Israel welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday with a provincially embarrassing display of provinciality. By the end of the reception at Ben-Gurion International Airport, even the U.S. president – a coarse, vulgar man with no sense of ceremony – looked statesmanlike, if not downright regal. He was surely in mild shock at what he had been through.
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To say that what happened on the tarmac below Air Force One resembled a neighborhood event would be an understatement. It wasn’t a neighborhood event but a bazaar.
It began with the whiny monologue delivered by the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, to the presidential couple. Like the Trumps, she declared, the Netanyahus are disliked by the media but loved by the people. Then she said she and “Donald” had a special connection due to that same media. But we’ll talk all about that at dinner, she assured Melania Trump, who stood there frozen, not a muscle in her face moving.
Finally, Sara sent them off with the words, “Have a great time at the Kotel!” A great time? At the Western Wall? It’s a good thing she didn’t recommend that they go to the “Discotel,” as philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously termed what he described as “the worship of stones.”
After that, Trump had to run the gauntlet of an endless reception line, which entailed shaking hands with everyone on the “A-list.” Until about an hour before he landed, the president was still refusing to participate in this part of the ceremony. U.S. embassy staffers had apparently forewarned him about what it would entail. But now he bears the scars on his own body.
First came his encounter with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who demanded that he recognize Jerusalem – which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its liberation this week in the Hebrew calendar. It continued with the dose of fake news he got from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Long after police had officially announced that Monday’s incident in Tel Aviv was a traffic accident, not a terror attack, Erdan told the president the question was still being investigated. Comparisons to the nonexistent car-ramming attack in Umm al-Hiran in January are unnecessary; this has become the norm for Erdan. He’s the man who always leaps to conclusions.
But like a well-constructed episode of the reality TV show he starred in, the best still awaited Trump. Minister Ayoub Kara – “the first Druze cabinet minister,” as he was introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – practically fell on his neck with emotion. “I love you!” he said, seizing the guest’s hand and engulfing it in his own. Kara then told the president it was important for him to support the prime minister and move things in a new direction with the Saudis.
Trump hadn’t yet recovered when he encountered MK Oren Hazan (Likud), the acting coalition chairman. Had any of the ceremony’s organizers been asked to name the worst thing that could happen (aside from an assassination or something like that), he certainly would have said: For Trump to bump into Oren Hazan.
Nightmares usually don’t come true; they remain in the depths of the subconscious. But when it comes to Hazan, the sub(-standard) turns into a selfie and a global incident. The number-one bad boy in the Knesset’s history somehow managed to infiltrate into the line of dignitaries (though that term may be stretching it) and force himself on the leader of the free world. Netanyahu tried to push him away, but to no avail. Nobody would have blamed the premier had he simply slapped Hazan in the face.
The presidential couple ended the first day of their visit with a dinner in the prime minister's home. Everything they experienced on the hot tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport was dwarfed by the bizarre reception that awaited them at the entrance to the spacious and elegant two-story home on Jerusalem's Balfour Street.
Sara Netanyahu greeted them with a plethora of apologies for the "modest home," as if she were ashamed at the cruel fate visited on her by not allowing her to live in the White House or at Mar-a-Lago. Her husband took her cue and ran with it: "Thanks to you we could paint the walls." So much lack of self-awareness by two people who are detached from reality, in one brief video.
The prime minister said on Monday that for the first time in his life he sees "a real hope for change." What change did Netanyahu mean? A change in his positions, in his conditions, in his refusal to remove settlements in the framework of a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians, or is it a change that he is expecting from the Palestinian side?
If his remark made your heart skip a bit, calm down. It was meant only to shake up the president and present him as someone capable of carrying out dramas that his predecessors — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — weren't skilled enough to pull off.
He’s supposed to give his main speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and prior to that he’ll meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
Israel’s political system is on tenterhooks. The governing coalition fears an unpleasant surprise: a return to the two-state vision, a declaration that the only solution is a Palestinian state alongside Israel, or a comment about the need to rein in settlement construction. That’s exactly what the opposition is hoping for — a speech that will jump-start the peace process and renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
When he leaves the country on Tuesday, how ironic and “unpredictable” — as Trump is often called — it would be if he were to do so accompanied by the right’s curses and the left’s praises.