Mea Culpa: I Said Trump and Bibi Would Blow Up

Mea Culpa: I Said Trump and Bibi Would Blow Up
But eight months in, the U.S. president is still playing nice with Israel — thanks to a moribund peace process.

A year or so ago in this space — or what feels like a year — I predicted that it would be only a matter of time before U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be annoying the hell out of one another, and that anyone who believed that Trumpland would produce a dramatic improvement in the U.S.-Israeli relationship ought to lie down and wait quietly until the feeling passed. After all, that’s been the traditional pattern in relations between Republican presidents and Likud prime ministers; I just figured sooner or later these two willful, suspicious, and brittle egos were bound to clash over something, most likely because Netanyahu would overplay his hand in some provocative policy toward the Palestinians.

Clearly unlike Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, I was not “dead on balls accurate;” at least so far, I’ve been dead wrong.

As Netanyahu and Trump met Monday at the United Nations General Assembly for the third time in the president’s first eight months — a first in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations — even I’m a little stunned by how the relationship has blossomed seemingly without serious disruption and complication.

So where did I wander off the highway? And what, if anything, might change in what appears to be not just an extended honeymoon but a pretty happy marriage?

Changing the channel

Trump may be unpredictable on many issues, but when it comes to the U.S.-Israeli relationship he’s been preternaturally and consistently pro-Netanyahu, supporting a tough-minded, right-wing government more or less across the board and avoiding fights and unpleasantness. Trump is the first U.S. president to visit Israel so early in his term, the first to pray at the Western Wall, the first in decades to refuse to endorse Palestinian statehood,the first to declare in a White House statement his intention to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and the first to appoint as U.S. ambassador a longtime supporter of settlements — David Friedman, who recently publicly referred to the “alleged” occupation of the West Bank.

Only twice can I recall such head-spinning transitions — Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton — where successors willfully went about profoundly improving both the style and substance of their predecessors’ relations with Israel. Tensions later surfaced, but whether that is likely under Trump is not at all clear. Nothing on the horizon suggests it. Clearly keeping consistent with his effort to try to undo almost everything his predecessor had done, Trump is determined to ameliorate, if not eliminate, anything and everything related to the U.S.-Israeli tensions of the Barack Obama years — and to replace it with a kind of Era of Good Feelings not seen since the James Monroe administration.

Trump seems to instinctively grasp that fighting with Israel to protest settlements is a loser, that it wouldn’t produce a concrete gain for him, would make it appear that he is just like Obama, and would cost him politically. When he did raise the settlements issue, it was to gently chide, not hammer, the Israelis, opining that settlements weren’t “good for peace” and suggesting that Israel “hold off for a bit.” This tone is light-years away from the Sturm und Drang that marked eight years of bitter battles between Netanyahu and Obama.

Nothing to fight about

Trump appears to want to keep ahold of the warm embrace, at least for now. Eight months in, it’s pretty clear that the president has defused if not reframed the two primary points of contention — Iran and the peace process — that created so much trouble in U.S.-Israeli relations under Obama.

On Iran, Trump has been hostile to the 2015 nuclear accord from the get-go. His foreign policy and national security advisors — primarily Secretary of Defense James Mattis, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — seem to have convinced him that maintaining the deal makes sense for a while, but it was only a matter of time before Trump’s policy of “undoing all that was Obama” would kick in. Hostility toward Iran also deepened thanks to the president’s budding bromance with Saudi Arabia’s (rabidly anti-Iran) King Salman and Tehran’s own efforts to expand its influence in the region. Netanyahu, however, was not happy with the administration’s willingness to defer to Russia (and thus to Iran) in Syria.

Still, the White House’s Iran policy has eliminated a major source of tension with Jerusalem and put Trump and Netanyahu personally on the same page. Remember, Netanyahu is a man who has warned of Iran’s threat to Israel for decades and who sees his own role primarily in terms of leading Israel out from under the shadow of an Iranian bomb. How undermining the Iran accord would keep Tehran away from a nuke escapes me. But from Netanyahu’s perspective it’s a windfall.

Sensing things are moving his way, Netanyahu recently advised the administration to cancel or fix the nuclear deal. Indeed, in little more than a year, he’s witnessed a transition from an administration that defended and touted the Iran nuclear deal as its most important foreign-policy accomplishment to one that sees it as Satan’s finger on Earth. Within weeks of his meeting with Trump, the president may choose not to certify the Iran accord and in doing so create a downward cycle toward its demise.

The other great source of tension, of course, is the peace process. Here, there’s been a sea change from the style and substance of the Obama administration. Instead of ensuring that there’s sufficient “daylight” between the United States and Israel, to demonstrate credibility with the Arabs, Trump has gone out of his way to bond with Jerusalem like a barnacle to the side of a boat. He’s taken differences with Israel on settlements out of the public conversation, refused to press Netanyahu to commit to Palestinian statehood, pushed the Palestinians on ending support for violence and terror, pressed them to end payments to prisoners and martyrs, and vigorously defended Israel at the United Nations. Palestinians report that his envoys consistently betray a pro-Israeli bias.

Indeed, despite a promise to pursue the “ultimate deal” (a conflict-ending peace agreement), the administration itself seems increasingly dubious about its prospects. In a leaked transcript of a briefing with White House interns, Jared Kushner — the president’s son-in-law and lead negotiator — wondered whether a peace deal was possible and what, if anything new, the administration might contribute to a solution. All of this paints a picture of an administration adrift on the peace process — a reality that has helped ease tensions with an Israeli government that fears any U.S. initiative that might require tough decisions on big issues such as borders and Jerusalem.

Trump’s team ensures a love affair with Israel

Personnel doesn’t always shape policy. But the team the Trump administration has assembled to work the peace process is composed of individuals whose passion, support, and sensitivities to Israeli needs and concerns exceeds anything we’ve seen in recent years. Between Kushner; the president’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt; and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, you have individuals who are not only strongly pro-Israel, but also highly sympathetic to the settlement enterprise — and whose lives as American Jews have been deeply shaped by their collective experience with Israel. Add in the highly influential Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who has direct lines to Trump, and you have a pretty tight circle of circle of individuals reinforcing pro-Israeli sensibilities.

But let’s be clear. Gaining Israel’s confidence on peacemaking is critically important, and that means understanding Israel’s situation, particularly when it comes to security. It also demands fairly assessing the needs of the Palestinians and Arabs, too. I speak with some experience on these matters. During the George H.W. Bush/James Baker years, I was part of a small group of advisers that also included American Jews with strong attachment to Israel. But the circle of analysis and prescription included the secretary of state, other advisers around him, and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which balanced out the policy.

The system didn’t work nearly as well during the Clinton administration, when those of us working the negotiations tended to place more importance on Israel’s needs than on those of the Palestinians. But even then, we at least tried to wrestle with how to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian needs on both interim and permanent status issues and had our share of very tough fights with both Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Given the composition of the current peace process crowd, I just don’t see any of this playing out. In fact, it seems that Trump’s peace-process team reserves the honey for the Israelis and the vinegar for the Palestinians.

Looking back now, my prediction last year of impending trouble in the U.S.-Israeli relationship was always something of a fraught prediction, particularly based on my own longstanding analysis. My view has always been that Israel is the only country in the region where there’s any mutual coincidence of values and interests. Despite all of Israel’s transgressions and imperfections — largely centered on its policies toward Palestinians — the behavior of its neighbors was far worse and would remain so. Marry that to the resonance of the Israel issue in a president’s domestic political calculations and, bingo, you produce a pretty enduring bond.

What might create serious tensions in the U.S.-Israeli relationship going forward? In a galaxy far, far away, you might argue that it’s an administration committed to pursuing Trump’s ultimate deal. And there are reports that Washington is considering putting something on the table in the next several months. But back here on Planet Earth, with all the other foreign policy travails, domestic headaches, the start of congressional midterm season, the possibility of a Netanyahu indictment, and the grim prospects for the success of any peace plan, the odds are long.

Maybe Trump will go ahead with his peace plan, after all. Maybe Netanyahu will overreach and do something to provoke him. Stranger things have happened, and we’re only eight months in. Still, in Trumpland, the odds of a major falling out between the United States and Israel just doesn’t seem likely to be one of them.

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