by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
A quiet chuckle and a smile from Donald Trump stood out during his first face-to-face press conference with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in February. Of course, laughter can be the joint expression of joy or a false effort to appear humored—and relationships between Israel and the United States have sometimes felt like just that dichotomy of friendship and tension. While the two nations have officially been allies for decades, the person who controls the White House has a lot to say about what that alliance looks like. So, it was worth noting that some of Trump’s chuckling was friendly; sometimes it looked forced. Which tone will define his relationship with Israel?
For a man who loves to express himself in 140 characters or less on Twitter, President Trump makes a lot of promises. And when it’s been possible for him to unilaterally deliver, he’s made a lot of effort in the early days of his presidency. Whether one agrees with his policies or not, he has made a point of at least trying to do what he said. That would seemingly bode well for Israel, as Trump has repeatedly promised support to Israel and made good on the nomination of two pro-Israel ambassadors—David Friedman to the Jewish state, and Nikki Haley to the UN.
In his speech to AIPAC in 2016, Trump also bashed efforts at the UN to impose a peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Iran’s support for terrorism, according to a transcript from Time magazine. He even promised to meet Netanyahu “immediately”—and less than one month into his presidency, he did just that. In that press conference with the Israeli leader, he made an effort to say peacemaking was up to Israel and the Palestinians—going so far as to back a one-state solution if the parties agreed. However, working with multiple parties is a challenge and governing is harder than just making unilateral moves. That could complicate things with Israel, even when their interests align.
Trump has railed against the Iran nuclear deal—calling it “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” in that press conference with Netanyahu. Yet while he has mentioned undoing it somehow, even during his campaign in that AIPAC speech he limited his promised response to firmly enforcing the deal. Backing out of an international agreement takes support and it doesn’t look like Trump is going to try.
Nonetheless, Trump has upped sanctions on Iran after Tehran tested missiles in the early days of his administration and verbally has been very tough on the Islamic Republic. The Trump approach to Iran has clearly backed away from the tentative friendliness that former-President Obama showed at times.
But the real question is the long-term Trump activity. He may or may not act in Israel’s interest today, but at times, his erratic responses to crises could indicate sudden changes in behavior that could work against Israel. At the very least, he seems somewhat unpredictable at a “big picture” level. Take Syria for example. Trump has appeared friendly towards Russia—a key supporter of Iran and the anti-Israel Syrian regime—and that has raised questions about Trump’s ultimate actions in Syria given Moscow’s backing of the regime there. Just about a week before the the US launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime over chemical weapons use, US Senator John McCain had decried the apparent willingness of the Trump administration to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power in Syria, warning of the possibility that Trump may stand by and let Assad keep control in a “Faustian bargain… sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.” Days later, the US was bombing Syria.
That may be a carrot-and-stick strategy by Trump towards Assad, the early days of the new Trump government learning how to deal with messes like Syria or the indication that what Trump does today may not be what he does tomorrow. One area in which that could really matter for Israel is the Palestinian situation where a potential Trump-Israel disagreement could create a future rift.
Trump made it clear in his press conference with Netanyahu that a Middle East peace deal is “very important” to him—and then he offered proof by tasking his son-in-law to broker it, according to The Times of London and Ha’aretz. In fact, during that first press conference with Netanyahu, it was a deal with the Palestinians that at times seemed to bring the most tension between the two sides—as Trump openly told Netanyahu he’d like Israel to “hold back…for a little bit” on building Jewish homes in the biblical heartland regions claimed by the Palestinians, also known as settlements.
Trump isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind so if he and Israel’s leader conflict over the peace process, that could lead to open critique or worse. To try and prevent such a clash, the two sides have teams discussing the settlement issue “to work out an approach that reflects both leaders’ views” according to a Netanyahu press release. And that balancing act looks like it will define this issue.
Trump has political reasons to back the Jewish state—his Republican party is pro-Israel—and familial ones—his son-in-law Jared is Jewish. So while this won’t mean that he’ll never disagree publicly with Israel or counter their interests, expect that at least for his current term as president, Trump will try to keep things cordial. That was evident in his meeting with Netanyahu.
In discussing a Middle East peace deal, Trump noted that “both sides will have to make compromises,” and playfully asked Netanyahu, “You know that, right?” Then Trump chuckled. It may have been aimed at diffusing the tension. But it was friendly nonetheless.
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