NEW YORK – An American Jewish leader close to key players in the Donald Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu summit believes the meeting will produce a commitment to cease all U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t ramp down ties with Hamas.
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Last month, Hamas and Fatah, led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to form a Palestinian unity government.
“It will be made clear to the PA that unless they stop anti-Semitic incitement in their schools, media and speeches, and stop naming schools, streets and sports teams after Jew killers, and end their alliance with Hamas, all $600 million in U.S. aid to the PA will end,” Mort Klein told Haaretz.
Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said the PA would also “be told to stop trying to unilaterally establish a PA state through the UN.”
Klein heads the most right-wing of mainstream U.S. Jewish organizations and has relationships with people close to the president. When asked who in the Trump administration he was in touch with, like Jared Kushner, David Friedman or Steve Bannon, Klein said, “I’ve had personal conversations with several of the people you mentioned,” but he declined to be specific.
Klein is also close to the ZOA’s largest funder, U.S. casino magnate and right-wing political underwriter Sheldon Adelson a major Netanyahu backer who received prime seating at Trump’s inauguration. The ZOA leader appears to be the only head of an American Jewish organization who has a direct line into the summit’s agenda.
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Others are relegated to searching for clues on the president’s Twitter feed or elsewhere. “Policy can be shaped by a tweet” by the president, one said. “That’s what we’re dealing with. Complete uncertainty.”
What’s known is that Netanyahu shares a relationship and ideology with some of the people most involved in Israel-related policy.
On Wednesday, will he wax nostalgic with Kushner, the son-in-law Trump has appointed to bring peace to the Middle East, about the time the Israeli leader slept in the teenage Kushner’s New Jersey bed? (Kushner changed rooms for the night.) Will Netanyahu and Friedman, Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, gush over their shared fondness for red-tile-roofed settlement buildings in Beit El and beyond?
While the contours of Friedman’s and Kushner’s histories on Israel have been documented, the president has yet to issue detailed Mideast policy plans.
Trump gets cautious
Indeed, the very few specifics Trump has made public, like an intention to immediately move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, have often shifted. Though a quick embassy move was an oft-stated campaign promise that one spokesman repeated just before the inauguration, Trump stepped back, apparently after considering the larger dynamics in the region.
As a result, some are keeping their hopes for the summit to a minimum.
“Until we know more about the Trump administration’s approach, our first hope is that they do no harm and not make matters worse,” said David Halperin, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum. The forum is a think-tank-like group that tries to build support for a two-state solution among influential people.
Halperin hopes Trump and his advisers won’t allow what he calls “a far-right-wing agenda to be advanced unchecked” in Israel, one that would probably block the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian detente.
Mark Hetfield hopes the two leaders won’t discuss refugees. The HIAS chief executive has been on the front lines of the crisis wrought by the president’s January 27 executive order that abruptly halted immigration from Syria and seven other majority-Muslim countries.
Israel and the United States share an interest in Palestinian refugees, said Hetfield, as well as concerns about other asylum-seekers in each country. Israel’s wall along its Sinai border with Egypt has brought down the number of asylum seekers, mostly originating in Eritrea and other parts of Africa, from “thousands each month to almost zero,” he said.
Though that, rather than the separation barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, is more analogous to the wall Trump has pledged to build along the Mexican border, the difference in size makes comparisons odd. “It’s like comparing raisins to watermelons,” Hetfield said.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has already spoken in favor of the Mexican wall, much to the consternation of Mexican Jews. The two of them think similarly on refugee issues.” Rather than reinforcing each other’s thinking on the topic, “we’re hoping they don’t talk about it.”
But should it come up, Hetfield hopes Kushner remembers his own grandparents, who were HIAS clients. “I would hope that Kushner would have a sympathetic attitude because he comes from refugees himself and would be able to influence Trump in that direction, but so far I haven’t seen that,” Hetfield said.
Iran and ISIS
Far more likely to be on the table is the Iran nuclear deal, which both leaders have vocally opposed.
On the contrary, Haperin of the Israel Policy Forum says he hopes the leaders won’t squander a rare geopolitical moment. There is currently “a regional alignment of interests between Israel and Arab states that shouldn’t be considered an indefinite opportunity,” he said.
“If the Israel-Palestine issue is enabled to deteriorate, I can’t see how that would help the U.S. working with Arab partners in the fight against ISIS. The last thing the U.S. needs right now is for the Israel-Palestine arena to become another boiling point.”
The Reform movement’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs cautioned Netanyahu against being blinded by a warm Trump welcome. “The prime minister must not lose sight that millions of Americans, including the overwhelming majority of American Jews, are profoundly offended by many of the new administration’s policies,” Jacobs said. “The anticipated warm welcome may signal the prime minister’s endorsement of those policies and alienate wide segments of otherwise pro-Israel Americans.”
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, also says he hopes Netanyahu will bring key issues to Trump’s attention like reminding “the U.S. administration that the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust cannot be universalized and must never be forgotten.”
Jacobs was referring to the International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement by the White House on January 27, which did not mention the Jews. “A thoughtful rebuke among friends and allies is both natural and at times required,” he said.
The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, said he was worried that, depending on what comes out of the meeting, anti-Trump activists and anti-Israel activists could find common cause.“That would, of course, be totally unfair, but it’s worth watching very closely,” he said.
But all officials interviewed for this article said they were sure Trump and Netanyahu would publicly say reassuring things about the countries’ close relationship.
“There will be smiles at the end of the meetings,” said Ezra Friedlander, a Hasidic Jew from Borough Park, Brooklyn, whose company specializes in government advocacy, public and media relations, and political-event management. Friedlander also runs the U.S.-Israel Security Alliance, a bipartisan group lobbying elected officials on matters relating to Israel’s safety.
“It’s in both sides’ interest to have a positive atmosphere surrounding the visit before and after. It’s going to be a very collegial meeting, a lot of hugs and handshakes, reinforcement of the U.S.-Israel relationship. That’s what the optics will look like,” Friedlander said.
And while the two leaders often seem to have similar styles and worldviews, and a shared fondness for walls, differences may emerge from their meeting.
“There are turns and twists that you never anticipate,” Friedlander said. “It’s both premature to predict how this relationship will unfold in the Trump administration, and immature to assume that the U.S. and Israel will see eye to eye on every issue and they’ll be finishing each other’s sentences.”
The ZOA’s Klein adds that Iran will be a focus of the summit. “Iran will be told the U.S. will not tolerate illegal missile testing and will not be pleased to see officially backed rallies calling for death to America and Israel,” he said, adding that more transparency in Iran’s nuclear work will be demanded.
Klein also said the summit discussions would align closely with his own perspective. “It will be made clear that Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Koran and no Arab leader visited it from 1948 to 1967, except Jordan’s King Hussein, and it is not holy to Muslims,” he said.
Therefore the Palestinians can “forget about dividing Jerusalem, and Jews have the religious, historical and legal right to live in Judea and Samaria.”