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Trump in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM – When US President Donald Trump left Israel after his whirlwind 28-hour tour, much of the country breathed a sigh of relief. Trump had not, as many had feared, issued unsubstantiated statements or destabilized further the brittle regional status quo. He didn’t even tweet. But, for Israel’s leaders, simply avoiding disaster isn’t enough; they want the US president working for their interests.

Not long ago, that outcome seemed likely. During his campaign, Trump looked like a dream come true for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government. He promised to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “on day one,” and to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran that had been spearheaded by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Moreover, when Obama, as one of his last acts in office, refused to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, Trump railed against him. For Israel’s government, which had been embroiled in bitter controversies with the Obama administration for eight years, the Trump administration appeared to represent, in Netanyahu’s own words, “a new dawn.”

So far, however, the sun hasn’t risen. The US embassy remains in Tel Aviv, though the administration says that a move to Jerusalem is still under consideration. The nuclear agreement with Iran remains intact, and the other countries involved – including US allies – seem to want to keep it that way. During Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, DC, in February, Trump publicly urged him to “restrain” settlement construction in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has continued to laud Trump as the most Israel-friendly US president ever. But all of these disappointments are having an impact. Grumbles about Trump’s unpredictability punctuate unofficial conversations in government circles, with some of the government coalition’s more right-wing members having even accused Trump of betrayal.

For left-wing Israelis, quite the opposite has happened. Having detested Trump from the start, some have started to wonder whether his unique lack of loyalty to US diplomatic tradition might actually be a boon for peace. Perhaps Trump’s consummate ignorance will make him the Forrest Gump of the Middle East, somehow able to bring about what he has called “the ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians.

In fact, Trump’s recent visit did little to indicate what Israel can expect from his administration. He did offer plenty of warm pro-Israel rhetoric, referencing the deep historical links between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. And, much to the pleasure of the Israeli right, he made no mention of a two-state solution.

Trump also visited the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, making him the first sitting US president to do so. And, at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, he delivered a moving speech about the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis, correcting his failure even to mention Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

Yet there were also some bitter pills. While praising the beauty of Jerusalem’s holy sites, Trump never referred to the city as the capital of Israel, much less reiterate his campaign promise to move the US embassy there. And, standing next to Netanyahu at a press conference, Trump declared that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas really does want peace – a statement that did not sit well with an Israeli government that insists that Abbas is no partner for peace talks.

Ultimately, however, Trump’s trip to Israel contained little substance at all. (“Where’s the beef?” an Israeli newspaper asked.) That contrasts sharply with Trump’s previous stop, Saudi Arabia – a visit that was all business. Saudi Arabia clearly enchanted Trump. King Salman embraced Trump’s war against terrorism and anti-Iran rhetoric, and expressed support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Nothing was said about human rights, much less women’s rights, and the word “democracy” never passed Trump’s lips.

Instead, Trump completed a deal to provide $110 billion in advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which in turn will invest heavily in the US economy. The agreement appears to have become the foundation of a wonderful new friendship, between the world’s oldest democracy and its most repressive Islamic regime. For Trump, as for President Calvin Coolidge, the chief business of the American people is business.

For Israel, this is more than a little concerning. Some of Netanyahu’s top cabinet ministers, including Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish defense minister, and Yuval Steinitz, a member of the security cabinet, quickly expressed concern about the arms deal. Within Israel’s right wing, many worry that Trump is merely trying to appease Israel with rhetoric, and views Saudi Arabia as the mainstay of US interests in the region.

It is possible that Trump hopes that Saudi Arabia’s support can help drive forward negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But, given Trump’s failure to take a real stand on any of the core areas of disagreement – including borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem – the idea that he is playing some well-thought-out long game on the Israel-Palestine conflict seems farfetched.

The more likely scenario with Trump is more of the same: rhetoric that is by turns pleasing and contradictory, with no consideration of the confusion and uncertainty that could result – and no meaningful effort to narrow the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. In their disappointment with Trump, however, two bitterly divided camps – Israel’s right and left – may find common ground.