September 18, 2019

Short visit, low bar: Trump in Israel, 12 points


The three most important words that President Trump has uttered in his Middle East visit (I know the trip is not yet over, but I believe that these will remain the three most important words when it is) are “jobs, jobs, jobs.” As in: “Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Trump is about business. Countries that are able and willing to engage him in a businesslike manner have the edge as he crafts his foreign policy. The Saudis were quick to understand this and thus can look back with satisfaction. They did not understand Obama – they do understand Trump. The question for Israel this morning is: to what extent does a good visit in Saudi Arabia mean trouble for Israel?


Israel – or at least some parts of it – is slow to understand what makes Trump tick. It is slow to understand that a wise country doesn’t toy with Trump’s ego. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was astonished to learn that his ministers did not intend to come to the airport to welcome the president. They thought it was a waste of time. A lot of waiting for little benefit for themselves. And of course, they were right. It is a lot of waiting. It is a waste of time. Also – it is their duty. If they do not understand that shunning Trump for whatever reason is irresponsible, offensive and dumb, they do not deserve to be ministers. Netanyahu forced their hands, and they will come. He also had to force their hands and pass a package of economic measures that will benefit the Palestinians. Remember? Jobs, jobs, jobs.


You can already read thousands of words about Trump’s speech to the Arab world in Saudi Arabia. I thought it was a fine speech. Presidential in tone, unapologetic in message, devoid of mishaps and embarrassments. If you are willing to ignore the inconsistencies between Trump’s campaign slogans and Trump’s policy speech, you end up with a clear message that we can sum up with just four points:

A. I have nothing against Islam and Muslims, but will not shy away from telling the truth about Islamic terrorism.

B. Dealing with terrorism and stabilizing the region is what the US expects from its Arab and Muslim allies.

C. How these allies achieve this outcome is of less concern to the US.

D. Iran is a common enemy, and the US is not confused when it separates friend from foe.


What’s to like about the speech?

It is clear, it is not too wishy-washy, it puts forward a realistic goal.

What’s not to like?

It does not concern itself with human rights in the Arab world.


How does it compare with President Obama’s famous Cairo speech? It is less inspiring, and more down to earth. It is less about long-term ideals and more about the short-term need for stability.

Both Obama and Trump have large egos. Surprisingly, it is Trump who was better at taming his ego as he wrote his speech aimed at the Arab world.


Trump did not mention Israel as one of the countries that were hit by terrorism. This is strange. On the other hand, he did mention Israel, Netanyahu, Jerusalem, and Jews in a speech in Riyadh. His Jewish daughter and son in law were visible members of his entourage. He will fly directly from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv. All these are signs of silent normalization.


Trump said nothing about his plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, except that he wants to broker such a peace agreement. It doesn’t seem as if he has a plan. But he might surprise us with one tonight or tomorrow.


He will be in Bethlehem for about an hour. He will be in Yad Vashem for half an hour. He will be in Israel and the West Bank for about 24 hours. Presidential attention deficit order is not a recipe for success in Middle East negotiations (truth be told: Presidents with more patience have also failed in brokering peace).


Why did Trump go to Saudi Arabia? ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ might be the answer. Why is he coming to Israel? Maybe because of his Saudi visit. That is to say: maybe the only reason he is coming here is that he doesn’t want to repeat Obama’s (intentional) mistake in Cairo and skip Israel when he comes to the region.


What to expect? Up until now, his visit hasn’t deviated from a strict script. His Saudi visit is thus a success. It will be interesting to see if Trump can have the same self-discipline in the messier environment of Israel.


Israel’s coalition has been tense because of this visit. Neftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi seems to feel that there’s an opportunity for him to coalesce the right around him – as Netanyahu is forced to showcase his more moderate face in anticipating a Trump peace initiative.

Is Bennet being irresponsible? He is. Would Netanyahu act differently if the roles were reversed? I don’t think he would. Both are politicians – and this is what politicians do when they see a political opening.


Presidential visits are not as important as we make them seem. They are mostly ceremonial. Thus, if the visit is not a failure – if there’s no mishap, or confrontation, or clear unease – it is a success. This is a low bar. A low bar for a short visit. It is reasonable to expect all the leaders involved to be able to jump over it.