Analysis

The Wall, the Embassy and Now the Intel: What Else Can Go Wrong Ahead of Trump's Israel Visit?

Trump administration's flip flops, stumbles, and sins could present an opportunity for Netanyahu in his time of need

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visits the Western Wall, May 15, 2017.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Over the centuries, the ancient stones of the Western Wall have symbolized many things for the Jewish people. But in the past few days, they have taken on an additional meaning - they embody the newly rocky state of affairs between the Trump White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. 

The ultra-sensitive holy site became a sticking point less than a week before President Donald Trump was set to visit Israel’s capital for the first time in his life, in the midst of a firestorm regarding secret information the president showed Russian officials in the Oval Office, intelligence reportedly gathered by Israel

To American Jews who voted for Trump expecting that he would be “good for Israel” and for Israelis who cheered Trump’s election as the dawning of a new era of unfettered settlement-building and the death knell of the two-state solution, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster's refusal to say whether the Western Wall is under Israeli sovereignty on Tuesday had to come as a painful surprise. 

Just hours before, right-wingers had been touting Trump’s planned stop at the Western Wall as a bold step that no other U.S. president had taken before. In the past, presidents have avoided a visit because of the disputed nature of the site, which belongs to the part of Jerusalem controlled by Jordan before 1967. Trump’s landmark visit had been hailed as a sign of an impending change in U.S. policy, wholeheartedly acknowledging Israel’s claim to the site. 

But McMaster popped that balloon in his response to a reporter asking him directly whether the visit represented a change in U.S. policy on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. "That's a policy decision," he noted, adding that no Israeli leaders will join Trump in his visit to the Western Wall. 

“He is going to the Western Wall mainly in connection with the theme to connect with three of the world's great religions to pay homage at each of the religious sites he is visiting and to highlight the theme that we all have to be united against what are really the enemies all civilized people,” he said.

The question came in the wake of a flap after U.S. diplomats touring the Western Wall in preparation for Trump’s visit snubbed two employees of the Prime Minister’s PR department. The U.S. diplomats refused Israeli help in the arranging of media coverage for the visit, saying that the Western Wall is part of the West Bank and that Israel has no authority there.

Netanyahu’s office responded furiously. Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, was dispatched to the White House to demand an explanation and successfully extracted a statement that "these comments, if true, were not authorized by the White House. They do not reflect the U.S. position, and certainly not the President’s position.” 

A pitstop at the Western Wall by David Friedman, the newly arrived U.S. ambassador to Israel, mollified tensions. As an Orthodox Jew, it isn’t surprising Friedman would head there to offer a prayer of gratitude upon his arrival, but given the political firestorm, it was well-timed (an entertaining sidebar was Friedman's running into Steven Tyler, in Israel for a concert, who was also making a VIP visit to the wall at the same time.) It didn’t go unacknowledged. On Tuesday, when Netanyahu had his first meeting with Friedman, he made a point of publicly thanking the new ambassador for visiting the Western Wall, calling it “a powerful gesture of solidarity.”

That could have smoothed things over. But McMaster’s refusal to talk about the Wall in more soothing terms seems certain to reignite the controversy. To be sure, none of what he said represents a change in U.S. policy, and is certainly consistent with the behavior of the Obama administration. But Trump’s presidential campaign promised Israel and its supporters better than Obama, and the Trump official’s tone was far different from what the pro-Israel crowd became used to hearing from Trump surrogates like Friedman, Vice President Mike Pence, or even Trump himself. One can only imagine how Sheldon Adelson, who subsidized Trump’s inauguration to the tune of $5 million and sat beaming as he took the oath of office must have reacted when he heard McMaster refuse to publicly acknowledge any Israeli claim to Judaism's holiest site. 

It doesn’t help that this all played out as Trump appeared to be backtracking on his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Reports indicate that the Trump administration is going to try to have it both ways – freezing the embassy move for the time being but promising that the relocation will come at some point in Trump's presidency and asking Israel to show patience.

That patience will have to be served up together with a healthy serving of forgiveness for the serious betrayal of trust that the intelligence breach to the Russians represents. On Tuesday, multiple reports said that intelligence divulged by Trump to Russian diplomats at a meeting in the Oval Office last week came from Israel.

But there could be a silver lining for Netanyahu. The need for him to forgive and forget the Trump administration’s flip flops, stumbles, and sins could be an opportunity for the Israeli prime minister to extract himself from a difficult position. By all accounts, his greatest concern has been Trump’s new chumminess with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his efforts to push for the “ultimate deal” on Israeli-Palestinian peace. In turn, Netanyahu's rivals to his right - led by Naftali Bennett - have been poised and ready to pounce on any concessions a peace-minded Trump might extract from him. But if a tacit deal is made for the Israeli government to look the other way on the Western Wall, the embassy and the leaked intelligence in exchange for Trump’s postponing any real push for a peace process, Netanyahu just might be able to turn some diplomatic lemons into political lemonade.