Be­hind Trump’s tri­umphant visit to Is­rael, a few old ten­sions resur­face

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNE GEARAN AND RUTH EGLASH anne.gearan@wash­post.com ruth.eglash@wash­post.com

Pres­i­dent Trump promised to be a bet­ter friend to Is­rael than Barack Obama was, but as the new U.S. pres­i­dent pre­pares to visit Is­rael, frus­tra­tions that soured U.S.-Israeli re­la­tions in the past are be­gin­ning to re­turn.

Trump’s in­sis­tence that he wants to bring Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans back to the peace ta­ble, ac­com­pa­nied by over­tures to Pales­tini­ans, have caused some sec­ond-guess­ing of Trump’s mo­tives on Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal right.

And de­spite ef­fu­sive praise for Trump ahead of his visit Mon­day, there are mis­giv­ings within the gov­ern­ment of Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. Pri­vately, Ne­tanyahu has groused that Trump’s per­sonal stake in what the pres­i­dent has called “the deal of the cen­tury” puts the Israeli leader in a dif­fi­cult spot, former U.S. of­fi­cials and oth­ers said.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is also poised to dis­ap­point some in Is­rael and among his own sup­port­ers in the United States by reneg­ing on a cam­paign pledge to quickly move the U.S. Em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to the cap­i­tal, Jerusalem. Fac­ing a June 1 dead­line for a decision, Trump is now ex­pected to de­fer a con­gres­sional man­date to move the em­bassy on grounds that do­ing so could ig­nite Arab vi­o­lence and spoil chances for peace.

Some of Trump’s do­mes­tic troubles are likely to fol­low him to Is­rael, too, amid re­ports that the clas­si­fied se­crets he shared with Rus­sian diplo­mats this month had come from Is­rael. Israeli lead­ers have re­mained tight-lipped about the leaks, say­ing only that se­cu­rity ties be­tween Is­rael and the United States re­main strong.

“The se­cu­rity re­la­tions be­tween Is­rael and its great­est ally, the United States, are deep, sig­nif­i­cant and un­prece­dented in their scope and their con­tri­bu­tion to our strength. That is how it al­ways was and how it al­ways will be,” wrote De­fense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man in a tweet Wed­nes­day.

The Ne­tanyahu gov­ern­ment is also play­ing down a diplo­matic tiff over whether and how Trump would visit re­li­gious sites.

Af­ter a chaotic back-and-forth over his itin­er­ary, Trump now plans to visit the West­ern Wall in East Jerusalem, one of the holi­est sites in Ju­daism, but with­out Israeli of­fi­cials or a U.S. state­ment that the sa­cred site be­longs to Is­rael.

White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster point­edly re­fused to an­swer ques­tions last week about Israeli sovereignty over an area where the United States has long main­tained own­er­ship should be de­cided through ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“We have not yet made a fi­nal decision about my visit to the West­ern Wall,” Trump said in an in­ter­view with the Is­rael Hayom news­pa­per on Thurs­day. “We have great re­spect for Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, and the decision to have the rabbi [of the West­ern Wall] ac­com­pany us was pri­mar­ily be­cause that is the cus­tom at the site. It could still change.”

Trump told the news­pa­per he thinks he can ham­mer out a peace deal be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans.

In the in­ter­view, Trump evaded the ques­tion of whether the U.S. Em­bassy would move to Jerusalem.

If Ne­tanyahu hoped to score points by hav­ing Trump go against es­tab­lished pro­to­col sur­round­ing the West­ern Wall, he was dis­ap­pointed, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace ne­go­tia­tor who is pres­i­dent of the non­profit U.S./Mid­dle East Project.

“I think the Is­raelis were try­ing to pull a fast one on the ad­min­is­tra­tion” in hopes of show­ing how tightly aligned the two gov­ern­ments are and how much has changed since Obama, Levy said.

The Trump team knows pres­sure tac­tics when it sees them, Levy added.

“I don’t think they are fall­ing for it.”

Obama, like some U.S. pres­i­dents be­fore him, was an­noyed or worse by what his White House saw as Israeli in­tran­si­gence and high­handed tac­tics. Trump’s pledge to change the bit­ter tone of the U.S. re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael that had de­vel­oped un­der Obama will not pre­vent Is­rael from try­ing to ma­nip­u­late him, former U.S. and Israeli of­fi­cials said.

Both Is­rael and the United States have far more rea­sons to em­pha­size the pos­i­tive facets of their re­la­tion­ship and are un­likely to dis­agree in pub­lic, Levy and other an­a­lysts said.

Still, Israeli an­a­lysts have scoffed at what they call Trump’s clumsy decision to skip a visit to the fortress city of Masada, where Ne­tanyahu had in­vited Trump to speak. The U.S. ex­pla­na­tion that Trump can­celed the visit af­ter be­ing told that he could not land his he­li­copter atop the UNESCO her­itage site was played for laughs in Israeli me­dia.

Trump has also ruf­fled feath­ers by plan­ning a rel­a­tively short stop at Is­rael’s Holo­caust memo­rial, a rit­ual for ev­ery Amer­i­can of­fi­cial on their first of­fi­cial visit to the coun­try, former U.S. peace ne­go­tia­tor Martin Indyk noted on Twit­ter.

Op­po­si­tion leader Isaac Her­zog said dis­ap­point­ment with Trump is largely lim­ited to mem­bers of Is­rael’s “deep-right wing that were sure that Pres­i­dent Trump would be work­ing for them.”

Trump’s fierce pro-Is­rael stance has lim­its, and just like past U.S. pres­i­dents, Trump has his own agenda, Her­zog sug­gested.

“The truth of the mat­ter is — and I al­ways knew and un­der­stood this — that who­ever sits in the Oval Of­fice and at helm of the United States un­der­stands the com­plex­i­ties and sen­si­tiv­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion here.”

Those com­plex­i­ties of re­li­gion, his­tory, sovereignty and peace in the Mid­dle East were some­what for­eign to Trump as a can­di­date, when he scorned Obama for what he called mis­treat­ment of Is­rael and said lit­tle about the Pales­tini­ans.

In of­fice, Trump has backed away from two decades of U.S. com­mit­ment to a sov­er­eign Pales­tinian state and given Is­rael wider lat­i­tude to build homes in the Jewish set­tle­ments in the West Bank free of Amer­i­can re­buke. But he has also pub­licly ad­vised Ne­tanyahu against mas­sive set­tle­ment con­struc­tion now and in­vited Pales­tinian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas to the White House within weeks of host­ing the Israeli leader.

Trump has also said he does not think a peace deal is as hard a task as it seems.

Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ment says it is will­ing to hold di­rect ne­go­ti­a­tions so long as the Pales­tini­ans drop pre­con­di­tions for talks.

Ab­bas ap­pears more in­clined to do that, per­haps as a ges­ture to Trump, sev­eral an­a­lysts said. Eglash re­ported from Jerusalem. William Booth, also in Jerusalem, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

AH­MAD GHARABLI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

An Israeli youth on Fri­day passes a poster wel­com­ing Pres­i­dent Trump to Jerusalem, three days ahead of Trump’s of­fi­cial visit.

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