Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have his first meeting with President Trump today in what was supposed to be a moment of triumph for the right-wing Israeli leader.
But the Trump Netanyahu will see in Washington is not the Trump of November, nor the Trump of the campaign trail. Netanyahu had thought he was getting a stridently pro-Israel president who would green light (or at least not block) new settlement-building in the West Bank, immediately move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and tear up, or seriously rework, the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
That’s not necessarily what he’s getting. Trump has, instead, befuddled many here and in Israel by floating policies on all three issues that have begun to echo the past two administrations. Trump has now said settlements aren’t helpful for Mideast peace; made clear that the embassy move won’t happen anytime soon, if at all; and given no indication that he was actually prepared to walk away from the nuclear pact and reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
The Trump White House’s position on Israel, in other words, has emerged to look a lot more like a diluted version of Obama’s than Netanyahu expected. That’s worrisome for an Israeli leader desperately in need of a major foreign policy triumph given a widening corruption scandal at home and widespread unease inside Israel about Netanyahu’s decision to effectively endorse Trump before the election and effusively praise him afterwards.
Netanyahu has always prided himself on understanding American politics. But like so many others, he’s discovering that understanding Donald Trump is an entirely different kind of challenge.
Settlements and peace
Netanyahu can be forgiven for thinking Trump would go his way on settlement growth. For months, Trump gave every indication that his White House was going to green light expansion in the occupied territories.
Back in November, Trump Israel adviser Jason Greenblatt, a New Jersey real estate lawyer, 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.”
The statement was a reversal of decades of American foreign policy speak and positioning on the settlements. Since the 1967 Six Day War, US presidents and negotiators have called settlements an “obstacle to peace” or even illegal. The United States has backed efforts to create a two-state solution, which would require Israel to withdraw from (at least some of) the land it has held for more than 50 years. The settlements built upon occupied land, at best, make that kind of deal harder — annexing territory means giving Palestinians other land as compensation, and dismantling settlements could spark violence — and, at worst, make two states impossible.
But Greenblatt’s blithe pro-settlement position wasn’t seen as a one-off or an outlier. It seemed to indicate a real shift in policy.
That led ministers in Netanyahu’s government to crow about a new era in settlement building.
“The victory of Trump is a huge opportunity for Israel to immediately announce that it renounces the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country,’’ Naftali Bennett, of the right wing Israel Home Party said immediately after the election. In a meeting the day after the election, Yoav Kish of Likud said, “We believe that the policy of freezing and blocking settlement expansion is over.”
That belief was likely further strengthened when, in mid-December, Trump announced he’d be appointing his bankruptcy lawyer, Long Island-native David Friedman, as the new ambassador to Israel. It was a gauntlet thrown. Friedman is not just conservative; he has called supporters of the liberal advocacy group J Street “kapos” (a reference to Jews who collaborated with Nazis during the Holocaust) and volunteered for an organization that provides funding to Beit El, a settlement. In October, he wrote an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post promising Trump “will not attempt to impose a ‘two state solution,” or any other ‘solution,’ against the wishes of the democratically elected Israeli government.”
In the same piece, Friedman called the occupied territories “Judea and Samaria,” using the biblical names for the region. It was a signal to the right that he sees the region as a historic, and current, part of Israel.
Friedman, whose confirmation hearings will be this Thursday, does not see settlements as illegal or problematic, which means he’s unlikely to have any problem with the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing ones.
President-elect Trump then went even further: He openly criticized the Obama administration’s plans to abstain from a UN resolution on settlements, and demanded a veto. The Obama administration went ahead with the abstention — and the UN Security Council passed a measure demanding that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” declaring the creation of settlements by Israel had “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”
Trump then tweeted:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
Netanyahu certainly took it well.
Quite quickly, the Israeli government acted on a belief that the new Administration would no longer red light settlements. After January 20, some 5,500 new housing units were approved in the occupied territories.
And then, suddenly, Trump seemed to shift. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement on February 2, stating, while “we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
It was a murky message: What did “may not be helpful” mean?
A few days later, in an interview with Israel HaYom, the free daily backed by GOP mega-donor and Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson, Trump suddenly seemed to back away from the statements of Greenblatt and Friedman:
Q: We heard from Washington this week that settlements are not an impediment to the peace process. I guess this is an issue you and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are going to discuss?
"They [settlements] don't help the process. I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."
The White House, it seemed, was putting up a yellow light, and possibly a red one, on new settlement construction. That means there’s only minimal difference between Trump’s feelings on settlements and the Obama administration.
Trump’s shift is bad news for Netanyahu domestically, where he is running up against an increasingly bold and assertive right wing. In advance of the prime minister’s trip, Bennett challenged Netanyahu not to even use the words “Palestinian state” in his meetings with Trump this week. Given that Trump has indicated he would love to be the man to make a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, that may be an impossible demand for Netanyahu for keep.
Trump will move the US embassy to Jerusalem, unless he won’t
“When Donald Trump is president of the United States,” Donald Trump boomed to the American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) conference last March, “we will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
It was a campaign promise that many had made before him, including George W. Bush. The US embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 would have moved the embassy to Jerusalem, but every president since then kept it in Tel Aviv by signing a waiver asserting that relocating the embassy would compromise US national security.
Israelis would like Jerusalem affirmed as the undivided capital. National security experts fear that moving the embassy would provoke violence, and not just in Jerusalem, but around the Arab world. Jerusalem is seen by the Palestinians as their capitol as well. While Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, that move has not been recognized by the international community. An embassy move would seem to pre-empt a final status peace deal.
Unlike candidates of the past, the Trump team’s pledge to move the embassy never seemed to waiver. In his official statement after his nomination, Friedman promised, “I intend to work tirelessly to strengthen the unbreakable bond between our two countries and advance the cause of peace within the region, and look forward to doing this from the US embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Trump seemed on board with that — until he wasn’t. The biggest indicator of that is that nothing has happened on the embassy move, at all. Indeed, just this week Politico published an interview with Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he said, “I think at one point they were ready to move the Embassy at 12:01 on January 20th.”
But “at one point” does not mean “now” and it might mean “never.” Trump has been in office nearly a month. In the same Israel HaYom interview he told the interviewer:
I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy [issue], and we will see what happens. The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I'm thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.
Which is to say the embassy isn’t about to move anytime soon, if at all.
That, paradoxically, could be good news for Netanyahu. The day after Trump’s inauguration, the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz ran a story headlined, “Netanyahu briefed on scenarios of violence should Trump move the embassy to Jerusalem.” It may also have come from conversations with Jordanian King Abdullah, who came to Washington during the National Prayer Breakfast the first week of February. Ha’aretz reported he king used the opportunity to reportedly caution Trump against an embassy move by saying it would undermine efforts to create a two-state solution. On the same trip, he warned Congress members that it would lead to violence.
Either way, if it stays in Tel Aviv, the future of the embassy will be another place where the Trump presidency is beginning to feel an awful lot like the past several presidencies.
The Iran deal is a goner. Or not.
If there was one thing that Benjamin Netanyahu hated above all else in the Obama era, it was Washington’s nuclear pact with Tehran.
In a profoundly divisive move, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, to argue against the lifting of sanctions against Iran as part of a future deal.
He spoke in dire terms. “My friends, I've come here today because, as prime minister of Israel, I feel a profound obligation to speak to you about an issue that could well threaten the survival of my country and the future of my people: Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.” He spoke of hate spewed by Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And intoned, “Iran's regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.” He insisted, “if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran, that deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.”
Netanyahu called the pact a “bad deal” — a phrase Trump has been using, in slightly different variations, since the campaign. He called it the “worst deal ever negotiated,” and appeared ready to upend it.
Yet the week of the election, Walid Phares, a Trump foreign policy adviser, walked back that strong talk. “Ripping up is maybe too strong a word,” Phares said of the agreement, in a conversation with the BBC. “He’s gonna take that agreement … and then review it.”
And now that he is in office, that campaign bluster appears to be just bluster. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly when asked about whether he’d try to get rid of the deal. “We’re going to see what happens, I can say this: They have total disregard for our country. They are the number one terrorist state, they are sending money all over the place, and weapons, and you can’t do that.”
Even tough talk from the administration and expanded sanctions — a promise to put Iran “on notice” after Teheran’s medium range ballistic weapons test — was no more aggressive than Obama-era warnings. “[T]he sanctions don’t actually amount to much,” my colleague Zeeshan Aleem wrote last week. “For one thing, these aren’t really new sanctions — the prohibitions were already on the books. Instead, Trump has expanded the number of people and entities that the sanctions target. In other words, the administration is ramping up its enforcement of a currently existing policy to send a message to Iran.”
Netanyahu would agree with every bit of Trump’s dire assessment of Iran. But it’s the part that Trump left out — any promise to tear up the deal — that likely made the deepest impression on the Israeli leader.
And that’s something Netanyahu should keep in mind during his sit down with Trump. The new US president likes to say what he thinks his guest wants to hear. That doesn’t mean he has any intention of, or the ability to, actually follow through.
Indeed, late in the evening on Tuesday, the Associated Press and AFP reported that an unnamed White House senior official implied the long-standing US position supporting a two state solution was not inviolate. “Peace, not a two state-solution is the goal,” wrote AP, noting the official indicated the president wants to begin peace negotiations. If true, it diverges from decades of support for two states for two peoples. But if the recent past is any guide, words are easy. Consistency is harder.