President Trump promised to be a better friend to Israel than Barack Obama was, but as the new U.S. president prepares to visit Israel, frustrations that soured U.S.-Israeli relations in the past are beginning to return.
Trump’s insistence that he wants to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the peace table, accompanied by overtures to Palestinians, have caused some second-guessing of Trump’s motives on Israel’s political right.
And despite effusive praise for Trump ahead of his visit Monday, there are misgivings within the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Privately, Netanyahu has groused that Trump’s personal stake in what the president has called “the deal of the century” puts the Israeli leader in a difficult spot, former U.S. officials and others said.
The Trump administration is also poised to disappoint some in Israel and among his own supporters in the United States by reneging on a campaign pledge to quickly move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the capital, Jerusalem. Facing a June 1 deadline for a decision, Trump is now expected to defer a congressional mandate to move the embassy on grounds that doing so could ignite Arab violence and spoil chances for peace.
Some of Trump’s domestic troubles are likely to follow him to Israel, too, amid reports that the classified secrets he shared with Russian diplomats this month had come from Israel. Israeli leaders have remained tight-lipped about the leaks, saying only that security ties between Israel and the United States remain strong.
“The security relations between Israel and its greatest ally, the United States, are deep, significant and unprecedented in their scope and their contribution to our strength. That is how it always was and how it always will be,” wrote Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in a tweet Wednesday.
The Netanyahu government is also playing down a diplomatic tiff over whether and how Trump would visit religious sites.
After a chaotic back-and-forth over his itinerary, Trump now plans to visit the Western Wall in East Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, but without Israeli officials or a U.S. statement that the sacred site belongs to Israel.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster pointedly refused to answer questions last week about Israeli sovereignty over an area where the United States has long maintained ownership should be decided through negotiations.
“We have not yet made a final decision about my visit to the Western Wall,” Trump said in an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper on Thursday. “We have great respect for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the decision to have the rabbi [of the Western Wall] accompany us was primarily because that is the custom at the site. It could still change.”
Trump told the newspaper he believes he can hammer out a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the interview, Trump evaded the question of whether the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem.
If Netanyahu hoped to score points by having Trump go against established protocol surrounding the Western Wall, he was disappointed, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is president of the nonprofit U.S./Middle East Project.
“I think the Israelis were trying to pull a fast one on the administration” in hopes of showing how tightly aligned the two governments are and how much has changed since Obama, Levy said.
The Trump team knows pressure tactics when it sees them, Levy added.
“I don’t think they are falling for it.”
Obama, like some U.S. presidents before him, was annoyed or worse by what his White House saw as Israeli intransigence and highhanded tactics. Trump’s pledge to change the bitter tone of the U.S. relationship with Israel that had developed under Obama will not prevent Israel from trying to manipulate him, former U.S. and Israeli officials said.
Both Israel and the United States have far more reasons to emphasize the positive facets of their relationship and are unlikely to disagree in public, Levy and other analysts said.
Still, Israeli analysts have scoffed at what they call Trump’s clumsy decision to skip a visit to the fortress city of Masada, where Netanyahu had invited Trump to speak. The U.S. explanation that Trump canceled the visit after being told that he could not land his helicopter atop the UNESCO heritage site was played for laughs in Israeli media.
Trump has also ruffled feathers by planning a relatively short stop at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, a ritual for every American official on their first official visit to the country, former U.S. peace negotiator Martin Indyk noted on Twitter.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said disappointment with Trump is largely limited to members of Israel’s “deep-right wing that were sure that President Trump would be working for them.”
Trump’s fierce pro-Israel stance has limits, and just like past U.S. presidents, Trump has his own agenda, Herzog suggested.
“The truth of the matter is — and I always knew and understood this — that whoever sits in the Oval Office and at helm of the United States understands the complexities and sensitivities of the situation here.”
Those complexities of religion, history, sovereignty and peace in the Middle East were somewhat foreign to Trump as a candidate, when he scorned Obama for what he called mistreatment of Israel and said little about the Palestinians.
In office, Trump has backed away from two decades of U.S. commitment to a sovereign Palestinian state and given Israel wider latitude to build homes in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank free of American rebuke. But he has also publicly advised Netanyahu against massive settlement construction now and invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House within weeks of hosting the Israeli leader.
Trump has also said he does not think a peace deal is as hard a task as it seems.
“I think most Israelis and the prime minister as well see President Trump as a welcome change to the previous U.S. administration, especially with regards to the basic entity of Israel and with regards to security and other matters,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and onetime adviser to Netanyahu.
“The visit is very important because it highlights the strength of the relationship between Israel and America,” said Israel’s minister for regional cooperation, Tzachi Hanegbi, who is a close associate of Netanyahu. “There was never a president who came to Israel during the first few months of his term, and there was never a visit by an Israeli prime minister so early on his term.”
Herzog said he was hopeful Trump would “bring with him what I call ‘a break-the-impasse’ ” proposal for peace talks. “That is why there is a lot of anticipation of his visit.”
Netanyahu’s government says it is willing to hold direct negotiations so long as the Palestinians drop preconditions for talks.
Abbas appears more inclined to do that, perhaps as a gesture to Trump, several analysts said. Any accommodation of the Palestinians — including even holding talks — is likely to cause headaches for Netanyahu with the right flank of his coalition.
“What the Israelis would most like out of any U.S. administration is that we are behind them 100 percent and, ideally, that we help shift the pressure to the Palestinians,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“If there is any frustration on the Israeli side, it’s probably not that this administration hasn’t been on their side — but it may be that they haven’t taken the next step and really put the onus on the Palestinians.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. William Booth, also in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.