Washington watch: The bumpy road to Jerusalem

The better part of valor would be to cancel that excursion.

THE FRONT of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Will it move to Jerusalem? (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE FRONT of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Will it move to Jerusalem?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to Israel just took a bad turn that could leave Benjamin Netanyahu wishing that Hillary Clinton had won last November.
The Israeli prime minister couldn’t contain his delight with the election of a Republican president who had said he’d quickly move the US embassy to Jerusalem and seemed to share his views about settlements, peace and Palestinian statehood.
But all that ran into a stone wall this week. A very important, historic and holy stone wall. The Western Wall.
White House officials had billed Trump’s visit to Israel as “historic,” and it may well be, but for the wrong reasons. Trump plans to go to the Western Wall, but the prime minister of Israel was told he would not be welcome to join the American president during the visit to Judaism’s holiest site because, in the words of a Trump aide, it is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
In another clash, Trump aides reportedly are reluctant to agree to Netanyahu giving a speech at Masada instead of simply introducing Trump, who plans to deliver a major address at the ancient fortress and loathes sharing the spotlight.
Candidate Trump, who spoke of Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” now wants to ban Israel’s leader from its holiest site and sideline him at a major shrine. Israel captured east Jerusalem 50 years ago next month and annexed it, an act the United States doesn’t officially recognize.
Israelis on the Right had high hopes Trump would come to Jerusalem and announce the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv; aides teased that it might happen next week, but it was never on the agenda.
In the early days of the Trump presidency, when it became clear the embassy wouldn’t be moving anytime soon, we heard from Israeli and American sources that Netanyahu had agreed to the delay, because it could be more harmful than helpful – the same rationale used by Trump’s Oval Office predecessors, including Barack Obama, who was castigated as “anti-Israel” by the Jewish Right for the same policies.
Netanyahu’s aides are now saying that he has consistently insisted on relocating the embassy right away, but that’s just political CYA.
Jordanian King Abdullah II met with President Trump early on and urged him not to move the embassy because it would cause considerable diplomatic and security problems for America throughout the Arab and Muslim world and would likely spark violence in the West Bank and Israel.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated that message when he was at the White House earlier this month.
One of Netanyahu’s successes has been opening ties to pragmatic, secular Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, which share Israel’s concerns about the regional threats posed by Iran and Islamic State. That is more critical to Israel’s strategic interests at this point than the symbolic relocation of the US embassy.
The prime minister understood that the embassy move could severely disrupt those relationships as well as with Israel’s important peace partners, Jordan and Egypt.
Netanyahu insists relocating the embassy will advance the cause of peace “by correcting a historic injustice and by smashing the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.”
That’s a bunch of bubbe-meises. He knows it, so do the Arabs and even Trump knows it.
Even more worrisome to Netanyahu are rumors that Trump will come to Israel with the outlines of a peace deal.
Netanyahu wants peace about as much as Mahmoud Abbas wants a bar mitzvah. And the evidence suggests Abbas feels the same way, but the author of The Art of the Deal seems convinced he can succeed at negotiations deemed impossible by everyone else. And that could make Trump more threatening to Netanyahu, whose shift to the Right continues unabated, than the hated Obama.
While in Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his first foreign trip, Trump will be urged to support negotiations based on the Arab Peace Initiative. While there the president may announce a $100 billion-plus arms sale to the kingdom. It has been in the works well over a year, but Trump will take full credit for it as part of his job-creation campaign pledge.
H. L. McMaster, his national security adviser, said Trump will bring a message of religious “tolerance and hope” to Muslim leaders while he “construct(s) a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies.”
Does he really think they’ve forgotten about his endless flow of bitter anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout his campaign? Maybe he’ll just tell them it was all Hillary, not him.
When Trump gets home he will sign another six-month waiver to delay the embassy move, something all three of his predecessors did consistently over the past 20 years.
Some of the loudest objections to a decision to delay the move are reportedly coming from Sheldon “the checkbook” Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who has contributed millions to both Trump and Netanyahu and expects a return on his investments.
Also riling the Right in Israel and its hardline supporters here is the statement by Trump’s NSC adviser McMaster that when Trump meets Abbas next week he will endorse the Palestinian right of self-determination.
The president has avoided openly embracing the two-state solution, which Netanyahu did in 2009 but has been backing away from ever since.
Presidential candidates of both parties have been promising to move the embassy for decades and then reneging once they got into office. I believe Trump, more than most, really wanted to do it, but had another run-in with reality, something that has troubled his chaotic presidency from the outset.
He may look for a formula to give him some bragging rights, but he won’t find it at the Western Wall. The better part of valor would be to cancel that excursion. Just give his daughter a note to put in the wall for him.