In the days and weeks following Donald Trump’s election victory last November social media was full of pronouncements from supporters explaining how much better the new administration would be for Israel. Last month Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including the Obama administration, appeared as part of a roundtable on the NPR program On Point with Tom Ashbrook. He described the relationship between Jerusalem and the White House as having “nowhere to go but up” after the often difficult and, at times, downright hostile relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu and their respective governments.
Expectations from both the Israeli public and American supporters of Israel include far more than just a warmer tone. President Trump had promised repeatedly to act quickly to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Some expected that the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 1995, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, would be fully implemented. That would mean not only the embassy move but also full recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the holy city. Others proclaimed the end of the era of the two state solution. During the campaign, in a response to a question about settlements, then candidate Trump had said that “Israel has to keep doing what it’s been doing,” which was interpreted as more settlement construction. He proudly proclaimed that Israel has no better friend than him.
The reality since the inauguration has been quite different. Explaining that the embassy move is “complicated” the President shifted from promising the move to promising to study the move, the same promise that President Obama made eight years earlier. It now appears the move will happen later rather than sooner if it happens at all. Several Israeli media outlets reported that the Trump administration had reassured the Palestinian Authority that there would be no embassy move immediately prior to the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu last month. At the AIPAC conference this week Vice President Pence stated the President “is giving serious consideration” to the move.
Regarding a two state solution President Trump expressed optimism that despite the obvious difficulties a peace agreement can be negotiated. Jason Goldblatt, the new U.S. envoy, has helped revive the standing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him “a partner.” In a joint press conference after his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump hedged when asked about a two state solution. He said he’s comfortable with “either a one state or two state solution, whatever the parties prefer.” The problem with that statement is each party, both the right/religious Israeli coalition government and the Palestinian Authority, interpret a one state solution as meaning they will be in charge. Neither side will accept a “solution” which makes them subordinate to the other side.
Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim that both he and President Trump see “eye to eye” it’s clear from press accounts across the political spectrum in both countries that settlement construction has once again developed into a major fault line between Washington and Jerusalem. The President has asked once and warned Israel once about further construction, asking that Israel “hold off” and asking that both sides “refrain from unilateral actions.” The language, while phrased in warmer tones, is remarkably close to similar statements and warnings from the Obama administration.
For those of us who watched the Trump campaign and the transition process with a critical eye this should come as no surprise. Defense Minister Matis has long been a critic of Israel. Secretary of State Tillerson, a former Exxon-Mobil CEO, has close ties to both Russia and Arab oil producing nations. The President himself has significant business interests in the Arab world. Much like the team President Obama assembled at the start of his first term, the new Trump team is in no way unified in their views toward or support for Israel.
There is a real danger that the currently warm relations could turn frosty again. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has warned right wing Knesset members of the dangers of pushing their agenda too far. In particular, he warned that passage of the annexation bill which would place Ma’aleh Adumim fully under Israeli law and sovereignty, could cause a major crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations. Further settlement announcements could also prove problematic as the President seeks to push a new peace process forward. Despite the warnings from Minister Lieberman right wing MKs appear ready to push for as much settlement construction as they possibly can. Far more dangerous is their push for annexation of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), or at the very least Area C, without granting citizenship or even residency to the Palestinian population.
Trump administration policy towards Israel is heavy on warm words. In practice it is essentially the same as Obama administration policy. The substance really has not changed. The one clear exception has been in terms of diplomacy at the United Nations. Ambassador Nikki Haley has been critical of anti-Israel bias in the organization.
Given how strongly President Trump reacts to those who challenge him and/or disagree with him it’s easy to see how the “special relationship” between the two countries could become seriously troubled. Prime Minister Netanyahu has not helped, alternating between reaffirming support for “two states for two peoples” in Washington and for the settlement movement at home. He has said that Israel will never relinquish security control of the West Bank, a statement completely incompatible with two states. Mindful of his need to maintain his narrow coalition to stay in power it’s highly unlikely the Prime Minister can continue to walk a tightrope between his two conflicting positions for any length of time.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is painfully aware of how his first term in office ended in 1996. His coalition partners on the right refused to pass a national budget after he implemented the division of and withdrawal from most of the city of Hebron. Without a new budget there were new elections which Labor won under Ehud Barak. Most Israelis, including the Prime Minister, see little or no chance of a peaceful solution to the conflict anytime soon. Knowing the history it is reasonable to assume that if the conflict between what the Trump administration wants and domestic politics comes to a head that Prime Minister Netanyahu will put preserving his coalition first. Under those circumstances and considering the mercurial nature of President Trump any disagreement might well make similar disagreements with President Obama seem mild. In any case it is highly unlikely that the right will be in any way satisfied with President Trump’s actions. Disappointment is inevitable.