Mixed messages from a diplomatic lovefest in Washington
One state. Flexibility. Two states. Hold back on settlements. Stop Iran. But wait. In the Age of Trump, every post-event analysis requires a double take. Not so much “did he mean what he said?” – he appears to mean it, in real time – but “will he mean it next week? Tomorrow? In the wee hours, when he tweets?”
So what can we take away from the Feb. 15 Benjamin Netanyahu-donald Trump summit?
A lot. Trump’s interlocutor on Feb. 15, Netanyahu, has a more evolved reputation for consistency – indeed, for coherence. And despite his renowned capacity for peregrinations of thought, Trump offered enough substance in his remarks – for instance, confirming a pivot in U.S. policy away from an emphasis on a two-state solution as an outcome to peace talks.
So, with considerable trepidation, we venture into last Wednesday’s summit.
One state, two states
At first blush, Trump appeared to headily embrace the prospect of one state – although it’s not clear what kind of single state he meant.
Comb through what he said, and his departure from the policies of his three predecessors was indeed substantive, but not necessarily radical.
“So I’m looking at two-state and onestate, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, as Netanyahu chortled.
“I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one,” Trump said. “I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians – if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Trump is not endorsing a single state – he’s kicking it back to the parties. Figure it out, Trump says. Trump’s three predecessors have also said that the final status must be determined by the Israelis and the Palestinians, but also have made clear that the only workable outcome is two states.
What’s the difference? Netanyahu indicated that the difference is leverage for Israel: if the Palestinians want their own state, it must adhere to Israel’s terms.
Netanyahu has always said he believes a Palestinian state should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that it must be demilitarized and accept Israeli security control of the West Bank. Until now, those were his preferred outcomes. Last Wednesday, he attached a new descriptor to those terms: “prerequisites.” That leaves little wiggle room for the Palestinians.
Netanyahu also did not use the term “two states.” He said instead that others have cautioned him that a state deprived of security control is less than a state. Instead of pushing back against the argument, he said it was a legitimate interpretation, but not the only one.
That relieves pressure from Netanyahu’s right flank in Israel, which has pressed him to seize the transition from the Obama administration – which insisted on two states and an end to settlement – to the Trump administration and expand settlement.
The kid in the candy shop
Netanyahu was like the proverbial kid in the candy shop. He couldn’t have made clearer his relief at the departure of president Barack Obama.
“I think that’s a change that is clearly evident since President Trump took office,” Netanyahu said referring to Trump’s tough talk on Iran. “I welcome that. I think it’s – let me say this very openly – I think it’s long overdue.”
Trump, to Netanyahu’s evident pleasure, embraced one of the Israeli’s favourite causes: Palestinian incitement. Obama had also routinely mentioned the issue, but Trump made ending incitement his front and centre expectation of the Palestinians, and described it in the dark terms Netanyahu favours.
“I think the Palestinians have to get rid of some of that hate that they’re taught from a very young age,” he said. “They’re taught tremendous hate.”
Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he also asked Trump to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, a request that would have been politely ignored had he raised it with Trump’s predecessors. He was clearly hopeful about his prospects with Trump; the president was “not shocked” by the request, Netanyahu said.
What does Trump want in return?
“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump told Netanyahu. “We’ll work something out.”
Netanyahu appeared shocked. Trump asked Netanyahu for a temporary settlement freeze, the kind of request that when Obama made it sent Netanyahu and his government into paroxysms of resistance. (Netanyahu insisted to reporters later that his shocked reaction was a put-on – he said it was a page out of Trump’s bible for realtors, The Art of the Deal, but he did not explain how looking caught off guard helped him.)
Netanyahu did another double take when Trump said, referring to his hopes for a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and with Israel’s Arab neighbours, that “it might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand.”
Netanyahu, notoriously cautious in how he approaches diplomacy, did not seem enthusiastic. “Let’s try it,” he muttered. Trump noticed: “Doesn’t sound too optimistic,” he said to laughter.
Those snapshots of a nonplussed Netanyahu illustrated the Israeli leader’s conundrum: he is throwing all-in with Trump.
The request to stay settlement building, to go for the big deal, one that Trump said would likely require Israel to “show more flexibility than they have in the past” – what could that mean further down the line? Trump’s proven characteristics include a capacity for unpredictability, a demand for deference and a love of disruption.
Mix those qualities with talk of one state and “greater flexibility,” and the prospects of what Trump demands from Israel are more open-ended than with any previous president – for better or worse.
Love may drive us apart
An Israeli reporter asked Trump about a spike in anti-semitic incidents since his election. Trump, after yet another bizarre digression on the breadth of his electoral college win over Hillary Clinton, reminded everyone that he had Jewish friends and family and concluded that “you’re going to see a lot of love.”
And Netanyahu, who usually is not reluctant to emphasize the vulnerabilities of Diaspora Jews, backed up Trump.
“I’ve known the president and I’ve known his family and his team for a long time, and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump,” he said. “I think we should put that to rest.”
That’s hardly a salve to an American Jewish community dealing almost weekly with unsettling echoes of past slights and intolerance – most recently when the White House omitted any mention of Jews from a Holocaust commemorative statement.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-defamation League’s national director, reacting to Trump’s statement, did not mention Netanyahu, but was clearly not in a mood to put anything to rest. Trump “missed an opportunity to decry the rhetoric of hate that seems to be surging online and in the real world,” he said. “Intentional or not, this emboldens anti-semites.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Donald Trump at a press conference.