Against the background noise of helicopters carrying the presidential entourage to Ben-Gurion Airport at the end of US President Donald Trump’s whirlwind visit on May 23, an Arabic-language TV station asked me for my impressions. The visit itself was the message, I replied. More than anything else, it was a complete contrast to former president Barack Obama’s first trip abroad, in which he pointedly skipped Israel, choosing instead to reach out to the Arab and Muslim world in a speech delivered in Cairo.
Trump on his first official foray abroad seemed to place the emphasis on the regional issues, rather than narrow the picture down to just the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Although he came with no set plan for encouraging a new peace process in the Middle East, at least not one he announced in public, Trump said the right things in the right places.
The phrase “two-state solution” was absent, but neither was there a promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. (If he doesn’t sign the waiver by June 1, the 1995 law mandating the relocation of the embassy goes into force automatically.)
By beginning his official tour in Saudi Arabia, Trump – blasted for a perceived “Muslim ban” – was delivering a message of realignment. Coincidentally, the Iranian presidential elections had taken place the day before.
Among Obama’s most serious foreign policy mistakes, and there were many, was ignoring the events following the Iranian elections in 2009. Had he stretched out a helping hand to those bravely protesting the rigged results, he might have prevented the later Arab Spring, with the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and millions made homeless, and also halted Tehran’s nuclear plans at an earlier stage.
Instead, the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, stalled Iran’s breakout time by a mere decade. No wonder Saudi Arabia was happy to sign the US arms deal worth $110 billion straightaway and $350b. over the next 10 years. Saudi Arabia doesn’t fear Israel and is not looking to fight the Jewish state. It’s the Shi’ite Islamic Republic that concerns the Sunni Saudis the most.
The old-new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is often depicted in the West as a moderate. That’s a mistake. The smiling Iranian president is a pragmatist, not an easy-going guy. Similarly, referring to Saudi Arabia as “moderate” misses the point.
Amid the talk about the venues on the presidential itinerary, reportedly designed to place an emphasis on the monotheistic religions rather than politics, a noteworthy point was lost: Mecca is strictly off-limits to non-Muslims.
Many Jewish observers weighed in on the issue of which rabbi might have given Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump-Kushner a religious dispensation enabling them to fly to Saudi Arabia on Shabbat. The discussion distracted from the more interesting point – that a proudly Jewish couple were allowed to enter the Saudi kingdom. It’s so “moderate” that Jews are not usually welcome.
The Air Force One flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel was the first known direct flight between the two countries, another interesting signal from the Saudis. Perhaps it’s hard to say “no” to the US president.
Several commentators said they believe that Bethlehem rather than Ramallah was chosen as the venue of Trump’s brief stop in the Palestinian territories so that a visit to Yasser Arafat’s tomb could be avoided.
A group of protesters supporting the hunger- striking Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails obviously did not get the message in either sense. They held a rally in Ramallah waiting for Trump to pass through the town.
They picked the wrong place, the wrong president and the wrong day. As the world woke up to the news of the terrorist atrocity in Manchester in which 22 people were murdered, Trump in his inimitable style called terrorists “losers.”
The Palestinians like to present their security prisoners as “freedom fighters.” But there is a line drawn in the blood of innocent victims from atrocities such as the Munich Olympics massacre and hijackings of the 1970s to today’s mass-casualty attacks, aimed at grabbing as much publicity – and as many victims – as possible.
The prisoners could have worse conditions. Hamas amasses evidence of torture in Palestinian Authority jails in the West Bank and Fatah documents similar abuses in jails in Gaza. But, as Gatestone Institute’s Khaled Abu Toameh put it in an article in January titled “Palestinians’ fort of torture,” “because it is not Israelis who are perpetrating the abuse, the reports are ho-hum to these journalists.”
Similarly, only rarely do cases of the arrest and torture of journalists and bloggers in either Saudi Arabia or Iran come to international attention.
TRUMP’S MAIDEN voyage did not pass its Israeli stage entirely smoothly. Israelis saw the footage of Trump being welcomed in Riyadh with a sword dance fit for a king; maverick Likud MK Oren Hazan would have been happy to have waved a selfie stick. Sneaking uninvited into the row of dignitaries lining up to shake hands with the president on his arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, Hazan persuaded Trump to depart from all protocol to snap a selfie with him.
With Hazan’s behavior on the one hand, and the heckling by Arab and ultra-Orthodox MKs of David Cameron when the then-British prime minister visited the Knesset in 2014, it became clearer why Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein had told the president’s preparatory team that he couldn’t guarantee that Trump would be able to deliver an incident-free speech in the Knesset. Hence the decision to move the main address to the Israel Museum before a more strictly monitored group of guests.
For journalist Erel Segal, the Trump visit was unforgettable. A mix of wishful thinking and circumstances made him the victim of a prank call during a live broadcast on Army Radio, when he thought he was interviewing the president fresh off the plane. Segal sportingly supported his production team, who genuinely thought that Trump had contacted the station, and will ultimately be able to dine out on his “fake news” story.
Trump’s attitude to women has been endlessly, understandably, and very publicly pulled to pieces. Western media, however, even in 2017 found room to analyze what Melania and Ivanka Trump wore. That they didn’t cover their hair in Riyadh was well noted; the fascinator that Ivanka perched on her head for her visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem was also recorded.
For my part, the most noteworthy statement was neither a fashion statement nor a political one: It was the way that Nechama Rivlin, wife of President Reuven Rivlin, hosted the US presidential couple while attached to an oxygen device.
She demonstrated that being young and beautiful isn’t everything – that there’s a place in the public sphere for the aging. Nechama Rivlin displayed a grace and beauty that doesn’t require teetering on crippling high heels and lasts much longer.
As Trump was whisked away to cause similar traffic havoc in Rome’s streets for his visit with the pope, Jerusalemites breathed a sigh of relief and turned their attention to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the capital in the Six Day War.
I imagine his aides were also relived that POTUS managed to avoid the possible potholes on his first foray into the “Muddle East.”
Pragmatism trumped firstname.lastname@example.org