Much like the kindergartner coming back from Winter Break needing to relearn how to behave, President Donald Trump returned to Washington from his golf vacation in Florida with proverbial ants in his pants. His multiple tweets over the last few days have upended American foreign policy and brought the United States closer to nuclear war that at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While most of the world has been focused on stocking up on canned goods, batteries, and lead-lined refrigerators, not nearly enough attention has been paid to a remarkably poorly – even for President GoodBrain BestWords – worded tweet and its implications for Israel.
The Times of Israel – I believe – correctly reads the tweet regarding payment to the Palestinians and “taking Jerusalem off the table” as “saying he had planned for Israel “to pay” in future negotiations for his declaration.” In addition to acknowledging he was planning to hold the Jerusalem recognition as a “chit” against Israel, Trump makes three other significant pieces of news here.
First, he contradicts his administrations previous statements that the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital would not have a long-term impact the peace process. Second, he threatened to stop funding the Palestinian Authority, (which is different than UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statements about defunding UNRWA). This is not unusual, Trump saying one thing and his Secretaries of State and Defense saying something different and all the more so regarding Ambassador Haley. And finally, he significantly changed his own position on Jerusalem: In his carefully read December 6th speech, Trump said, “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” Here he says it’s now “off the table”.
In the months since Trump rode the golden escalator from up on high down to our pedestrian level, we’ve learned Trump has three basic motivations behind his governing philosophy. First, he focuses on what is transactional—that is, he looks for what someone will owe him from his own ‘magnanimous’ behavior. Secondly, he is ever narcissistic, seeking what will make him look good and win him support from anyone and everyone. And last but not least, there is always an element of contrarianism: if his advisors tell him not to do something, or if the left will be whipped into a frenzy by him doing something, he can be counted on to do it almost without fail and if Obama did something – hoo boy – you better believe he’ll do the opposite.
While I applauded Trump’s decision to recognize reality and declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, I also believe that you can do the right thing, and yet do it poorly. Additionally, I asked a question few others seemed to be talking about: what did Israel agree to do (or not do) in response to Trump’s declaration, or what would they be asked to do (or not do) later on? Given what we know about Trump, there was no way the master of “The Art of the Deal” would give away such a significant issue without getting something in return. What’s more, the other two motivations for Trump’s policy are present as well. The support he received from his base – remember that Kissinger said, “All foreign policy is really domestic policy”—was clear from media coverage, and the action certainly goes in a very different direction than President Obama (or any of Trump’s other predecessors).
These motivations are so clear because Trump has no policies or even broad principles that could provide an alternative explanation. As I wrote before the election, Trump has no love for Israel. He views it as he views any other country. So long as a fellow leader is willing to feed his ego with pomp, circumstance, and compliments (as Netanyahu has repeatedly done, just like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and China) and participate in his self-serving mercantilism, they’ll remain on his good side regardless of where the country is located or how it may treat its population. Anyone who continues to think otherwise is delusional.
In the end, there are some who say that it doesn’t matter what Trump tweets. Indeed, his own chief of staff has said he doesn’t pay attention to them. Policy on some Israel-related issues has not changed in regards to the president’s words or tweets—nothing diplomatically has changed with Jerusalem, the Iran Deal still stands (all he did was kick it to Congress), and he’s yet to ask Congress to relinquish any funding towards Pakistan, UNRWA, or the Palestinian Authority. I do know, however, that foreign powers and intelligence services pay attention to his tweets to gain an inkling into his thinking—and messaging from the most powerful person in the world, even when that person is Donald Trump, still fundamentally matters. While I don’t believe Trump has any special love for Israel, I do believe he truly does want to be responsible for the “ultimate deal;” the question is, what price are the Israelis (and/or Palestinians) going to have to pay to feed his ego along the way?