Great tone, absent substance

So what to make of the Donald and Bibi speak and what does it pertain going forward?

Trump and Bibi Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Trump and Bibi Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What a difference a few months make. Back in September on his previous visit to the White House, Benjamin Netanyahu received a frosty welcome from then president Barack Obama, who, cool to the point of indifference, gave the prime minister a frosty handshake that barely hid his antipathy. On Wednesday it was a completely different story, as President Donald Trump proffered an outstretched hand and went out of his way to shower Netanyahu with warmth.
Netanyahu will be heading back to Jerusalem a happy man: Trump backed away from a two-state solution; didn’t put any real pressure on the prime minister on settlements; the two were on the same page on Iran; the president spoke about Palestinian hate and incitement; bashed the United Nations’ treatment of Israel; and bought into Netanyahu’s vision for a regional peace initiative. You could say that – settlements excluded – Trump was pretty much reading Netanyahu’s script.
So what to make of the Donald and Bibi speak and what does it pertain going forward? What does Trump mean when he says “the United States will encourage a peace and, really, a great peace deal,” and does he even really believe he can achieve one. The last part of that question is impossible to answer; no one as yet really knows what Trump means about anything.
Netanyahu and Trump both alluded to the changes in the region brought about by the confluence of interests between Israel and moderate Sunni states in countering Iranian expansionism. But Netanyahu at least knows that those interests won’t persuade the Sunni states to nudge the Palestinians into the kind of concessions that would be needed for the state-minus that the prime minister envisions for them.
On the flip side, Netanyahu isn’t about to go out on a limb and make the kind of concessions that would bring the Palestinians to the table, if they were even sincere about making peace. Furthermore, he knows that without an acceptable deal for the Palestinians there won’t be covert relations with Sunni states.
As for settlements, Trump said he would like to see Netanyahu “hold back on settlements for a little bit” and that they would “work something out.” Not carte blanche to build throughout the West Bank, as the Israeli Right had hoped after Trump’s election, but probably enough leeway for Netanyahu to build inside the settlement blocs without too much of a fuss.
Much has been made of Trump’s two-state, one-state comment. “So I’m looking at two-state and onestate, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
Don’t read too much into it. While the Palestinians might be happy to achieve a binational state that they would take over through the power of demography, Trump probably wasn’t issuing a John Kerryesque warning that, if Israel doesn’t reach a two-state solution, it will end up with an “intractable one-state reality.”
The bottom line is that on peace talks, Netanyahu will be looking not to be dragged too far in a direction he doesn’t want to go and on settlements not to rock the boat. There may be a different president in the White House, but the prime minister on Balfour Street remains the same and his goal will remain the same – maintain the status quo.
As for Trump, who knows?