It’s easy to get lost among the 15,000 attendees at AIPAC’s Policy Conference, the pro-Israel lobby group’s massive annual confab held in Washington’s Convention Center. But when you ask conference-goers their opinion of the Trump administration, there’s one thing they all seem to agree on: Where Israel is concerned, President Trump is a real improvement over President Obama.
“You surely sense that there’s much more of a desire in this administration than the last one to get things done with Israel, our greatest ally,” Uri Kirschner, a real estate attorney in Manhattan, said.
“It’s refreshing to see our alliance get stronger,” William Franklin, the president of the Jewish Federation’s branch in Reading, Pennsylvania, told me.
It’s true that Trump has been quite friendly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a clear contrast to the deep mistrust that characterized Netanyahu’s relationship with President Obama. Given that US-Israel relations reached their lowest point in about 20 years under Obama, it makes sense that pro-Israel activists would like what they’re seeing. And some Trump officials, like UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, have made defending Israeli interests a priority.
Yet if you scratch beneath the surface and look at the young Trump team’s actual policies toward Israel, there’s a lot less difference between Obama and Trump than meets the eye. Trump has betrayed his campaign promise to move America’s embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He publicly criticized Israeli settlement construction; in private, his administration is reportedly pressing Israel to put a freeze on some construction.
This is creating a number of flashpoints with the Netanyahu government, one of the most right-wing in Israeli history. It’s hardly inevitable that Trump will go down Obama’s path — but it’s easy to see how the optimism among America’s pro-Israel advocates might soon give way to frustration.
“Already, there seems to be some shell shock on the Israeli right, who were expecting President Trump to be the greatest thing to ever happen to them,” Michael Koplow, the policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, told me in a phone call. “That turns out to be a bad misjudgment.”
On Israel, Trump hasn’t kept his promises
Every American president since the end of the Cold War has had more or less the same policies on Israel. They’ve all supported a strong US-Israel alliance, including huge aid packages, and a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. They’ve all opposed Israeli settlement construction, seeing it as a serious impediment to a two-state deal.
Moreover, American and Israeli disagreements on these issues have never really stayed private. George H.W. Bush and allies in Congress refused $10 billion in loan guarantees in 1992 because Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wouldn't accept Bush's conditions limiting spending on West Bank settlements. Bill Clinton all but openly campaigned against Netanyahu the first time he ran for prime minister in 1996, seeing him as an ideological opponent of a Palestinian state.
George W. Bush rescinded $289.5 million worth of loan guarantees in 2003 to punish Ariel Sharon for settlement expansion. There were many such examples in the Obama administration, the most memorable being a quote from an anonymous Obama aide bashing Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” in an interview with the Atlantic.
Trump, it seemed, might be different. He’s a far-right firebrand whose advisers have strong ties to the pro-Israel right; during the campaign, he railed against Obama's Middle East policy, including the Iran nuclear deal despised by many in Israel.
And indeed, these hopes seemed vindicated when, just days after Trump’s stunning November victory, Jason Greenblatt, his top adviser on Israel policy, went on Israeli Army Radio and all but promised a green light on settlement construction — promising to upend decades of US policy on settlements with a single sentence.
“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,” Greenblatt said.
The next month, Trump appointed right-wing attorney David Friedman to be ambassador to Israel. Friedman has called the two-state solution “a suicidal ‘peace’ with hateful radical Islamists hell bent on Israel’s destruction.” American Jews who support that approach, Friedman wrote, are “worse” than kapos — Jews who helped the Nazis run concentration camps in exchange for special privileges.
So by the time Inauguration Day rolled around, expectations on the Israeli right were sky-high. A jubilant Netanyahu expected a free hand on settlements, while even further-right leaders, like the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett, crowed about the demise of the two-state solution. Trump’s team even invited three prominent leaders of the settler movement to the inauguration.
Yet almost immediately, Trump began disappointing them.
The first test was the thorny issue of the US Embassy in Israel. In every US presidential election, both Republican and Democratic candidates promise to move the embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv, the internationally recognized capital of Israel, to Jerusalem, which Israel considers its true capital. Then, like clockwork, whoever wins the presidential election fails to deliver, because moving the embassy would infuriate the Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital.
Trump had repeatedly promised on the campaign trail to move the embassy immediately once he took office; there were even reports in the Israeli press during the transition that he was already looking at locations in Jerusalem for a building.
Yet a mere two days after the inauguration, the Trump administration was already backtracking from its campaign promises; press secretary Sean Spicer, in his very first formal briefing, refused to commit to moving the embassy immediately. Since then, there has been zero movement on that front, and the prospect of moving the embassy is widely seen as dead among observers in Washington.
On the all-important issue of settlements, Trump has been similarly disappointing. In a February joint press conference with Netanyahu, he told the prime minister to “hold back on settlements for a bit.” When Greenblatt traveled to Israel in March, he reportedly asked the Netanyahu government to cease construction of settlements in certain sensitive areas, a more targeted version of the settlement freeze the Obama administration had asked for in its first months in office back in 2009.
Even Friedman has been a little disappointing. During his Senate confirmation hearings in February, he endorsed a two-state solution and apologized profusely for his comments likening Jewish peace advocates to Nazis. This prompted Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker to ask Friedman why he wanted the job at all if it meant “you have to recant every single strong held belief you've had.”
Trump, the president who was supposed to upend America’s Israel policy and bring it in line with the Israeli far right, has so far done nothing of the kind.
“Trump turns out to look a lot more like every single president who has been in office since, really, President Reagan on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” the Israel Policy Forum’s Koplow says. “He’s trying to get the two sides together, recognizing that Israeli settlement activity does pose a problem for a peace deal, and not giving the prime minister a green light to do anything he wants.”
The dealmaker versus the ideologue?
We can’t be sure that Trump will continue down this centrist path. He still has time to move the embassy to Jerusalem, for example, and his approach to settlements might change over the course of time.
But if you look at Trump’s political history and identity, the gap between the pre-administration rhetoric and the actual policy of his administration starts to make sense.
On the one hand, Trump has surrounded himself with people who are on the far right of the American political spectrum, who tend to be quite sympathetic to the Israeli right. When White House senior strategist Steve Bannon ran Breitbart, for example, the site was deeply sympathetic to the Israeli settler movement. People like Friedman and Greenblatt, who took pro-settlement stances prior to inauguration, were some of Trump’s chief sources of information on the conflict.
So it made sense that candidate Trump, and even President-elect Trump, sounded like a champion of the settler movement, since the people who were advising him actually were.
On the other hand, Trump fancies himself a master negotiator. It’s at the core of his personal brand, the thing he hammers home over and over again in his many books. He sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through that lens — a Gordian knot that, if cut, would prove that Trump is the best negotiator.
“That’s the ultimate deal,” Trump said in a post-election interview with the Wall Street Journal. “As a deal maker, I’d like to do ... the deal that can’t be made.”
But making a two-state deal requires getting the assent of, er, two different states. The Israelis can like Trump as much as they want — but if the Palestinians won’t deal with him, then the deal is off. If Trump really wanted to get to yes, to make the most impressive deal in history, then he would need to climb down from his hardcore pro-Israel stances.
“He [doesn’t] seem to have any real policy views other than that he wants to get to a deal,” Koplow says. “If the overriding priority for him was going to be, ‘I’m going to get to a deal,’ that was never going to involve letting the Israeli government set its priorities and do whatever it wanted without any kind of American pushback.”
So what we’ve been seeing, in the weeks since the inauguration, is dealmaker Trump winning out over ideologue Trump: of dealmaking pragmatism winning out over the right-wing populism that “Trumpism” has come to stand for.
Whether the crowd at AIPAC will see it this way is another matter entirely.