Diplomacy: Donald in the Holy Land

What follows is a look at both, starting with what was not in Trump’s maiden presidential visit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
President Donald Trump came, saw and left. And in this whirlwind 28-hour trip, there was much the president said and did, and also much he did not say or do.
What follows is a look at both, starting with what was not in Trump’s maiden presidential visit.
No lecture
Sitting Tuesday afternoon in the Israel Museum along with other journalists and a couple of hundred handpicked guests, one could not avoid comparisons between the keynote speech of Trump’s visit and the one given by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center to a few thousand handpicked guests four years ago.
Obviously, the rhetorical styles are as different as night and day. Obama’s speech was lengthy (nearly an hour), lofty and soaring; Trump’s was short (about 20 minutes) and somewhat pedestrian.
They hit some of the same notes: Both talked about the Jewish people’s connection to the land (Obama in an obvious effort to compensate for short-shrifting that connection during his Cairo speech four years earlier), about Jewish resilience and perseverance, and about Israel’s unique contributions to the world.
But what was missing from Trump’s speech was a lecture about Israel’s failings. One knew, when listening to an Obama speech, or even more so to a Mideast speech given by former secretary of state John Kerry, that after the niceties about Israel and the Jewish people would come the admonitions. And, indeed, while the first half of Obama’s speech four years ago was full of sugar toward the Israeli public, the second was full of vinegar.
By contrast, one did not sit listening to Trump wax enthusiastic about Israel and the Jewish people waiting for the “but” clause; waiting for the other shoe to drop.
What was missing from Trump’s speech was that part where he talked about the need – as Obama and Kerry often put it – to be “open and honest with friends,” before launching into an indictment of the settlements, the country’s policies toward the Palestinians, and its hesitance to take risks for peace.
Trump"s visit to Israel in 60 seconds
Instead, Trump praised the Jewish people for its perseverance and resilience, extolled the country’s achievements, spoke in general terms about a need for peace, and then wrapped it all up. The vinegar never appeared.
No settlement/terrorism equivalence
Trump spent 28 hours in the area, spoke publicly on seven occasions, and never once mentioned the settlements. Even more important, he never once talked about settlements and terrorism in the same breath, as was often done by officials of the previous administration.
One became accustomed to hearing Obama administration officials give speeches on the Mideast in which they would sincerely and genuinely condemn Palestinian terrorism and then also slam the settlements.
The Palestinians need to stop terrorism and incitement, this line would run, and the Israelis need to stop settlement construction.
Trump made no such link. Not only did he not publicly mention the settlements, but – when standing with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem – he said unequivocally that peace “can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”
That Trump did not publicly mention the settlements was something deeply appreciated inside the Prime Minister’s Office, where it was seen as an effort to steer the conversation to the core issues in the Middle East: Iran, combating terrorism, and regional peace.
In this view, one adopted by Trump, endlessly talking about the settlements – about building a few hundred housing units in east Jerusalem or even beyond the security barrier – serves only as a distraction.
No specifics
Much was made, and not unjustifiably, about the fact that not only did Trump not mention settlements, he also did not mention a Palestinian state, a two-state solution, or even Palestinian self-determination. He didn’t mention any of this during his six public comments in Israel, nor in his joint appearance with Abbas in Bethlehem.
Which does not mean that this was not discussed privately – it was. But publicly he stayed away from prescribing what a future peace deal should look like.
He did talk about a comprehensive peace, but gave no indication – beyond speaking in extremely general terms about a regional dimension – about how he envisions this being carried out. At one time he said all sides need to make compromises, and – it appears – he sees three sides to the equation: the Arab world he met in Saudi Arabia before coming to Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel.
Privately, he is believed to be urging each side to give something: the Saudis, to make some public gesture to Israel, perhaps opening their airspace to Israeli planes; the Palestinians, to end payments to terrorists sitting in Israeli jails and their families; the Israelis, to restrain settlement building.
But his approach – in mighty contrast to the previous administration’s – is limited to reiterating a commitment to trying to achieve peace. He is saying that peace needs to be reached, and that it will have an important impact throughout the region, but is not prescribing the ways to get there – at least not yet, and not in public.
No daylight
In the early days of his first term, Obama publicly came out in favor of showing “daylight” between Israel and the US. And, indeed, daylight was readily apparent, with the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government regularly sparring in public over Iran, the settlements and the Palestinian issue.
Obama explained that daylight was not a bad thing, arguing that the lack of any public differences between the two countries under his predecessor, George W.
Bush, did not move peace closer, and that perhaps opening the curtains and letting daylight in could move things further along.
It didn’t. The Obama-Netanyahu disagreements, the public confrontations, only weakened the Israeli public’s confidence that America indeed “had its back,” thereby making it more risk averse. This daylight also reinforced among the Palestinians the belief that if they would just push long and hard enough, the US would join the Europeans in imposing terms of an agreement on Israel.
Trump has taken a completely different approach.
For the most part, this administration has opted to keep its differences with Israel private, so as not to create the perception of tension among the allies.
While Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have doffed their jackets, slung them over their shoulders and walked together on Ben-Gurion Airport’s tarmac, as Netanyahu and Obama did in 2013, their positive interactions and mutual praise created the impression that they work well together.
That message is one that Netanyahu is keen on the world seeing. And now, a look at what there was in the trip:
A one-night trip is going to rely heavily on symbols, since there is simply not enough time in 28 short hours for a whole lot of substance. And the symbols just kept coming.
The first symbol was that Trump visited Israel on his very first trip abroad, something mentioned by Netanyahu on a couple of occasions. (Netanyahu did not mention, however, that the president went first to Saudi Arabia, a move that carried a symbolism all its own.) That this was the earliest any US president visited Israel says something about the strength of the relationship, and is something that others around the world are surely noting.
There was also the symbolism in Trump’s flying directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, believed to be one of the first-ever direct public flights between those cities. Fresh off Trump’s discussions with the Saudis and other Muslim and Arab leaders about the possibility of forming partnerships – including with Israel – to fend off Iran, fight terrorists and forge peace, this flight was a symbol of what might be possible.
That Trump was also the first sitting US president to set foot in the Old City was also highly symbolic. And he did so gingerly, making sure that he would be accompanied on his visit to the Western Wall not by an Israeli political figure – such as the president or prime minister, something that would imply recognition of Israeli sovereignty – but, rather, by a religious figure: Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
Still, the image of an American president wearing a kippa and placing a note in a crevice in the Western Wall – and then speaking later of the ancient Jewish connection to the city – was a strong symbol in the face of Palestinian-led efforts to deny Israel’s historical connection to Jerusalem. The visit to the Wall was also the administration’s attempt to compensate for the president’s failure to live up to his campaign pledge and move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Praise for the Saudis
The trip was full of praise for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Indeed, Trump extolled the king’s wisdom in no less than six of the seven public statements he made while in Israel, leaving him out of only the remarks he delivered at Yad Vashem.
This is significant, as the Saudis – shunted aside to a large extent by the Obama administration – have reemerged under Trump as a key ally. Israel now must be careful that Riyadh does not outmaneuver Jerusalem to become the leading voice Trump is listening to on Mideast issues.
There are, however, some early disconcerting signs. For example, Trump apparently dumped the idea of moving the embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv after the Saudis – along with the Jordanians – strongly protested the move.
Also, for a president who ran on a campaign of “America First,” Saudi economic power – which far outweighs Israel’s – is very alluring. The US and Saudi Arabia announced agreements during Trump’s visit that will lead to $350 billion in direct investments, and – as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it – “result in literally hundreds of thousands of American jobs.”
This obviously gives the Saudis clout with the White House. Right now, the Saudis are far more concerned about the Iranian threat than they are about the plight of the Palestinians, but if the Palestinians emerge as an important issue to the Saudis, the extremely cozy relationship developing between Washington and Riyadh could come back to hurt Israel.
Trump spoke throughout his visit about Iran: about the Islamic Republic’s nefarious designs and destabilizing impact throughout the region.
He also unequivocally said that the US would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Those words and that approach were cheered by the Prime Minister’s Office. What was absent in these words, however, was that while decrying Iran and its behavior, Trump pointedly said nothing about revisiting the nuclear agreement, let alone – as he discussed during his campaign – actually tearing it up.