WASHINGTON – On May 22, U.S. President Donald Trump will arrive in Israel for his first official state visit to the Holy Land. Ahead of the much-anticipated event, two former senior officials in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations offered advice – and words of warning – to the Trump administration, based on their experiences of “first visits” by the previous three presidents.
President Bill Clinton’s first visit to Israel came in October 1994, nearly two years after he entered the White House. The reason for the visit was the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, which Clinton had attended in Wadi Araba (on the Israeli-Jordanian border). After celebrating the historic agreement and delivering a speech in the Jordanian parliament, Clinton flew to Damascus, Syria, where he met with then-President Hafez Assad, and from there continued on to Israel.
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Clinton’s visit was treated as a historic occasion in Israel. The previous two U.S. presidents – George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan – had not visited the Jewish state during their presidencies. Indeed, Clinton was only the third U.S. president to ever visit (after Richard Nixon in 1974 and Jimmy Carter in 1979).
The focus of Clinton’s visit was peace: the treaty signed with the Jordanians; the ongoing talks with the Palestinians (the Oslo Accords had been signed a year earlier on the White House Lawn); and attempts to start negotiations with Syria over a possible peace agreement.
Martin Indyk was Clinton’s special adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs at the time, and he recalls the 1994 visit being marked by optimism and a celebratory atmosphere. “We had the wind behind us,” Indyk tells Haaretz. “There was a sense of momentum and opportunity. The signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was a major achievement, and it justified trying to get things moving on the Syrian front as well.”
Clinton gave a speech in the Knesset, something President Jimmy Carter had also done during his visit in March 1979. Clinton’s speech focused on the opportunities for peace, and on the role the United States would play in the process.
“The survival of Israel is important not only to our interests, but to every single value we hold dear as a people,” Clinton told the Knesset. “Our role in war has been to help you to defend yourself by yourself. That is what you have asked. Now that you are taking risks for peace, our role is to help you to minimize the risks of peace.”
Indyk says one major difference between Clinton’s first visit and the new president’s upcoming visit is that while Trump is coming to the region with the hope of restarting the peace process, Clinton arrived when that process was already enjoying some success.
However, some of the things Clinton said during his Knesset speech will likely be repeated in essence by Trump later this month, more than two decades on. For example, these sentences: “Peace must be real, based on treaty commitments arrived at directly by the parties, not imposed from outside. It must be secure. Israel must always be able to defend itself by itself. And it must be comprehensive.”
Clinton also assured Israel that his administration would continue to support and increase Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors.
Another speech given in the Knesset during Clinton’s visit will sound familiar to anyone following the news today: the one by Israel’s then-leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu (who has been Israel’s prime minister since 2009).
Netanyahu asked to speak in English and stated that, although Israel was united in its desire for peace, such a peace has to be “peace that will endure beyond the ceremony of yesterday and the ceremonies of tomorrow.” This message – yes, we want peace, but only under specific conditions – will probably be Netanyahu’s message to Trump when he arrives in Jerusalem.
Clinton visited Israel three more times during his presidency, the most memorable being his heartbroken appearance at Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in November 1995.
In 1998, Clinton also became the first U.S. president to visit the Palestinian Authority as part of a trip to Israel – something successors Bush and Barack Obama later repeated, and which Trump is also expected to do.
Bush visited Israel twice during his two presidential terms (2001-2009), but, unlike Clinton, only arrived in the Jewish state during his last full year in office. Bush’s first visit took place in January 2008, when he had exactly a year left of his second term.
Elliott Abrams, who was Bush’s senior adviser for Middle East policy in the White House, told Haaretz there were a number of reasons for Bush’s relatively late arrival. In the first years of his presidency, Yasser Arafat – whom Bush considered a terror-supporting leader – still controlled the Palestinian Authority. This created a problematic situation: Bush didn’t want to visit Israel without also visiting the Palestinian Authority, but he also didn’t want to have anything to do with the PLO leader.
Bush got very close to Israel geographically in 2003 when he presided over the Aqaba peace summit in Jordan. That was attended by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, who had been named prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, over Arafat’s wishes, a few months earlier. The summit was a success but Bush didn’t use the occasion to visit Israel, as Clinton had done a decade earlier when he visited Jordan for the peace-treaty signing.
Abrams says Bush was ready to visit Israel in 2006 following Sharon’s massive stroke, in case the then-prime minister – with whom Bush enjoyed a warm and friendly relationship – died. But Sharon remained in a coma for eight more years until his death in January 2014, and Bush’s Israel travel plans were delayed. Abrams suggests one reason Bush perhaps didn’t deem it urgent to visit Israel was his image as a very pro-Israel president, and who enjoyed great popularity among the Israeli people. “He didn’t need to prove anything,” says Abrams.
Like Clinton in 1998, Bush also met with the Palestinian Authority during his January 2008 visit. He met Abbas in Ramallah, and Abrams says Bush’s route into the city was carefully planned so he wouldn’t pass Arafat’s mausoleum in the center of the West Bank city.
Trump won’t have to make similar arrangements, since his meeting with Abbas is currently set to take place in Bethlehem.
Over the weekend, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro advised Trump to visit the new West Bank city of Rawabi, arguing that the large Palestinian real estate project will inspire Trump and help him understand the situation on the ground.
Abrams says that while personally he likes the idea – “Ramallah is a corrupt city that represents the past; Rawabi is an impressive place that represents the future” – he doesn’t think Trump’s short schedule would allow for it.
Bush returned to Israel four months after his first trip, for a short visit to mark Israel’s 60th Independence Day. Abrams says visits of this kind, focused on a specific event, are always the easiest for U.S. administrations to arrange, because “you can basically avoid anything you don’t want to do by saying, ‘Sorry, we’re not coming for a regular visit, we’re only here to attend the celebrations.’” However, it was reported this weekend that the Israeli government offered to delay Trump’s visit so it would coincide with events marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, but Trump turned down the idea.
Five years after Bush’s final visit, President Barack Obama made his first visit to Israel as president, in March 2013. Obama had visited Israel during his presidential campaign in July 2008 – a positive visit that left a good impression – but when he first visited the Middle East as president in 2009, he excluded Israel from his itinerary.
Indyk was also the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2013-2014. He says now that Obama’s decision to avoid Israel during his 2009 tour of the region was a major mistake, something he “paid a heavy price for” during the remainder of his presidency. “He lost Israeli public opinion,” says Indyk, “and with that, much of his leverage over Netanyahu.” Indyk admits to being “stunned” by the decision.
By the time Obama did visit Israel in 2013, “it was already too late” to change his image in the eyes of the Israeli public, Indyk argues. And while the visit was seen as a success in Israel, giving Obama a clear “bump” in Israeli public opinion polls, the effect didn’t last for long. By the end of 2013, Obama was once again facing a lot of criticism in Israel over his administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Indyk notes that Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, accompanied the president during the visit, and that this was the starting point for Kerry’s peace efforts over the next few years.
It is still unclear which senior administration members will join Trump on his Israel visit. Once that list is released, though, it could signal how much emphasis Trump will actually place on the peace issue during his two days in the Holy Land.