Trump-Bibi: on­mes­sage, off-key

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANSHEL PFEFFER

US PRES­I­DENT Don­ald Trump swept away decades of diplo­matic or­tho­doxy on Wed­nes­day when he said at a press con­fer­ence with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu at the White House that his ad­min­is­tra­tion did not nec­es­sar­ily sup­port a two-state so­lu­tion.

But then, there was lit­tle that was nor­mal about this meet­ing.

Press con­fer­ences are usu­ally held af­ter the lead­ers have had a chance to meet and dis­cuss is­sues. In­stead, the two lead­ers this time faced re­porters min­utes af­ter the Netanyahu cou­ple were met with great pomp out­side the White House by both Trumps.

The mes­sag­ing could not have been clearer. This is a pres­i­dent who, un­like Barack Obama, is on the same page as Mr Netanyahu.

The fa­mously iras­ci­ble Pres­i­dent Trump was for once com­pletely on­mes­sage, stick­ing (mostly) to writ­ten re­marks and an­swer­ing ob­vi­ously re­hearsed an­swers to the jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions. With Mr Netanyahu’s per­fectly Amer­i­can-ac­cented English chim­ing along­side, it looked and sounded more than a dou­ble-act than a meet­ing of lead­ers from two dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

But be­yond the care­fully crafted mes­sages, honed for weeks in ad­vance by their se­nior ad­vi­sors, it was dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what pol­icy the new Trump-Netanyahu team will be pur­su­ing in the Mid­dle East.

Mr Trump quickly rat­tled through a check­list of the rel­e­vant pro-Israel talk­ing-points — say­ing that the Jewish peo­ple had suf­fered like no other, that Israel was a unique democ­racy,

that the pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent’s land­mark nu­clear agree­ment with Iran was a rot­ten deal and the UN was unfair to Israel.

But that did not give a clear in­di­ca­tion of how his ad­min­is­tra­tion will act in the fu­ture.

Mr Trump’s state­ment that he was “look­ing at two states and one state, and I like the one that both par­ties like” will be widely pored over but the fact re­mains this was hardly a pol­icy pre­scrip­tion.

Mean­while Mr Netanyahu, with­out say­ing he still be­lieved in the two-state so­lu­tion, as­sured a re­porter he stood be­hind his Bar Ilan speech de­liv­ered eight years ago, in which he first ex­pressed sup­port for two states. Both men gave hints of their sup­port for greater in­volve­ment from a se­lec­tion of Sunni Arab states in a pos­si­ble peace deal. But it was un­clear whether they plan to en­gage with the Arab states any time soon. No-one even asked what the Pales­tini­ans may be think­ing.

There were two mo­ments in which it seemed Mr Trump sounded slightly de­mand­ing. First, when he said: “I’d like you to hold off on set­tle­ments for a lit­tle bit”; and se­condly, when he said: “Both sides will have to make com­pro­mises. You know that, right?”

But even th­ese re­marks were al­most cer­tainly ap­proved in ad­vance by the Is­raeli side and were in­cluded to give Mr Netanyahu some po­lit­i­cal cover from his own right-wing coali­tion part­ners.

In ad­di­tion, the tough rhetoric on Iran in­cluded no pol­icy de­tails.

In re­sponse to a ques­tion on the out­break of an­tisemitic in­ci­dents in the US fol­low­ing his elec­tion, the Pres­i­dent de­scribed the scale of his elec­toral vic­tory — a re­ply that will have wor­ried Jews ev­ery­where.

The bot­tom line re­mained that Mr Netanyahu has never been re­ceived at the White House be­fore in this way. Quite what it spells for the fu­ture, we are still none the wiser.

For all the drama of the past week in Wash­ing­ton, Wed­nes­day’s press con­fer­ence by Pres­i­dent Trump and Prime Min­is­ter Netanyahu will surely go down as one of the more sur­real episodes in the his­tory of Is­raeli-US re­la­tions, or even the Mid­dle East it­self. Pres­i­dent Trump ap­pears to have the in­tel­lec­tual depth of a young child. In all se­ri­ous­ness, he sug­gested that we should be op­ti­mistic about a deal be­tween Israel and the Pales­tini­ans be­cause he is go­ing to study the is­sue care­fully. As for the shape of a deal — two states, one state, the ter­ri­to­rial com­pro­mises, what­ever — he was in­sou­ciant to the point of id­iocy: it didn’t mat­ter, he said, be­cause the point of a deal is that both sides would be happy. And there would be love. Love — and an end to hate. One has to re­mind one­self that this man is leader of the free world. It is deeply mis­guided to ob­serve that, af­ter eight years of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Israel now has a friend in the White House. Some friends one can do with­out.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Dou­ble-act: Netanyahu and Trump in Wash­ing­ton

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