Trump in Israel: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

 

President Donald Trump was in Israel for all of twenty-eight hours, and yet even within that short window of time he managed to till a significant amount of discursive soil. Dozens of analysts and commentators will offer their thoughts on his historic visit. Here are some small nuggets from me, divided into three easily divisible categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

1. The Good. Many will nitpick his public statements to death – spoiler alert, there will be no consensus in Israel or Palestine as to the meaning of Trump’s statements and everyone will use his words to reaffirm their own narrow worldview – but what’s the point in this exercise when Trump has already demonstrated an ability to divorce himself from past statements? Here are the facts: the President of the United States visited Israel during his first international trip, arriving in Tel Aviv via Riyadh on Air Force One, stopped at the Western Wall (a historic first for a sitting president), and overall said the right things. Just on the merits of these four points, Trump’s visit should labeled both a success and a significant moment for Israel.

Trump brought energy and enthusiasm back to the US-Israel relationship. He also had no problem expressing to an Israeli audience his interest in strengthening the US relationship with the Arab/Sunni world in the fight to contain Iran and defeat jihadism, both of which I believe he prioritizes over the peace process. In fact, he essentially argued against the longstanding binary argument that whats good for Israel is bad for the Arabs and whats good for the Arabs. The peoples of the Middle East need to think differently. Given the already existing security cooperation between Israel and many Sunni Arab states, Trump’s statements were not a shocking revelation rather a reminder of the role that the United States can potentially play towards advancing the normalization of ties between Israel and its neighbors.

2. The Bad. I am going to go against my previous statement because more often than not it is Trump’s words that get him into trouble. In the case of his brief stay in Israel, this would be his inexplicable decision to announce to reporters that he never mentioned Israel’s name when sharing classified intelligence information with Sergei Lavrov during the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit to the White House in early May.

It doesn’t matter whether Israel was or was not the source of the intelligence information, nor does it matter whether Trump told the Russians that this information came from Israel (I tend to be skeptical about all journalism relating to intel and spy agencies). What matters is that this issue had more or less been put to bed. Israeli and American officials played the matter down, emphasizing their security and intelligence cooperation and refusing to move off script. Why did POTUS decide it was neccesary to clarify (and in does so, rehash) this issue is beyond me, but it was an obvious misstep from an otherwise smooth performance.

Another point, which I think has some validity, touches on Trump’s multiple mispronunciations. Whether it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, President Reuven Rivlin, Elie Wiesel, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or anything in between, human beings tend to make a concerted effort to correctly pronounce names that carry meaning for them. That doesn’t mean all mispronunciations are therefore a reflection of a person’s indifference, however in an environment like the Holy Land, where audiences hang on every word, one should try to prevent said audience from reaching the conclusion that because you didn’t proofread or practice your public statements you therefore only have a passing interest in what matters most to them.

3. The Ugly. Whether this is a testimony or an indictment to the strength of Israel’s democracy, the bottom line is that the major headlines from Trump’s visit were frequently stolen by sloppy local politicians seemingly incapable of being seen and not heard. This includes the absurd Oren Hazan selfie fiasco (excoriated by the left, right, and center in Israel), Gilad Erdan’s decision to incorrectly inform POTUS that a car accident in Tel Aviv that morning was a terror car ramming, and Sara Netanyahu’s weak attempts at engaging the Trumps in small talk by drawing parallels between their “unfair” treatment by the media. I would add here that the Prime Minister’s comment during the residence tour that Trump’s visit enabled them to receive permission to repaint the walls of their house was equally classless and reminded many Israelis that despite their personal wealth and relative degree of comfort as the country’s leading political family, the Netanyahus never seem satisfied with their lifestyle.

As is often the case, we learn much more during these foreign visits about the host than the guest. This makes sense as the host is the one engaged in dramatic performance aimed to please both his guest and his local audience. By contrast, the expectations for the guest are far lower: make sure to eat what you are served (even if it doesn’t match your tastes), compliment your host, and don’t break anything.

Israel remains a country where people speak their mind at all times, and regardless of the consequences. So while the incidents I listed above could be interpreted as a critique, it is unusually comforting to see Israeli politicians as imperfect human beings, with their warts exposed on national television on such a regular basis. Foreign observers should understand this when engaging with their Israeli partners – when engaging with Israel, unabashed honesty is always the best approach.

By this limited measurement, Trump’s visit was a success. He was a good guest. But many questions remain: Why didn’t he outline a broader regional policy? Why didn’t he present his expectations from Israelis and Palestinians? Why didn’t he reference two-states? Why didn’t he bring up the Arab Peace Initiative? What about the future of Palestinian leadership after Abu Mazen? What does he see as an effect strategy regarding the Gaza Strip? These are fair points, but Americans will be quick to point out that Trump tends to be less interested in the details and only covers issues in the broadest of strokes. He is the “Tonesetter-in-Chief”. The details will be left to Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, Jared Kushner, and others.

There is an idea floating around that among the many global issues currently sitting on Trump’s desk, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the easiest one to solve at the lowest cost. But low-hanging fruit is often rotten on the inside, and so far Trump has failed to express an understanding that the distrust between the parties is so deep that restarting peace negotiations has become a game of chicken, each side waiting for the other to make the first move. This in part explains why US presidents have repeatedly taken the initiative – if Washington doesn’t lead, who will? So the biggest question going forward is whether Trump is prepared to leverage his position in order to push Israel and the Palestinians to the table, with the promise that he can deliver the Sunni Arab states later on in the process. And if he does, will he remain resolute after discovering that this “low-hanging fruit” is more demanding that it originally appeared?

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel