Donald Trump was determined not to make the same mistake Barack Obama had on his first trip to the Middle East.
Obama flew over and around Israel in June 2009 on his way to and from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but he never bothered to stop in the Jewish state, even if only to say “shalom.”
It was a major blunder that he never really recovered from. His calls for a settlement freeze, his desire to restart the moribund peace process largely ignored by his predecessor, and his focus on repairing relations with the Muslim world only made Israelis, who had just elected a right wing government, even more insecure and wary of this little-known liberal Democrat.
Trump promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Day One, appointed an ambassador to the right of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, indicated he didn’t care about settlement expansion, never endorsed Palestinian statehood, promised to visit Israel on his first foreign trip and said he’d let no light shine between the two allies.
That began to deteriorate by inauguration day, when word got out that the embassy wouldn’t be moving anytime soon. Arab leaders had personally warned Trump the embassy relocation could spark violence not only in Israel and the West Bank but against American diplomatic and business interests throughout the region.
Trump is scheduled to land at Ben Gurion Airport Monday, May 22, and leave 26 hours later to see the Pope in Rome.
The excitement of a presidential visit was seriously tarnished by events in recent days. The embassy will stay in Tel Aviv, Trump publicly told Bibi to cool it with settlement construction and he plans to visit the West Bank to endorse Palestinian self-determination.
Then it got worse. An American diplomat planning the presidential visit said the Israeli prime minister he could not accompany the American president on a visit to the Western Wall it is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
Trump’s national security advisor, H.L. McMaster added to the confusion and controversy Tuesday. He said that didn’t represent Trump’s views but it apparently does represent U.S. policy; he twice refused to say whether the Wall is in Israel.
Israelis were outraged that they were told the holiest site in Judaism was off limits.
Capping that slap in the face was the revelation that the classified intelligence that Trump gave to the Russian foreign minister last week actually came from Israel, according to the New York Times and other publications. The United States had not been authorized by Israel to reveal the information or the source, but the President’s compulsive need to impress people like Sergei Lavrov by showing off what he knows may have done great damage.
It could have burned a sensitive Israel intelligence operation and sources. At the very least it undermines trust not only between these two allies but raises questions about whether other friendly nations will want to share their most sensitive secrets with an American government headed by someone so undisciplined, unreliable and immature.
David Brooks wrote in today’s New York Times:
[Trump] is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.
Back in January American intelligence officials reportedly warned their Israeli counterparts against sharing sensitive information with the Trump administration, according the Ha’aretz. They were worried about their secrets being leaked to the Russians and on to Moscow’s friends in Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
Last week Trump fired his FBI director, James Comey, in what was a bungled attempt to shut down the FBI investigation of links between Russia and Trump’s campaign and administration.
Trump’s credibility in Washington is scraping the bottom, even among Republicans, and some of Trump’s campaign tweets attacks on Hillary Clinton are being looked at as more aptly applying to Trump himself. Just substitute his name for hers:
“Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team ‘were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ Not fit!”
“Hillary Clinton should not be given national security briefings in that she is a lose cannon with extraordinarily bad judgment & instincts.”
In response to the Times report that Israel was the source of the information Trump leaked to the Russians, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer issued the following statement:
“Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”
That’s the kind of thing diplomats say, but let’s hope the professionals back in Tel Aviv are more realistic.