“I think we quote each other,” said Netanyahu, with Trump grinning at his side. “We understand each other and so much of the things that we wish to accomplish for both our countries.”
It was a marked change in atmosphere from meetings with Trump's predecessor. Netanyahu and former president Barack Obama clashed over the American role in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu actively lobbied against — including during a 2015 speech to Congress. The American refusal to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in the waning weeks of the Obama presidency led to howls of fury from the Israeli government. Now all is sunny again.
But no matter the comparatively good vibes surrounding Trump's trip to Israel, Netanyahu may grow disappointed in the coming months and years.
Trump's election lifted hopes among Israeli right-wingers and ultranationalists that Washington would shelve talk about the two-state solution and look the other way as vast settlement expansion took place in the West Bank. But, just a few months later, Trump seems genuinely eager to strike a peace accord and has slow-pedaled his promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a gesture that would enrage Palestinians and infuriate the Arab statesmen Trump hopes to enlist in his peace efforts. That has some on the Israeli right grumbling already.
There's also no indication so far that the president is moving to scrap the nuclear deal, which Netanyahu and his allies hoped would be jettisoned soon after Trump took office.
Sure, Trump did offer up the sort of harsh language on Iran — Israel's regional foe — that Netanyahu wanted to hear. The United States would work with Israel to roll back “the threat of an Iranian regime that is threatening the region and causing so much violence and suffering,” Trump said. He also took the unprecedented step of visiting the Western Wall, something no sitting American president has ever done because of the sensitivities around the site and Jerusalem's disputed status. Netanyahu celebrated the act, telling Trump that the “people of Israel applaud you for it” — but Trump pointedly did not bring any Israeli politicians along on his visit.
“The bottom line is that not only does Trump have no intention of jeopardizing his relations with Sunni Arab leaders by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, he won’t even make the tiniest gesture in that direction by allowing Netanyahu to join him for a few minutes in the Old City,” wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer.
Instead of breaking from the past, Trump seems to be taking the equivocating posture of his predecessors.
“The early perceptions that Trump would reverse all of Obama’s policy decisions and never challenge Israel very quickly proved inaccurate,” wrote Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama. “So far, his administration has embarked on a much more traditional approach of seeking to restrain Israeli settlements, curtail Palestinian violence and incitement, and revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a two-state solution, with the support of key Arab states.”
On Tuesday, Trump will travel to Bethlehem to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a politician who is increasingly unpopular at home but still championed by foreign leaders as a key interlocutor for Mideast peace.
Trump “has built up Abbas by treating him with respect. And his envoy is pressing the Israelis to take meaningful steps to allow the Palestinians to grow their economy,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in an interview with the Atlantic. “It’s almost exactly what Bill Clinton did when he was president.”
The big question is whether Trump will follow through on his stated zeal to fix the problem, especially when the status quo seems to serve his friend Netanyahu's interests.
“Both the Israelis and Palestinians are aware that even a more traditional American president is unlikely to have the political will to do what is necessary to broker a just peace agreement,” wrote Yousef Munayyer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “With Trump, they know the chances are even more remote. At the same time, neither can afford to alienate Washington. So they must carefully play along as Trump engages the issues, and they will likely seek opportunities to get whatever they can from him in the process.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security, suggested Netanyahu is now “freaked out because Trump seems serious about peace.” That means he “will have to produce” at the risk of antagonizing key right-wing allies — and likely losing votes to their parties.
“With Obama, Israelis may not always have gotten everything they wanted,” wrote Shapiro. “But they always got consistency.” With Trump, it appears, Netanyahu may get neither.
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