Anshel Pfeffer, The Jewish Chronicle,
18 May 2017
When it emerged a month ago that Israel would be one of the stops on US President Donald Trump’s first overseas tour, many Israelis were giddy with excitement. What better proof than this that the new president was so different from his predecessor, who waited five years to visit?
Events over the past week have transformed that happy anticipation into a fear of impending disaster.
It began with reports from Washington that the president was about to renege on his election promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bolstered by an interview with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who hinted that it was actually the Israeli government which was not too eager about the move.
This led to more coalition strife between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted that this was not the case, and Jewish Home Leader Naftali Bennett, who has been criticising the prime minister for not taking the opportunity to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank.
Then there was an argument between the diplomats preparing Mr Trump’s visit to the Western Wall and Israeli officials, in which the Americans said that Jerusalem was not part of Israel. A statement from the White House saying this did not reflect Mr Trump’s policy hardly soothed things.
In previous visits, American presidents have not visited the Western Wall, sidestepping any diplomatic mishaps. This administration, however, seems to have a knack for straying into every political minefield.
In addition to the Western Wall, Mr Trump was planning a visit to Masada, where he was to make a historic speech in front of the grand cliff-side vista. Apparently, the idea was scrubbed at the last minute amid rumours of security concerns and a fear of the fierce desert heat.
And then there was the revelation on Tuesday night that the secret intelligence divulged last week by Mr Trump to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had come from Israel, which was not aware of it being shared with the Russians.
Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu spoke on the phone afterwards and Israeli ministers reaffirmed their confidence in the close, intelligence-sharing relationship with the US, but Mr Trump’s boastful use of classified Israeli information was a reminder that this president is a liability not only to American citizens and interests, but also to America’s closest allies.
Now Israelis are wondering what else can go wrong before Air Force One touches down at Ben Gurion Airport and shuddering at the thought of the chaos Mr Trump could wreak during the 29 hours he is in the country.
While many have sought to discern some method or strategy behind the recent series of events, it is much more likely that it is due to the Trump administration’s lack of any clear foreign policy, and increasing internal turmoil.
This lack of policy is highlighted by a vacuum in the State Department, where many senior diplomats who dealt with the Middle East have been fired or resigned, and replacements are yet to be hired.
The fracas over the Western Wall involved two rather junior diplomats of the US Consulate-General in Jerusalem, which is not under the jurisdiction of the embassy in Tel Aviv and has a longstanding policy of not regarding the city as part of Israel. No one told them there is a different policy now.
One real change in the new administration’s policy regards the first stop on Mr Trump’s Middle East trip — Riyadh. Unlike Barack Obama, who sought to engage with Iran and create a new regional balance of power between the Shi’a and Sunni nations, Mr Trump and the generals in his administration are seeking to rebuild a new anti-Iran coalition, encompassing the Sunnis and Israel.
Beyond the chaos in the West Wing, this is the key to understanding any administration moves in the region.
Of course there has been a tacit alliance between Israel and the Sunnis against Iran for years now, but to take it to the next level the Saudis need some movement on the Palestinian front.
Also, while Mr Netanyahu this week reaffirmed his demand that the US and all other countries move their embassies to Jerusalem, senior aides have admitted in past months that he would be loath for such a move to jeopardise improving ties with the Saudis and other Sunni nations.
In this context, it is important to note a report in the Wall Street Journal this week that was lost in the avalanche of Trump revelations. According to the WSJ, the Sunni states which do not as yet have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state are willing for the first time to allow open trade relations, air passage over the territory for flights to and from Israel and direct telecommunications, in return for a package of concessions to the Palestinians including a freeze on settlement building.
This is a watered-down version of the Arab Peace Initiative which offered full diplomatic relations if Israel agreed to pull back from all the territories it captured in the Six-Day War. Perhaps the new proposal, as an interim deal, has better chances for now.
It will be enough for the trip to end without major mishap or embarrassment for it to be regarded as a success. After the president leaves, the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Sunni leaders may just have a better idea whether they can hope for American help in continuing the long and delicate process of interim agreements.
Donald Trump has decided not to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, according to Israeli media reports.
Mr Trump promised during his election campaign to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, which Israel considers its capital. At the Aipac conference in March 2016, he told an audience of thousands of pro-Israel activists that if he were to be elected, “we will transfer the US embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem”.
However, according to NRG, a website affiliated with Israel’s Maariv newspaper, Mr Trump has changed his mind within the last few days, and has informed Benjamin Netanyahu of his decision. Mr Netanyahu has been vocal in encouraging the US to relocate its embassy, telling his cabinet in January that “our position has always been that the US embassy should be in Jerusalem”.
Although Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, most other countries who have diplomatic relationships with it have taken an ambiguous stance, with most having their embassies in Tel Aviv. Although the US Congress passed a law in 1995 that an undivided Jerusalem should be considered Israel’s capital and that the US embassy should be moved to the city no later than May 1999, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all made use of a clause in the bill which allowed them to exercise a regular six-monthly veto over the embassy move. It now appears that President Trump has decided to follow suit.
Mr Trump’s pick as the new US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has made no secret of his belief that an undivided Jerusalem should be considered Israel’s capital and that the US embassy should be moved there. However, earlier this week the Israeli Foreign Ministry was misled into retweeting a message from a fake Twitter account purporting to be that of Mr Friedman, which said that the ambassador was hoping to “work out of Jerusalem very soon”. The US embassy in Israel and the Israeli embassy in Washington subsequently informed the Ministry that the account was fake.