Trump-Bibi: onmessage, off-key
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.
Double-act: Netanyahu and Trump in Washington