Donald Trump is finding that being president means juggling more balls than he ever did as a businessman and reality TV star. He added one more ball to the act by inviting Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the White House on Wednesday.
Trump’s supporters and his critics agree, though respectively with admiration or alarm, that he is not shying away from shaking up the world stage. He looks for opportunities to signal that he is nothing like his predecessor, Barack Obama.
When it comes to Israel, Trump declares he will praise the Jewish state as one of America’s firmest friends. Always eschewing shades of gray and choosing only black or white, he has said he will reverse what he claims Obama did: treating Israel “with such total disdain and disrespect.”
So far, Netanyahu has loved it. A small sign of that recently made Israeli diplomats cringe. Without any apparent need to comment on a controversy within the United States, the prime minister tweeted that Trump “is right” to start construction plans for a wall on the Mexican border.
Mexico’s foreign minister loudly objected. Israel meekly replied that it had not intended to cause offense.
There is a more dire danger for Israelis, in an emerging pattern. Netanyahu agrees with positions the Republican Party and pro-Israel conservatives embrace, while he shuns the policies of Democrats and liberals.
As president, Obama always claimed that he was fortifying Israel’s security but also urged the Jewish state to stop building settlements in the West Bank, captured from Jordan 50 years ago in June. He felt that occupying Palestinian areas would make it impossible for Israel to survive as a majority-Jewish, democratic state.
Netanyahu and his right-wing ministers responded with frequently impolite ripostes that they had no need for Washington’s advice on how to protect Israel and its future. That was the bedrock of the undeniable friction between Obama and Netanyahu.
Obama administration officials could never agree on whether they considered Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to Congress condemning the Iran nuclear deal to be a poke in the eye or a stab in the back, but they hated it and looked for an opportunity to slap back. That came in December, when the United States abstained on a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rather than casting a veto as in the past.
Trump has said he would never do that to Israel, but last week the White House declared that expanding settlements is “not helpful.” And supporters of Israel were astounded that the White House was tone deaf last month, by excluding any mention of Jews in the official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
They also wonder why Trump has not announced that he will move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.To accomplish that, all he would have to do is decline to issue a waiver — like the one that presidents have signed twice a year — declaring that for reasons of “national security,” the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 passed by Congress should be suspended.
The next date for a waiver is June 1. Why would a dealmaker like Trump decide not to sign? He could get something from Israel, which could include an agreement for covert action: perhaps against ISIS, or maybe inside Iran.
Less likely but still possible is that Trump will make a deal with Palestinian leaders: He will forgo an embassy move, in exchange for concessions in talks with the Israelis. After all, Trump may actually be serious about giving his son-in-law Jared Kushner a shot at achieving “the toughest deal in the world to make.”
Dan Raviv, Washington correspondent of i24 News, is author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.”