Israel’s President’s Residence, Jerusalem
US President Donald Trump’s visit to Israel has already reached historic proportions. When Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport on May 22, 2017, he not only received a warm welcome from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the tarmac red carpet, but their words to each other signaled to both Israelis and Americans the significance of Trump’s first trip to Israel as the 45th American president.
Netanyahu could not hold back his enthusiasm: “Your visit here, Mr. President, is truly historic. Never before has the first foreign trip of a president of the United States included a visit to Israel. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for this powerful expression of your friendship to Israel.”
Trump greeted Netanyahu, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and their wives with “Shalom”, and then stated one of his main purposes for coming to Israel. “I have come to this sacred and ancient land to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and the State of Israel.”
Trump also spoke of his love and respect for Israel: “And, I send your people the warmest greetings from your friend and ally, all of the people of the United States of America. We are with you.”
The next stop on Trump’s schedule was a visit to Israel’s President’s Residence. Waiting for almost four hours, the Israeli and foreign press were eager to document his every step. Trump’s entourage included his wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and other high-level American officials. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Middle East advisor Jason Greenblatt, were among those who accompanied the American president on his journey to Jerusalem.
After walking the red carpet together, Rivlin expressed his appreciation for Trump and the significance of his presidency. “Mr. President, we are happy to see that America is back in the area. America is back again.” Later in his speech, Rivlin declared several times, “We want to move forward. Mr. President we want to move forward. And, we must do it together.”
Rivlin was referring to the lack of American engagement in the Middle East during the Obama Administration, and Rivlin’s desire to see the peace process move forward.
In his response, Trump said he was grateful to be in the state of Israel, “the homeland of the Jewish people.” These symbolic words by Trump signaled America’s affirmation that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People. Speaking of Israel being an amazing successful country, Trump stated: “On my first trip overseas I have come to this ancient land to reaffirm the enduring friendship between the United States and the state of Israel… We are not only long-time friends, we are great allies and partners. We stand together always.”
In his closing remarks, Trump spoke of the remarkable people of Israel, and gave a message of encouragement: “Today we have so many incredible opportunities before us, and my hope for this visit is that we seize every single one of them. I am thrilled to be here on behalf of the American people. I know that Israel and America share the same goals, and I have great confidence that we can achieve tremendous success together; we can achieve all of our goals together.”
Continuing in the historic significance of Trump’s visit to Israel was his prayer at the Western Wall. He is the first American president in the White House to do so in the history of the United States.
Though the Israeli public has become more skeptical in recent weeks about Trump’s actual commitment to Israel, it was not seen today at the governmental level, with all the pomp and circumstance.
Despite some pressure on Israel regarding the settlement issue; and, Trump’s apparent unwillingness to announce a move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he has already proven in the five months of his presidency that he is very different than his predecessor, former US President Barack Obama. It appears Trump has been serious, from the start of his presidency, to make it a priority to strengthen cooperation between Israel and the United States.
Middle East Analyst, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, briefed reporters earlier this week at the Jerusalem Press Club, giving his views on the Trump presidency, which he believes has already revealed a fundamentally different approach on US-Israel relations.
President Obama, for example, saw it as crucial in American foreign policy to create daylight between Israel and the US, but Kontorovich does not believe that policy yielded much fruit. In creating open conflicts and diplomatic rifts with Israel, Obama thought it would give America the credibility needed in the Arab world to secure some kind of diplomatic deal. Kontorovich disagrees: “That daylight process was actively implemented for eight years. And, I think we can all see the results eight years later. At the end of the Obama Administration, the US had less credibility than ever in the Arab world — nothing to do with relations with Israel.”
Upon his inauguration, Obama took to the Middle East process in a strong way, sending his Middle East negotiator to Israel in 2008. Then, immediately after coming into office, Obama called for a settlement freeze… a complete halt on any Israeli civilian population expansion in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), including specific areas of Jerusalem.
Kontorovich explains that the settlement freeze, especially in its very strong and absolute terms, which was different than previous administrations (which sought only slow-downs or limits), became a big hallmark of the Obama Administration. “Such that, whenever there was any kind of announcement that Israel was going to build some housing units in previous uncontroversial neighborhoods in Jerusalem, it became a major diplomatic flap that would come to define relations with America for eight years.”
One of the other failed peace policies that began upon Obama assuming office, a policy which started in 2008 and peaked in 2009, was about giving the Golan Heights away to Syria. It was thought to bring an era of peace, and distance Syria from Iran. There was pressure on Israel to do this, with the threat that it would undermine American interests if Israel did not follow through with this Golan policy. The pressure on Israel continued through the beginning of the Syrian civil war. This eventually proved to be a failure of the Obama Administration in understanding that Assad needed an ally who would continue providing military and financial support to his regime, and that ally was Iran.
“Just on the question of Syria, which is a major issue of concern for Israel, the position of the Trump Administration has seen a remarkable reversal. During the entire period of the Syria civil war, the United States did not take any military action against the Assad regime.” As Kontorovich mentions, it was only Israel that did take military action, when needed.
Furthermore, during the past several months since Trump took office, there have been multiple US attacks on the Syrian regime, which fundamentally changes the notion that the Syrian government is immune to military action. This was especially important when Assad released chemical agents on his population. Obama let his own red line be crossed. But, Trump attacked Syrian government positions to rebuke Assad’s actions. There is a new US position now, that America will target the Syrian regime for abuses, even if they are an Iranian ally, and even though Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran. This is of strategic importance to Israel and the Arab world.
According to Kontorovich, “That is a major shift in the security situation, and a huge reversal in US policy, on a country that can only be said to be one of Israel’s mortal enemies. And, of course, there is no discussion in the Trump Administration now about pressuring Israel to return the Golan.”
It is a shift of direction between Trump’s approach and Obama’s, which Kontorovich sees as essential to Israel’s interests. He states that it is also important to recall that much of the formidable events of Obama’s foreign policy regarding Israel were saved for later in the Obama Administration. The insistence that Israel implement a settlement freeze which Netanyahu did for 10 months in 2010; a push for Israel to return to the 1949 Armistice lines which Obama pushed for in 2014; and finally allowing UN Security Resolution 2334 to pass by not using the US veto, which occurred in 2016. These were anti-Israel actions taken by Obama, happening later in his term, or after the November 2016 elections. As Kontorovich acknowledges, “The worst, which was the most consequential, was saved for last.”
So far, after five months as US president, the Trump approach has been profoundly different. While there have been high expectations of Trump by supporters of Israel, Kontorovich says, “It is easy to disappoint. But, it is important to point out the differences.”
Trump has spoken of his desire for a peace process and for peace negotiations. “The peace process that President Trump is talking about is of course entirely different from any peace process previously discussed.” Kontorovich points out that Trump has never mentioned the phrase two state solution or Palestinian state as part of his process. Nor, is there any further stipulation that a future Palestinian state should have its borders be determined by the extent of Jordanian and Egyptian conquest in 1949. “These were the two parameters that defined the peace process, at least for the past 16 years; at least since 2000. And, they are entirely absent from his equation. That’s truly important.”
Throughout the past 16 years, and particularly the past eight years, the working assumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, under US supervision, was that Israel must deliver the goods. And, if Israel does not give the Palestinians what they ask, it will be Israel who is blamed for insufficient concessions, rather than the Palestinians. That has been the basis of the previous peace process. This was damaging for Israel in the diplomatic arena.
“This notion that the onus is on Israel seems to be entirely absent from Trump’s vision of the peace process,” according to Kontorovich. This change of policy is unsatisfactory to the Palestinians because their calculation seems to have been that the peace process is something that will fail, and create more pressure on Israel for further concessions.
There are other changes that have happened under the Trump Administration. Israel has announced the construction of many thousands of housing units that will be implemented in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), without any condemnation from the State Department. “That’s amazing,” says Kontorovich. He adds that he has counted at least four or five reports written by Peace Now, since the Trump Administration took office, “about new bad things that the settlers have been up to. And, it used to be at least 50 percent of those would wind up as a remark by the State Department spokesman. None of those have seemed to interest the State Department spokesman. That’s amazing!”
Kontorovich also pointed out that Israel has just advanced, through the legislative process, the Nation State bill, reaffirming Israel’s identity as the nation state of the Jewish People. The State Department said nothing. He explains that if you look at previous minor moves by Israel, even when this bill was introduced and debated, it would result in some State Department comment. “The fact that now Israel can engage in absolutely normal, internal domestic legislation, without a State Department microscope is an extremely important development.”
In addition, the symbolism surrounding Trump’s first few months in office is also noteworthy. He appointed Orthodox Jew David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel as Trump’s first ambassadorial appointment, knowing that Friedman was supportive of the settlement issue. And, he appointed Nikki Haley as US Ambassador to the UN, who has proven to be a staunch supporter of Israel.
Whether Trump’s first visit to Israel will prove to be, as Netanyahu suggests, “a historic milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace,” remains to be seen. However, what has happened, which is an encouraging first step in Trump’s presidency, is that relations between the United States and Israel have been re-set after eight years of disappointments with the Obama Administration. This is a relief to both the Israeli public and the Netanyahu government. So far, the Jewish State is rejoicing with Trump’s visit, hoping that this may just be the first president in a long time who truly has Israel’s best interests in mind.