The White House announced — no real surprise to veteran Israel watchers — that it is delaying its move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The statement accompanying the waiver (which a president must sign to avoid the move) read in part, “President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”
On one level this is no surprise. Presidential candidates have for decades promised to move the embassy and then thought better of it when elected. Presidents come to believe that the move would somehow prejudice peace talks (of which there are none presently) or inflame Palestinians, perhaps causing an increase in violence. What is different here is that Trump repeatedly, loudly touted to really do this — unlike all those spineless pols who never carried through on their promises. He made a very big deal of it. (Ironically, he might have been able to get away with moving the embassy, say, to West Jerusalem where the Israeli Knesset, prime minister’s office and supreme court are all located.) The degree of posturing and chest-pounding on this topic was extraordinary, and seemingly endeared him to many in the U.S. Orthodox Jewish community who took him at his word. In short, he looks buffoonish in his hasty retreat (which he denies is a retreat, as he denied saying “Israel” when giving Israeli intelligence to the Russians).
There are two reasons why an expected accommodation to reality becomes a gaffe in the hands of the Trump administration.
First, the Trump team chose to make the announcement of all days on Shavuot, one of four so-called festival holidays in the Jewish calendar, which were originally marked by a pilgrimage to the temple in … Jerusalem, of course. It’s the kind of detail that entirely escapes notice in an administration that is populated by amateurs and know-nothings. (One wonders why Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew who was tasked with bringing peace to the Middle East, did not speak up. “Hey, let’s wait a few days — or do it before the holiday.” That sort of thing.) He does his friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no favors with the latter’s domestic critics, who have no qualms about pointing out that Netanyahu’s chumminess with Trump does not pay real dividends.
Second, this comes at a time when the world is learning to disregard everything this president does and says — when the United States behaves in unpredictable and hypocritical ways. Trump seems to expect other countries (like his own cultist followers) to ignore that the emperor has no clothes. Promise? What promise? One important U.S. agreement after another — NATO, NAFTA, the Paris agreement — is called into question. Whether or not Trump alters or drops them, he is telling the world that the United States is unreliable, that nothing is ever the final word. (This is pure Trump by the way. In the business world he is infamous for inking deals and then offering to pay the other party 70 cents on the dollar. Such tactics work in New York real estate but not superpower foreign policy.)
We wouldn’t be the first to notice, however, that the one country on which his policy and rhetoric is consistently solicitous and effusive is Russia. Trump is busy trashing and embarrassing allies, showing that America First appears to mean something like “a clumsy, arrogant effort to alienate allies whose support we do not appreciate and whose help is essential to maintaining our superpower status.” But when it comes to Russia, he is all smiles.
Attempts to rationalize or normalize Trump’s foreign policy inevitably discredit the rationalizer and normalizer. Of one such implausible effort by two senior Trump officials, David Frum writes: “Under the slogan of restoring American greatness, they are destroying it. Promising readers that they want to ‘restore confidence in American leadership,’ they instead threaten and bluster in ways that may persuade partners that America has ceased to be the leader they once respected—but an unpredictable and dangerous force in world affairs, itself to be contained and deterred by new coalitions of ex-friends.” The perception of American fecklessness — which Trump promised would end with his inauguration — has increased exponentially in just four months. That will adversely affect everything from the war against Islamist extremists to trade opportunities.