At the start of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi on the sidelines of the Islamic-American summit in Riyadh on Sunday, the Egyptian president went out of his way to compliment his American counterpart.
“You have a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible,” he told Trump. And Trump, who laughed and looked embarrassed for a moment, recovered quickly. “I agree,” he said.
And with the cameras still in the room and the microphones recording, Trump responded with an unconventional compliment of his own. “Love your shoes,” he told Sissi. “Boy, those shoes!”
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Sissi, who properly flattered Trump, didn’t invent anything. He simply looked around, saw how the host – King Salman bin Abdulaziz – was behaving, and acted accordingly. The Saudis’ management of Trump’s visit was no less than ingenious. They perfectly matched the product to the customer and lavished praise, honors, and high-dollar deals on him. In his address Sunday to the dozens of Arab and Muslim leaders who had gathered under the wings of the kingdom, Trump provided the payback and indicated that as far as he was concerned Saudi Arabia is the new leader of the Arab and Muslim world.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia showed that one of the central challenges facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be trying to flatter the U.S. president more copiously than the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Palestinians. This is not an impossible task for Netanyahu. A prelude could be seen during their White House meeting on February 15. One can assume that Netanyahu will declare more than once that Donald Trump is Israel’s greatest friend since U.S. President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel seven minutes after its declaration on May 14, 1948.
The visit to Jerusalem is important to both Trump and Netanyahu for the same reason. Both want to show that the tensions that characterized the U.S.-Israeli relationship during Barack Obama’s eight years in office are over. Both want the public parts of the visit to be full of symbolic gestures, photo-ops and expressions of incredible friendship, that will leave no doubt as to the state of bilateral relations – the complete opposite of the Obama era.
Trump has learned from Obama’s error in skipping a stop in Israel after his major address in Cairo and from his failure to invest any particular effort in gaining the confidence of the Israeli people. Trump is coming to Israel directly after his visit to Saudi Arabia and he plans to spray love in every direction from the moment he lands at Ben-Gurion Airport. His speech at the Israel Museum on Tuesday will be directed at public opinion and will aim to make Israelis think of him the opposite of what they thought of Obama. This isn’t expected to be a particularly difficult task, given the most Israelis were suspicious of Obama from his first day in office.
But the love with which Trump will envelope Netanyahu during the visit could turn out to be a honey trap for the premier. Netanyahu could find hints of this during Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, which he delivered just as the security cabinet was being convened to approve a package of economic concessions for the Palestinians. If Netanyahu had left the security cabinet meeting to watch Trump’s speech he would have been delighted.
A large part of it sounded as if it could have been written by Netanyahu himself – the sharp messages against Iran, stressing the fact that there is no difference between the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas and the call for an all-out war on terrorism.
But among all these messages what stood out was the fact that while discussing the war on terror, Trump mentioned his goal of achieving a historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. If the three monotheistic religions will cooperate, he said, then peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible.
The U.S. president sees Israeli-Palestinian peace as a central component of his Middle East strategy and believes that if he achieves “the ultimate deal” it will help his efforts to eradicate the Islamic State. It’s pretty certain that that’s not how Netanyahu views things.