The Trump-Netanyahu meeting: The Messiah of the right turns into the Messiah of the left

February 13, 2017
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., January 11, 2017 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 22, 2017 in a combination of file photos. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo
  1. False Priorities

Don’t expect the two leaders that will be meeting in the White House this week to come out from the meeting with a major announcement. Unless Donald Trump is deliberately trying to fool us all only to surprise us on Wednesday, he will have nothing to announce. The moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem is still under consideration – namely, it might be one election promise that Trump does not intend to deliver. Trump’s position on the settlement project was made clearer in an interview he granted (to Israel’s Israel Hayom daily) last week. His stance on Iran is tough – he has already shown that – but what this means in practice only time will tell.

So – there’s no news President Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can make tomorrow. Unless they get into a fight – something which both of them do not seem to want. They want a friendly meeting. They want a fruitful and calm beginning. They want to study each other and understand each other’s expectations, red lines, motivations, ambitions. Netanyahu clarified this in the cabinet meeting yesterday, as he rejected the calls from ministers to his right to officially abandon his public support for the two-state solution.

Netanyahu comes to this meeting with more experience and more knowledge about the issues at hand than Trump. This means that he will have a certain advantage, but also that he must hold himself back: The President doesn’t seem like a man who is appreciative of scholarly lectures. Netanyahu will also be at a disadvantage: Trump can still claim ignorance and can still say that he is “studying” this or that issue. For Netanyahu, to say such a thing after nine years in office would be problematic. He will be expected to show Trump more cards than Trump will be expected to show to him.

The focus of the press is going to be the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That is, because it is easier to explain and follow, and has implications on Israel’s political sphere. But truly, it is much more important for Israel – and for Trump – to talk about broader strategic matters. The policy toward Iran, developing events in Syria, the Russian role in Middle East affairs, relations with the Sunni Arab world, all these are much more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are surely more important than a settlement or an outpost here or there in the West Bank, and more important than whether the embassy will finally move to Jerusalem (as it should). So, as usual, there is going to be a discrepancy between the more important issues and the issues more extensively covered by the media.

  1. False Hopes

If anyone needed proof that Israel’s right wing can be delusional (that the left can be delusional we learned many years ago), he got such proof when Donald Trump was elected President. A new era – leaders of the right declared – has dawned on Israel. An era of no boundaries, no restraint, no American pressures. An era of free reign.

“Obama is history and now we have Trump,” said the Minister of Culture. She was right. Obama is gone. This will mean a change in tone, for better and for worse. Obama had beliefs and tendencies that Israel disliked. Trump will have less of those. On the other hand, Obama had manners and patience and was slow to be brutal. Trump will have less of those.

Israel had many reasons to resist the policies of Barak Obama – and it did it with some skill. It is going to have reasons to resist some of Donald Trump’s policies, and this might require even more skill.

Why resist Trump? Because he seems no less obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than his predecessor. No less “messianic” about it than the former Secretary of State. The leaders of the right in Israel chose to ignore the many signs that Trump is not exactly the settler-supporter they expected. They chose to ignore the many times in which he said – without much basis in reality – that he is going to succeed where his predecessors failed and solve “the conflict.” They chose to ignore the fact that Trump at times echoed the Obama administration in hinting that the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with Israel’s lack of enthusiasm.

The right had great hopes for Trump, and these hopes are now shattering. Look at what Trump says: “I want Israel to be reasonable with respect to peace. I want to see peace happen. It should happen.” Look at what he says: “The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I’m thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.” Look at what he says: “every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

For a brief moment, Trump was the coming Messiah of Israel’s right. For a brief moment, he was the face of a new era. That moment has passed. On inauguration day I wrote here that “the hasty talk about a ‘new era’ in which Israel is going to enjoy more leeway and more understanding for its policies from now on is premature and overstated.” Almost a month later, it is time for reality to sink in.

  1. More False Hopes

The mistake that was made by Israel’s right – reading into Trump something that wasn’t there, expecting too much of Trump, misinterpreting the signs – already looks like it will be repeated by Israel’s left. The Israeli Right Voted for Trump but Got Obama, concluded Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent following the Trump interview. Other voices on Israel’s left are beginning to entertain the thought that maybe Trump, with all his bravado, and aggressiveness, and large ego – maybe he will be the American Messiah the left has been waiting for. Maybe he will be the one to finally pressure Israel into making the deal that slipped through the fingers of all previous false Messiahs.

The chances for such an occurrence is small. Not because Trump doesn’t want peace for Israel and the Palestinians – he does. Not because Trump isn’t tempted by the prospect of getting a Noble peace prize – the most unlikely such prize – he is. Not because his ego isn’t large enough to imagine himself succeeding where all others have failed – his ego is in good shape. The chances for such an occurrence is small because not even Trump has control over things bigger than himself. The many people now pleased with the difficulties he is having in implementing a domestic immigration agenda should know better than to assume that he will have no difficulties in implementing a much more complicated foreign peace agenda.

So yes, Trump could pressure Israel into saying yes to his proposals, but he will also have to pressure the Palestinians for the same yes. And I don’t think he will get it. Or he might get it from leaders who do not truly mean it. That is, because it’s not that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has not yet come not because of a lack of commitment on the part of the US. It has not come because the parties do not want it. They do not agree to the terms under which peace might be possible.

So here is the mirror-image prediction that needs to be made: “the hasty talk about a ‘new era’ in which Israel and the Palestinians are going to move towards peace is premature and overstated.” In other words: Trump, for better or worse, is the president of the United States. He is not the Messiah of Israel.

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