Trump visit: Long on optics, short on vision

Trump visit: Long on optics, short on vision

Despite little substance on way forward, experts see largely successful trip

President Trump is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images 
President Trump is the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images 

President Donald Trump received warm receptions from Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders this week during his first foreign trip, but those hoping to see him revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were disappointed.

Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was “not realistic” to have expected much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“You have to judge it for what it was, and to that extent it was largely successful,” he said of the trip.

In particular, Jacobson said, Trump “took what we all know is a trend —  the relationship between the Saudis, the Gulf States, and Israel because of their common interest vis-a-vis Iran — and ran with it. It was a wise move and a positive thing that had a strategic element to it — understanding that there are limits to how far you can go without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.” 

He was referring to Trump’s belief that the Arab nations are prepared to normalize relations with Israel once an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is reached. 

Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told a conference call on Tuesday with the Israel Policy Forum that Trump’s visit left  both the Israelis and the Palestinians happy. 

He noted that before Trump was inaugurated, the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was celebrating Trump’s election because of comments he made during the campaign that suggested a “dramatic shift away from a two-state solution.”

“But there was a splash of cold water in the days after the inauguration when it became clear that the president was reverting to the traditional U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians,” Shapiro said. 

However, “in the hours since he left,  everybody on both sides [of the Israeli aisle] are claiming to be happy. Right-wing politicians are saying Trump is not pushing for two states and that this is a president who is a strong supporter of Israel who is not putting them on the defensive. On the other hand, [opposition leader] Isaac Herzog and [former foreign minister Tzipi] Livni also proclaimed themselves to be very satisfied. They are convinced there will be a two-state solution and regional [peace]. They can’t both be right.”

Shapiro said decisions will have to be made within the next six months and then “we will know who is right.” He noted that Trump’s chief negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, announced plans to return to Israel on Thursday to pursue his peace efforts.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, questioned why Greenblatt was “coming back so soon — people have to contemplate what was said. But maybe it had been agreed upon to keep up the momentum. But the momentum is not towards an agreement but interim steps, regional support, financial support, and promises of political support if there is serious progress.”

He stressed that Israel does not want the Arab states to wait until there is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before it takes steps to normalize relations, such as allowing Israeli aircraft to fly over Saudi Arabia and opening telecommunications between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

“Israel is saying [to the Arabs], if you want to induce people [to make changes], make gestures that open up opportunities for Israel to take steps that give the Palestinians confidence — such as doing joint projects that create jobs in Israel,” Hoenlein said.

Israel in the meantime would make changes in the Palestinians’ quality of life by taking such steps as improving the Palestinian economy and conditions on the ground to counter the strong appeal of Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, he added.

Jacobson said he was “struck by the obvious warmth between Netanyahu and Trump. It is a desirable thing as opposed to the tension that existed before between [President Barack] Obama and Netanyahu.” 

In his keynote address at the Israel Museum Tuesday, Trump declared: “My administration will always stand with Israel. Let’s always remember the bond between our two nations is woven together in the hearts of our peoples. America’s security partnership with Israel is stronger than ever.”

Trump’s decision to include a 36-hour visit to Israel as part of his first overseas trip is a clear demonstration that “the U.S.-Israel bond based on shared democratic values remains unshakable and is central to his world view,” according to David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee. 

Although some Palestinians told reporters they believed Trump came across as pro-Israel during his visit, Jacobson said he believed Trump was “reasonably balanced and did not play into the right wing in Israel who want to make a two-state solution impossible.”

Netanyahu and Trump spoke privately over dinner at Netanyahu’s residence Monday evening and Hoenlein said he was told the meeting “went very well.”

“Overall it was seen here as successful,” said Hoenlein of Trump’s visit. “The president said [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is ready for serious negotiations, but there was no talk of two states or moving the [American] embassy [to Jerusalem]. What he said was that Iran calls for the destruction of Israel and that that would not happen while Donald J. Trump is in office.”

The Zionist Organization of America issued a statement critical of the 10-year, $380 billion American arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Trump announced during his visit there. It questioned how the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge would be impacted by the sale.

“The U.S. arms provided to Middle Eastern nations with the best of intentions have too often ended up being turned against U.S. forces and our allies,” the ZOA added. “This possibility must also be considered here.”

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said he too is “troubled” by the size of the arms package “and the apparent failure of the administration to consult with the Israeli Defense Forces before culminating the deal. But if he can bring about some reconciliation and interim steps towards a two-state solution, then he will have hit a home run.”

Hoenlein said he understood that “some of the weapons may have been included in previous sales. But I was told by a U.S. official that Israel’s military advantage would be protected.”

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