It has been a long time since an Israeli prime minister was received at the White House the way Benjamin Netanyahu was greeted on Wednesday.
In 2010, for example, Netanyahu entered the White House through a side entrance for a private meeting with president Barack Obama. There was no press conference, no photo-op and not even a concluding press statement.
It was as if the visit didn’t take place.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu was received by a military honor guard at the South Portico, where President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, who came down from New York, stood waiting for the prime minister’s limousine to pull up the long driveway.
In 2009, president Barack Obama was pictured speaking on the phone with Netanyahu with his feet up on his desk, interpreted as a blatant sign of disrespect for the Israeli leader. On Wednesday, no one was looking at feet. It was all about the hands, the hugs, the pats on the backs, the kisses on the cheek and the affection Trump and his wife showered on the Netanyahus.
One moment stood out when during the leaders’ joint press conference, Trump suddenly asked Sara Netanyahu to stand so he could thank her for being “lovely” and “nice” to Melania. Loud applause broke out in the East Room.
Someone in the White House had done his homework.
If there is one way to gain favor with Netanyahu it is by publicly praising his wife. Trump couldn’t have done a better job.
The love-fest was felt everywhere. Trump repeatedly referred to Netanyahu by his nickname “Bibi” and called the Israeli leader a “smart man” and “great negotiator.”
Netanyahu spoke about how he has known Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner for decades and how “there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump.”
While there is clearly a strong bond and friendship between Netanyahu and Trump, the public part of their meeting on Wednesday was a carefully choreographed production arranged for the Israelis, the Americans and even the Palestinians.
Trump met with Netanyahu just about 15 hours after his national security adviser Mike Flynn was forced to resign over his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Just after his meeting with Netanyahu, news broke that Trump’s candidate for labor secretary had pulled out over fears that he wouldn’t be confirmed by the Senate. Basically, Trump’s administration seems to be crumbling.
Hundreds of top positions – deputy secretaries of state and defense are just two examples – have not been filled and people are hesitant to throw their hats into the ring.
As a result, Trump needed to put on a show to demonstrate to the American public and the world that he is in control, that he is in charge and that he can tackle not just foreign policy issues, but the biggest and most complicated of them all – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu had a similar interest. He came to Washington for a respite from the three ongoing police investigations against him and desperately needed to show the Israeli public – but also the world – that he was still in charge, focused and powerful.
Netanyahu also wanted to show that he could get along with an American president. In the late 1990s, during his first stint as prime minister, he knocked heads repeatedly with president Bill Clinton, and for the last eight years he clashed with Obama.
He needed a positive and successful visit to show Israelis that not only can he get along with a US president but he can actually be best friends with him.
This was a show also for the Palestinians. Trump wanted to show them that he is clearly aligned with Israel and that any thought on their part to keep up their delegitimization campaign against Israel in international institutions such as the United Nations will not work as it did under Obama. Peace, he made clear, will only be reached in a “deal.”
There was however something disingenuous with the way the right wing in Israel reacted to the press conference, interpreting Trump’s remarks as grounds to celebrate the death of the two-state paradigm.
To me it seemed like the opposite happened: Wednesday night did not mark the death of the Palestinian state.
It was more like the resurrection of one.
While it is true that Trump said he was open to two states or one state and that he would go with whatever resolution the sides agreed upon, he said the word “deal” in the Israeli-Palestinian context a dozen times at the press conference.
A “deal,” if we consider the Palestinian’s position, removes the possibility of a one state. It also makes the autonomy plan being pushed by Likud MK Yoav Kisch and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett irrelevant, since that would not be a negotiated “deal,” which Trump said he would like to see.
So what does that leave us with? A two-state solution.
Add to this what both leaders said about a larger-scale regional deal – what Trump called a “terrific thing” – that would include the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and not just the Palestinians.
It is true that there is a realignment in the region and that Israel today enjoys unprecedented ties with Gulf states, but those ties have a limit, mostly due to public opinion in places like Dubai and Riyadh. Israel cannot expect these countries to normalize ties as long as the conflict with the Palestinians continues.
The Israeli-Gulf love affair will continue, but it will continue covertly – anyhow it is mostly overseen by the Mossad – until there is a clear peace process with a defined resolution.
The Israeli Right needs to keep in mind that these countries will not normalize ties with Israel in exchange for Palestinian autonomy. For them, there is only one solution – an independent Palestinian state.
The dozen mentions of a “deal” and the focus on a regional framework put Trump far away politically from Kisch, Bennett and the rest of the far Right in the Knesset. He will be friendlier than Obama and refrain from public criticism of Israel over settlements, but that does not mean he believes in the settler idea of a “Greater Israel.”
Netanyahu noted at the press conference that settlements are an “issue,” one that he will work on with the Americans so, as he said: “we don’t keep on bumping into each other.”
What that means in practical terms is that Netanyahu will likely seek to reinstate what is known as the “Bush letter,” an agreement between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon in 2004 in which the US president acknowledged the existence of the settlement blocs.
What Netanyahu is likely to try to get out of Trump is an agreement to build in the blocs and in Jerusalem without having to worry about any fallout from Washington.
This might also include US consent to an Israeli annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim as well as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
The reset button has been pressed on Israeli-US ties but it is important to not get carried away. The paradigm has not yet shifted.
WHAT IS happening to the Orthodox Union? It seems that this organization is actively making itself irrelevant to a growing segment of American and Israeli Modern Orthodox Jews.
The recent decision by a panel of rabbis to ban women from serving as clergy in synagogues is out of touch with what is happening today throughout the Jewish world. When such a decision comes from a group of all-male rabbis, it is difficult to shake the feeling that these men are simply fearful of losing their pulpits. The fact that no women participated in the panel is telling.
I mean no disrespect to the individual rabbis who participated in the rabbinic panel that issued this decree. They are each respectable scholars. But they definitely do not represent Modern Orthodoxy. Many of them are ultra-Orthodox and belong to the far-right stream within Orthodoxy.
Over the last 25 years or so, thanks to organizations such as Matan (a disclaimer – my wife, Chaya, works there), Nishmat, Mechon Hadar and Pardes, Orthodox women are able to receive a Jewish education no different than men who study in some of the most prestigious Orthodox yeshivot.
There are female Talmudic scholars and female halachic experts. If the Chief Rabbinate in Israel only allowed them, these women would be taking and passing the rabbinate exams in large numbers. They would be appointed Rabbinical Court dayanim (judges). They have the knowledge. They are simply not allowed to carry the title.
Sadly, the OU decision follows in the footsteps of what is happening in Israel, where the Chief Rabbinate has recently closed ranks out of fear that it is losing control. The fact that the rabbinate plays no role and has zero significance in the daily lives of the vast majority of Israelis, including many Orthodox Jews, is a sign of its diminishing power. A recent poll showing 49% of observant Israelis support civil marriage in Israel is a direct threat to the rabbinate’s monopoly.
What the rabbinate and the OU don’t seem to understand is that going backward might seem to sustain tradition, but it also pushes followers away. This is not how you create a big tent.
The OU would be wise to avoid this outcome, unless it wants to just be what the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is for most people today – a kosher stamp at the supermarket.