He came, he saw, he confused, but the American president still has a lot of hopeful fans in Israel. They think he’s their guy.
JERUSALEM—Donald’s Trump flying circus landed in Israel yesterday on the second leg of the U.S. president’s maiden overseas trip, bringing the world’s most contentious man to the world’s most contentious piece of real estate.
Among Israel’s chattering class the lead-up to the trip was, inevitably, caught up with the myriad crises raging back in Washington. “A hysterical visit,” the country’s leading daily headlined its weekend edition, playing off the “historical” tagline affixed to the visit by the White House; the most popular Friday night broadcast spent a large portion of the time discussing “Trump’s scandals.”
Murmurs were also raised on issues closer to home, by politicians and others on the Israeli Right upset about a slew of steps both large and small: Trump’s exposure of Israeli intelligence sources to Russian officials; the delay in relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (as Trump had promised on the campaign trail); visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall in a private capacity without an official Israeli representative; and a map of Israel uploaded to the official White House Facebook page without the occupied West Bank or Golan Heights (the map later was deleted).
Above it all wafted Trump’s public intention of cutting the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, and speculation about what pressure the president may bring to bear on both sides.
Ultimately, after 28 hours on the ground, most Israeli fears dissipated amid a hectic and fawning presidential schedule of meetings and ceremonies and speeches.
The entire country, it seemed, was caught up in the “Trump holiday,” as one radio host put it, and not only because of the closed-off highways and streets of Jerusalem. From the moment Air Force One entered Israeli airspace, media coverage was transfixed by the U.S. president’s every movement and utterance (and no less so, by the physical appearances of Melania and Ivanka and Jared, referred to without fail by their first names).
A meeting at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence was used to affirm the “enduring friendship” between the U.S and Israel. The visit to the Western Wall, a first by a sitting U.S. president, made the cover of the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily with the headline “A friend at the Kotel” (the Hebrew name for one of Judaism’s holiest sites).
Meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were an opportunity for both men to assert the “unbreakable bond” between the two states, and to talk tough on Iran, terrorism, and the re-assertion of U.S. leadership in the Middle East—a sharp jab at the perceived slackness of Barack Obama.
Trump’s prior hosts in Saudi Arabia seemed intent on paving the way to the volatile U.S. president’s heart with as much gold, cash, and American jobs as their oil reserves could buy. The Israeli government, it seemed, decided to deploy more subtle means: Western values, longstanding relationships between the leaders, many jokes in English, as well as Judaism itself (not a minor point for his daughter, son-in-law, and several other close advisors).
Even Trump’s one misstep on the visit, a glaring off-the-cuff decision to lecture the gathered press on how he “never mentioned the word or the name Israel” to those same Russian officials, played louder back home in the U.S. than locally—especially once Trump visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center the following day and held forth with thoughtful (scripted) remarks.
The peak of this love-in, however, came at the end of the visit, at a keynote address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Was this the moment, observers wondered, when Trump would lay forth a real vision for how exactly he would manage a renewed peace effort? No.
Instead, the speech primarily hit all the beats close to Israeli hearts: the country’s miraculous progress in just a few short decades, the freedom of worship it provides to all faiths, the Jewish people’s ancient and eternal ties to the Holy Land, as well as the common scourges of terrorism and Iran. “My administration will always stand with Israel,” Trump declared to a rousing standing ovation, one of many.
With reason, Israeli government ministers, most of whom were in attendance, declared the speech a resounding success. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, praised Trump as a “true friend of Israel.” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, a close Netanyahu confidant, called the speech “an enormous achievement for Israeli government policy” and a lesson that Israel need only “stand [firm] on our positions, because at the end they [the world] listen to us.” As both men and many others pointed out, Trump at no point over the course of six public appearances uttered the words “Palestinian state” or “two-state solution”—not even during a quick trip to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
To be sure, Trump did raise the issue of Israeli-Palestinian “peace” repeatedly during his visit, but only in the most general of terms. More often, such talk of peace came in the context of a regional coalition between Israel and the Arab world, as a bulwark against the common threats of the so-called Islamic State and Iran. Coming on the heels of what he termed an “epic” summit meeting with Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh, Trump emphasized the possibility of a “new level of partnership [between them and Israel], one that will bring greater safety to this region, greater security to the United States and greater prosperity to the world.” Change can only come to the region, he went on to say later, once these Arab states “recognize the vital role of the State of Israel.”
How such a regional peace deal, and official Arab recognition of Israel, can be had without a real solution to the Palestinian question was the underlying subtext to the entire trip—a point even Trump acknowledged once (and only once). “If Israel and the Palestinians can make peace,” he said after his meeting with Abbas, “it can begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East. And that would be an amazing accomplishment.”
The closest thing to an answer Trump offered was a vague admission during his closing speech, that “making peace will require both sides to make tough decisions.”
“But I believe,” he went on, “that through determination and compromise Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal.” By design, Trump did not spell out—to the Israeli side at least— what those tough decisions and compromises would need to look like. Hence the jubilation from Netanyahu and his political partners.
Abbas and the Palestinians, for their part, were left with a firmer policy request. Speaking about the wider battle against terrorism, Trump told Abbas that, “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded, and even rewarded.” This was a clear riposte to the official Palestinian practice of paying stipends to imprisoned terrorists or the families of dead terrorists. It is, as yet, unclear how the Palestinian Authority will handle such a domestically sensitive issue.
But Abbas as well as Netanyahu have said all the right things in recent months. No one, least of all these two leaders, wants to dissuade Trump from his quest to broker a peace deal; put bluntly, no one wants to anger this particular U.S. president. Trump repeatedly echoed the refrain that these two long-serving politicians were genuine partners for peace. “The Palestinians are ready to reach for peace. And my meeting with my very good friend Benjamin. I can tell you also that he is reaching for peace…Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace,” Trump stated in his final address.
He may be the only person in the world that believes it. Yet that may be enough to get the Israelis and Palestinians back around a negotiating table.
Over the course of the last two days, if one was left in the Middle Eastern sun long enough, and squinted hard enough, than Donald Trump could look, for all the world, presidential (so long as he had prepared remarks in front of him). As one senior White House official told reporters during the trip, Trump’s “thinking is not linear, like a politician’s—he is a businessman that’s positioning for the future.” This connotes some kind of plan or strategy. Perhaps this administration has one for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in terms of what was publicly stated on this visit, that’s a dubious proposition.
After a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, the circus has rolled out of town. The locals are now left to await word from the big top at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about what, if anything, it all meant.
Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on international politics and culture, focusing primarily on the Middle East. He is also a research associate at the Rubin Center for International Research at the IDC Herzliya and an adjunct fellow of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.