In one of the low points in American-Israeli relations during Barack Obama’s first term, Michael Oren approached one of the U.S. president’s senior advisers. “Try love,” the Israeli ambassador to the United States told the senior White House official. “You’ve tried exerting pressure and criticizing the Israeli government; try love, too. You’ll see that it works better.”
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During his speech at the Israel Museum on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump took Oren’s suggestion to the extreme. Trump didn’t just try love, he showered it everywhere. It was boundless; it was intoxicating. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who sat in the front row, would certainly tag this speech “Paradise-plus-plus.”
Trump gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his cabinet ministers and the Israeli public watching at home what most Israeli Jews love to hear. He spoke about the Jewish people’s millennia-old link to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem; he spoke about persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust, but also about rebirth, making the desert bloom and Israel’s economic success.
Trump presented Israel the way most Israelis like to think of it — smart, good and in the right, without criticism, buts or maybes. Without condemnation of construction in the settlement, without heartrending stories about the undermining of Palestinian civil rights in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, without mention of a Palestinian state or the two-state solution. Trump integrated into his speech some excerpts from the pantheon of Israeli public diplomacy, speaking about the preservation of minority rights, freedom of worship for Muslims and Christians and so on.
After a warm-up from Netanyahu — who, predictably, portrayed Trump as following in the path of President Harry Truman, who recognized the State of Israel seven minutes after independence was declared — Trump proceeded to depict himself as the best friend Israel ever had or will ever have. He didn’t miss the opportunity to insert some alternative facts into his speech, like taking credit for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system and for supplying the F-35 fighter jets and upgrading U.S. military aid to Israel — all of which took place during Obama’s tenure. At a certain point he said, “Iran’s leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction. Not with Donald J. Trump,” he added dramatically, generating a standing ovation.
Trump’s speech was a positive end to a very positive visit as far as Netanyahu was concerned. After eight lean years of the Obama era, the prime minister enjoyed every minute of Trump’s 27 hours in Israel, during which the two acted like the perfect couple. In terms of the diplomatic statements, Netanyahu could be satisfied by Trump’s tough declarations on Iran, by Trump’s call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to have zero tolerance for violence, to condemn terror and to stop funding or rewarding terrorists, by the fact that despite earlier promises, he refrained from declaring support for Palestinian self-determination.
On the other hand, there were other parts that were less pleasing to Netanyahu and the ministers of this right-wing government. Not only did Trump not announce that the U.S. embassy would be moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, throughout his visit he avoided making any reference at all to Israeli sovereignty in the capital. Trump related to Jerusalem and the holy places almost as if it was an extraterritorial area, where only God is sovereign.
Other issues Netanyahu should be worried about are the close ties that have apparently developed between Trump and the leaders of the Sunni Muslim states, first and foremost King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and even more so the fact that the U.S. president has adopted the Palestinian and Arab narrative which makes the occupation that started in 1967 one of the roots of the Middle East’s problems. Trump directly linked the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the eradication of the Islamic State group and of Al-Qaida, and said that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could launch a peace process throughout the Middle East. There is nothing Netanyahu despises more than this argument, but since this was Trump, he restrained himself and remained silent.
The hugs and kisses that Trump scattered everywhere in his Jerusalem speech did not distract him from the message he’d been hammering home from the moment he landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Trump wants a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and thinks that achieving such a deal will be difficult but not impossible. In contrast to what the two leaders themselves think, Trump believes that both Netanyahu and Abbas are ripe for making history.
As of now, Trump has no plan, but he’s determined to try and determined to succeed, and fast. The bottom line of the Trump’s charm offensive at the Israel Museum is that the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership are approaching the moment when they’ll have to make tough decisions and painful concessions.