opponent of Netanyahu on the Right.

This is assuming the prime minister can bring a new party into his government. In all likelihood, if there are peace talks, the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni will be willing to join if Netanyahu lets her run the peace talks as she did in 2014.

A similar scenario exists for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. During his visit to Bethlehem on Tuesday, Trump hinted at the need for Abbas to stop paying salaries to jailed terrorists and the families of so-called “martyrs.” Peace, he said, will not work “in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”

But what will happen if Trump orders Abbas to stop the payments? Will he? If Abbas does, all indications are that the Palestinian street will gang up against him. If he doesn’t, he will be blamed for again preventing peace.

For Israel, there is another problem. During his visit here, Trump seemed to push a paradigm that goes something like this: Israel makes peace with the Palestinians and that paves the way for Israel to normalize ties and make peace with the rest of the Arab world. Basically, Palestinians first, Arab world second.

Netanyahu has spent the last few years pushing a different paradigm. He believes that what is needed is a regional framework that sees a normalization of ties with the entire Arab world at once. He doesn’t believe a peace deal is possible with the Palestinians alone. Instead, what is needed is a peace deal with the Arab world, which happens to include the Palestinians.

These different paradigms are important to keep in mind since they could quickly lead to a clash between Jerusalem and Washington, one that Netanyahu will want to do everything possible to avoid, if not for the simple purpose of preserving his legacy.

Netanyahu has now worked with three US presidents. The first was Bill Clinton, whom he repeatedly clashed with during his first stint as prime minister in the late 1990s. The second was Barack Obama, whose tense and volatile relationship with Netanyahu was far from being a secret.

Now, there is Trump. Netanyahu went into this week praying that the trip would end the way it did – with the appearance, possibly even genuine, that the two men have a close friendship. The last thing Netanyahu needed was to clash with another president. That would make Israelis begin to think that the problem is not in Washington – as Netanyahu has told them all these years – but here at home or more specifically, in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street.

***

“TEN MEASURES of beauty descended on the world,” the Talmud tells us. “Nine were taken by Jerusalem. One by the rest of the world.”

Beauty is a relative term but one worth reflecting on as the country celebrated Jerusalem Day this week and marked 50 years since the liberation of the Old City and the reunification of Israel’s capital.

Throughout the week, there were the usual interviews with the soldiers who liberated Jerusalem as well as with former residents of the capital. All lamented what has happened to the city. They spoke about how Jerusalem has changed and is no longer the city they once loved. “Jerusalem used to be a united city,” poet and author Haim Gouri said in a radio interview. “Now it is divided.”

To some extent, Gouri is right but it is worth noting that Jerusalem, my home for almost a quarter of a century, is a diverse hybrid of people who cannot be found living together anywhere else in most of the world and certainly not in the Middle East.

In Jerusalem, there are haredim, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, secular Jews, National Religious Jews, foreign workers, diplomats, the poor, the rich and the middle class. In other parts of Israel, you can go through the month without seeing a haredi Jew or an Arab Muslim. Here, in Jerusalem, you can barely get through the hour.

But that is what makes this city special. It is diverse, it is intense and it works. Somehow it doesn’t blow up on a daily basis.

Keeping this city together is a daily challenge. But its success, 50 years since its reunification, is a product of its residents whose resilience can be felt every day on its ancient and historic streets.

It is easy to romanticize the past, but it is far more difficult to grapple with the present while contemplating the future. Jerusalem, in its modern form, is a 50-year-old work in progress and while the challenges might seem immense, I believe in this city and its people. I recommend you do as well.

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