October 24, 2018

By firing Comey, Trump makes Israel nervous (again)

I don’t know why James Comey was fired, nor do you. I have my suspicions. I hear speculations and follow rumors. But all I know as fact is what the Trump administration says (he did a lousy job) and what Trump’s critics say (it’s all about Russia). What was the president’s real motivation? Why the decision to act now rather than, say, two weeks ago, or two weeks from now? Why choose to do it in such an abrupt manner? This is all a mystery. That is, unless you choose to believe Trump – or to attribute certainty to what is essentially speculation.

An abrupt, aggressive, misunderstood president. That’s a reason for worry, not just for Americans but also for other nations – among them one specific nation that will be hosting the president in less than two weeks. Yes, in Israel there is apprehension as the Trump visit approaches, and the more Israelis see of Trump, the more they become nervous about it. Who knows what he might do and what he has in stock for the region? Will he pull something out of his hat when he is here? Will we have to stop and wonder, as Comey had to do, if what we just heard is a prank?

Israel tended to worry about Barack Obama for somewhat similar reasons. Obama didn’t always bother to update Israel about his intentions. He occasionally chose to surprise Israel with a speech or an action. This habit made Israel less trusting, less prone to rely on American commitments, less agreeable in negotiations. Obama thought that by putting daylight between the US and Israel, and by making less of an effort to coordinate his Middle East initiatives with Israel, he would have a better chance of advancing the peace process. Obviously, he was wrong. And Donald Trump is on the path to learning a similar lesson.

Three of Trump’s qualities – all of them evident in the Comey affair – make Israeli policy makers anxious prior to his visit.

His aggressiveness – that’s his The-Apprentice-like habit of lashing out and firing people without much hesitance. Of course, the leaders in this region will not be fired by him, but they get the message: when Trump loses his patience with someone, he does not tend to be polite and tolerant.

His abruptness – that’s his tendency to surprise us with words or actions that we did not expect. Trump seems to enjoy this, and to maybe also use it as a deliberate tactic, but for an ally this is a most disturbing habit. Predictability is the key to stability in every relationship, including one between two states.

His lack of cohesiveness – that’s our inability to truly understand what Trump wants and why. Abruptness and lack of cohesiveness could seem like one quality, but they are two. The first is about timing – doing things without anyone expecting them. The second is about content – changing his mind about the issues. Trump changes his mind often. He says one thing, and then he says something else. He promises one thing, and then acts in another way. Sometimes, the change of mind is explainable. It was easy to understand why Trump was unhappy when Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton last summer in the midst of a campaign. It was even easier to understand why he was pleased with Comey when the head of the FBI served him well by reopening the investigation against Clinton just days before election day. Then again, very often his change of mind is harder to follow. Why the change of mind concerning moving the embassy to Jerusalem? Is it simply because he suddenly realized that this will complicate things for him in the region? Did he not understand this in advance? Was he just toying with his supporters as he made this promise – or did he truly believe in it until he suddenly moved in a different direction?

Israeli leaders, observers, and citizens are now processing the Trump phenomenon and learning to live with it. Some of them – like me – realize that they were fooled by a candidate whom they thought was a man of his word (I believed that the embassy will be moving). Some of them – mainly on the right – must live with disappointment. They thought that Trump would kill the two-state solution, but he seems to want to rejuvenate it. And rest assure, disappointment on the left is also coming. In the Israeli left, and among some Palestinians, there is currently hope that Trump will indeed surprise the world by becoming the peace maker no one expected him to be. It is strongly advised that they also remember that Trump can change his mind more than once. He can become a peace maker tomorrow, and a hands-off president the day after tomorrow.

It’s hard to know what he will do – because we don’t understand his motivations and policies. It’s hard to know when he will do it – because his style is one of surprises. The only thing we know is this: objecting to Trump can lead to ugly clashes. Hence, Israel will surely be the most gracious host Trump has even seen.