In just a few short months, Donald Trump has already damaged his relationship with Israel so badly that what should have been a victory lap through one of America’s closest allies will instead be a march through a minefield of the president’s own making.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Trump chose to include Israel among his first foreign destinations, he surely assumed Jerusalem would be the easiest leg of a grueling nine-day, multi-country foreign sweep: the fulfillment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deepest desires with the arrival of a sympathetic-minded Republican president, a chance for an easy Trump administration win, and a celebration of shared vision.
But Trump seems to have a knack for making things that should be easy for him much, much harder.
His trip to Israel will be, at best, a delicate clean-up opportunity for a beleaguered president fighting for his reputation at home and abroad. The press will be scrutinizing his every move for further gaffes.
That’s because in just over 100 days in office, Trump has compromised the Israeli intelligence services, backtracked on promises he made to the Israelis over altering US settlement policy and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and wandered into a decades-old debate over the sovereignty of the holy city itself.
The trip has already garnered a reputation in the Israeli press for being poorly planned and potentially offensive. Everything from Trump’s planned visit to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, is now seen as a potential pitfall.
For instance, Trump was scheduled to deliver a speech at the ancient Jewish desert fortress of Masada, a symbol of Jewish resilience and courage — but canceled when Israel told him he couldn't land his personal helicopter on top of the site and would have to take the cable car up just like previous visiting US presidents have.
And a pre-trip promotional video released by the White House late Thursday included a map of Israel drawn within the 1967 borders —leaving out the West Bank and the Golan. The image caused a flurry of consternation in the Israeli press. Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told journalists dryly, "I hope this is a matter of ignorance and not policy."
White House released video tonight detailing Trumps visit to Israel showing map of Israel with Golan Heights removed. pic.twitter.com/bdgbqoy2tU— Israel Breaking (@IsraelBreaking) May 19, 2017
The irony in all this is how very thrilled Netanyahu and his government were when Trump won. But that glow is gone. A Jerusalem Post The Trump arriving in Jerusalem next week is not the Trump of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The missteps have already started and Trump hasn’t even left yet
Let’s review why this trip is already such a debacle:
This week, the president reportedly undermined the US-Israeli intelligence partnership by exposing an Israeli spy deep inside ISIS territory. Trump apparently spontaneously divulged highly secret intelligence, gathered by the Israelis and meant for American eyes only, to the Russian foreign minister and Russian ambassador during a meeting in the Oval Office.
The Israelis had dreaded just such a breach ever since Trump took office. Because of the close ties between Iran and Russia, Israelis (understandably) assume that any intelligence given to Moscow will quickly make its way to Tehran. As Iran is Israel’s sworn enemy, Trump’s freewheeling disclosure to the Russians has made the Israelis more than a little upset.
This intelligence gaffe “will cast a pall over the trip in the Middle East,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told journalists Wednesday morning. These intelligence relationships between countries “are very, very delicate and rely on personal relationships and trust,” she said.
That trust was broken this week.
Officially, the Israeli government has neither confirmed nor denied that they were the source of Trump’s — in his words — “great intel.” Unofficially, Israeli surrogates have been apoplectic. “It may cause big problems for us because it can put sources at risk and damage our activities,” former Mossad Chief Brig. Gen. Amnon Sofrin groused to reporters on Wednesday.
But that was just the first misstep. Then there’s the wall.
A very different kind of wall has proved a stumbling block for Trump
Even as the Trump team was dealing with the fallout of his Oval Office braggadocio with the Russians, things with the Israelis were already going further downhill — on a different subject entirely.
Asked about the president’s planned visit to the Western Wall, his administration wandered into one of the region’s thorniest issues: control over the holy sites of Jerusalem. At issue is the wall’s location in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. It is nestled in the part of the city Israel annexed after the war.
Enter Trump. The president’s advance team declined overtures by Israeli officials to accompany the president to the wall. Israel’s Channel 2 reported that a member of Trump’s staff scoffed at questions about that choice. “What are you talking about?” the staffer reportedly said. “It’s none of your business. It’s not even part of your responsibility. It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
That, to put it mildly, didn’t go over well. Israeli officials were “shocked,” according to press reports. A different unnamed White House administrator tried for damage control in an interview with CNN: “These comments were not authorized by the White House. They do not reflect the US position, and certainly not the president's position."
But someone forgot to tell the rest of the advance team that. At a press conference on Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster twice refused to firmly answer pointed questions about whether the administration considers the Western Wall to be part of Israel. McMaster would only say that the question "sounds like a policy decision.”
Then White House press secretary Sean Spicer made it worse. “The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in Jewish faith. It’s clearly in Jerusalem,” Spicer said. But that response actually did not answer the question on whether the wall was in Israel. The city wasn’t in question, the nationality of that city was. Israel claims the entire undivided city of Jerusalem as its capital; Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. Trump just waded into one of the hardest questions in the region: Who will control the holy city?
“He’s in real danger of blowing up Jerusalem as an issue that divides rather than unites two of the Abrahamic religions,” Martin Indyk, who served as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, told the New York Times. “That part of the visit needs to be handled with extreme care.”
The truth is that American presidents avoid visits to the Western Wall for precisely this reason. But Trump is not a typical American president. As of now, Trump will visit the Western Wall but will not be accompanied by any Israeli leader.
Trump was accused of Holocaust denialism, yet he nearly skipped the Holocaust memorial
And then there’s Trump’s decision to do a flash visit at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial museum.
Yad Vashem is a traditional stopping point for almost all foreign officials visiting Israel. Barack Obama spent an hour in the museum. George W. Bush stayed even longer. Advance readouts of Trump’s itinerary reveal he plans a whopping 15 minutes.
For a president who has been accused of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism, that’s maybe not the smartest public relations move. Trump angered Jewish groups in January when he failed to mention Jews in a commemorative statement mourning the victims of the Holocaust.
Press secretary Spicer rankled still further when he said during a press conference that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was worse than Hitler, because at least Hitler hadn’t gassed his own people. Except, of course, Hitler had done exactly that, using gas to murder Jews in concentration camps.
Spicer apologized profusely, and Trump later gave a thoughtful speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day in April. But the administration still carries the taint of Holocaust minimizing. A rushed visit to Yad Vashem will not help on that point.
The Israeli right thought it was getting a different kind of American president
On the campaign trail, like most candidates, Trump promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as soon as he took office.
The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 promised an immediate move of the embassy to Jerusalem. But although every president since then has promised to follow through on that during their campaigns, once in office they have all signed waivers to delay the move, asserting that placing the embassy in Jerusalem would compromise US national security.
There was some reason to believe that Trump might be different — in no small part because he nominated hardliner David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel. Friedman himself had sworn to work from a Jerusalem-based embassy.
But several months into Trump’s presidency, it hasn’t happened yet. And on Wednesday, a senior White House official told Bloomberg news that the embassy staff needn’t pack up anytime soon. “We don’t think it would be wise to do it at this time,” the unnamed staffer said. “We’ve been very clear what our position is and what we would like to see done, but we’re not looking to provoke anyone when everyone’s playing really nice.”
It’s the same story with Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Back in November, Jason Greenblatt, then Trump’s point person in Israel and now his envoy to the region, told Israeli Army Radio, “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.”
Israeli settlers and right-wing politicians in Netanyahu’s government were jubilant. It seemed like Trump was reversing the US’s longstanding position on settlement building. Yoav Kish, of the right-wing Likud Party, said, “We believe that the policy of freezing and blocking settlement expansion is over.”
But that celebration was premature.
“On this particular issue, Trump has been a totally conventional president,” says Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for New American Security. “He is dissuading settlement activity, trying to create economic development opportunities for Palestinians, talking about incitement, and trying to restart a peace process.”
The first inkling that the administration might be putting a yellow light up toward settlement building came just days after Trump took office. Netanyahu’s government had launched an explosion of settlement growth just as the Trump team came into office, believing they’d been given a free pass from Trump.
The administration immediately asked them to cool it. On February 2, Spicer issued a statement noting that the administration did not feel the “existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” but also underscoring that “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
By the time Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington in later that month, Trump had moved the line further still. “I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit," Trump said during their joint press conference.
The Trump team has since seemed to reverse positions yet again. Trump’s new ambassador, David Friedman, arrived in Jerusalem this week to present his credentials to Netanyahu. On arrival, he promised differences from the Obama administration. "We have no demand for a settlement freeze," he told Israel Hayom. "I am fairly confident that the president will not come to Israel with any particular plan or roadmap or with any specifics on peace.”
Israel’s right-wing ministers and settlement leaders thought they’d be getting a green light going forward. What they got instead was a blinking yellow light that occasionally goes on the fritz.
Trump still believes he can make the “ultimate deal”
Trump has repeatedly stated he wants to make the “ultimate deal” between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Like every other president before him, he’s come to realize thatto do so means putting at least some brakes on rampant settlement building, and trying to get the parties back to the table.
“The allure of Israel-Palestine peacemaking is the diplomatic holy grail,” says Goldenberg of CNAS. But getting the parties to the table won’t happen if everyone’s offended.
Thomas Wright of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings was blunt. “If the trip goes off without a disaster,” he said, “it will have been a success. And it will be a success if he is educated a bit more about the world” and gains “a greater appreciation for our allies and they’re a little more reassured. But I actually think that bar is pretty high.”