Notes from AIPAC: Is there really no daylight between the US and Israel?
In year 5777 of the Hebrew calendar, just two weeks before Passover, the people of Israel are reliving the story of Pharaoh and Moses. The Pharaoh is not a king, it is an organization – the UN. The Moses is a brilliant Indian-American politician, a woman of ambition and courage – Nikki Haley. Their Moses made a promise yesterday at the annual AIPAC policy conference: there’s a new sheriff in town.
“The days of Israel bashing are over,” Haley told a crowd of pro-Israel activists already in awe with her performance. In the previous two days of deliberations, this crowd burst in applause every time her name was mentioned. She is easily the most adored US official among this crowd. She is easily the one about which there’s some kind of consensus. The US ambassador to the UN will part the sea of discrimination for the people of Israel; the US ambassador to the UN will bring them to a promised land of being treated like everybody else. The US ambassador to the UN will destroy the Golden Calf of Israel bashing.
The Trump administration, having spent more than two thirds of its first hundred days in office on juvenile skirmishes, can point to at least one great thing it did for Israel. Of course, Haley was not appointed “for Israel” – she was appointed to drive a message from the US to the UN. Can she change the UN? Can Trump tame this anti-Israel behemoth? That is too soon to asses. But no one can mistake Haley’s message: the days of Obama are over, the days of contemplating a vote against Israel without the US vetoing it are over.
On the first day of the conference, Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer made the following statement: “For the first time in many years, perhaps even many decades, there is no daylight between our two governments.”
This is a statement worth parsing. Let’s start with the meaning of “many decades.” What does that mean?
“Many” means at least two. Two decades means going back at least twenty years, to 1997.
So Dermer is essentially saying that the current daylight situation is better than the one Israel had during the last leg of the Clinton administration, the full two terms of the Bush administration and the full two terms of the Obama administration. I cannot say this is wrong, because there are certainly things I don’t know about the current state of the relations. But Dermer, trying to be dramatic, put the bar high. This was a fancy assessment of the state of the relations.
Continuing with Dermer. What did he mean by “no daylight between our two governments”?
You could say: no difference in assessing the situation and the necessary policies. But we know that cannot be the case. Had it been the case, Dermer would not busy himself in an attempt to reach an understanding with the Trump administration about settlements. It is really simple: negotiations between the countries are necessary because they don’t see eye to eye on the settlement issue. And since we have negotiations, we know there are differences. So “no daylight” can’t mean “no differences.”
What can it mean, then? It can mean “no public brawls.” It is noteworthy that negotiations between Israel and the US on sensitive issues are conducted civilly. The Trump administration and the Netanyahu government do not leak against one another, do not smear each other, do not try to alienate the other side by hinting to the press, or in a speech, that something is wrong with their counterpart.
This is indeed a welcome change from the Obama years. Let’s hope it lasts.
“No daylight” could also be a wish more than a description. I’ve had several conversations in Washington in the last couple of days with people who have ties to the Israeli government and to the Trump administration, and in all of these conversations one thing was clear: the future policy of the administration is currently unpredictable.
This makes the job of officials in Washington difficult, because they don’t always understand what policies they are expected to pursue. It makes the life of the Israeli government, ambassador Dermer included, even more difficult. Because it doesn’t know what to expect.
And we should be clear: predictability is the most important quality of an American administration when it comes to Israel (except for general positivity). Predictability is much more important than agreement on a certain specific policy. Predictability enables Israel – for whose national security strategy the US is a main pillar – to plan ahead and calculate its next moves.
But Trump and his administration are unpredictable. This is partly because the president has such a temperament. It’s also partly because the administration is still missing key elements and it is not always clear who is supposed to be making specific policy decisions.
The result is ironic. Israel not only has to deal with an unstable and hence unpredictable region – it also must deal with an unpredictable policy of its most trusted ally.
A few words about the meaning of “seriously considering.”
Vice President Pence says that the president is seriously considering a move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. What does he mean by that? Does he mean that the issue is no longer on the table – seriously considering in this case is more like indefinitely postponing. Or maybe he wants to hint that the issue is back on the table – seriously considering in this case is, well, seriously considering.
President Trump made a promise that the embassy is going to move. It is a promise that he could have easily decided to implement, but he did not. Escaping criticism over this will not be difficult, because Israel is not going to pick a fight over the embassy, and most other countries will praise Trump for climbing off this ladder. However, escaping mockery will not be easy. In two months Trump will have to either sign the waiver that keeps the embassy in Tel Aviv, or scrap it – and ignite the process of relocation. In other words: the option for him to ignore the issue doesn’t exist. He will have to actively show that his promise will not materialize, for now. Or – he can deliver.
I asked several diplomats what options they see for Trump on this issue, and two possibilities seem interesting. One – Trump will sign the waiver while making a promise that this is the last time for him to sign it, thus igniting a slower-moving process of relocation. Two – Trump will not sign the waiver and give Netanyahu this present in exchange for Israel announcing a partial settlement freeze. This could help Netanyahu silence criticism from the right. It could help Trump justify his move as quid-pro-quo diplomacy.
There are some people around Trump who are somewhat suspicious of AIPAC. A lot of it has to do with last year’s policy conference and AIPAC’s decision to apologize for Trump’s attack on president Obama during his speech. AIPAC made the right choice and invited Trump to its conference last year. It made a more problematic choice by apologizing for his speech. I wonder if they’d do the same had they known that he was going to get elected.
Of course, this should be water under the bridge by now. Except that the Trump people don’t easily forget. The administration specifically asked several officials to refrain from attending the conference. The President did not speak at the conference (his VP, Mike Pence, did a fine job – but Trump’s absence still resonated). Members of Trump’s team hinted in private conversations that they want to see what person is appointed as AIPAC’s next president. If someone closer to the Trump camp is appointed, maybe they will forgive and forget.
On the other hand, if someone closer to the Trump camp is appointed, it will make AIPAC’s attempt to maintain a bipartisan approach much harder.