Opinion

Did Trump Just Short-shrift Netanyahu?

Donald Trump promised Benjamin Netanyahu that if elected he'd recognize an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So why did Netanyahu leave the meeting looking so forlorn?

Benjamin Netanyahu leaves Trump Tower after meeting Donald Trump in New York, September 25, 2016.
Evan Vucci, AP

At this point we know very little about what was said during the 80-minute meeting between Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (or, for that matter, about Netanyahu’s meeting with Hillary Clinton later in the day). The meetings were closed to the press, and the carefully worded official announcements put out by the campaigns were pretty vague. 

The official photo from the Trump meeting shows Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands, smiling awkwardly at the camera as Trump’s gilded New York penthouse glimmers in the background; a weighty volume, “Oscar Night: 75 Years of Hollywood Parties,” is curiously placed on the coffee table behind them. Press photos of Netanyahu after he exited the Trump Tower showed the prime minister looking rather glum.

One thing we do know about the meeting is that Trump told Netanyahu that if he is elected president, the U.S. will recognize an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. 

If this were to happen, of course, it would signify a major shift for American foreign policy: the U.S. does not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has its local embassy in Tel Aviv. It would also be a spectacularly terrible idea: no Palestinian leader will ever be able to give up on the claim for East Jerusalem, and a unilateral American decision on this issue would effectively thwart any attempt to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, essentially guaranteeing a perpetual state of conflict. 

Trump’s promise to Netanyahu was not unexpected. After initial reluctance to commit on this issue, Trump has made similar comments in the recent past, including vowing to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem if he is elected.  

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower, September 25, 2016.
GPO

Nor is Trump’s promise actually that outrageous. In fact, it’s pretty standard for White House hopefuls, both Democrats and Republicans — a surefire way to pander to pro-Israel voters and (more importantly) pro-Israel donors. Barack Obama — a notorious Israel “abuser,” per Trump — promised the same thing during his 2008 campaign, and personally intervened to make sure the same language was in the Democratic platform in 2012.  

No U.S. president has ever actually made good on these campaign promises, of course, because (as previously mentioned) it would be a terrible idea. Congress already passed a law that ordered the U.S. embassy to be relocated to Jerusalem 21 years ago — Republican and Democratic presidents have ignored it ever since. 

Really, the most surprising thing about Trump’s promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is that he was willing to promise so little. Trump’s campaign is putting a lot of effort (lately, anyway) into pandering to pro-Israel voters, with supporters making sure that Trump locks down the vast majority of Israel’s 200,000 eligible American voters. He has even gone so far as to work with a team in Israel to open a campaign office in the West Bank — an unprecedented move for an American presidential nominee. Trump’s adviser on U.S.-Israel relations even backed Netanyahu’s strange declaration in recent weeks that the Palestinian claim to remove settlements constitutes “ethnic cleansing.” 

At this stage of the election, Trump’s behaving so desperately for Jewish votes that it’s surprising he’s only promising Jerusalem. One would think that he’d have promised Netanyahu the moon by now. 

Some might claim that, unlike previous presidential nominees, Trump will actually make good on his promise to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. That might be true, but nevertheless, one would expect a wild candidate such as Trump, unbound by political conventions, to promise so much more than that.

Which might explain why Netanyahu left the meeting looking so forlorn. Maybe he felt short-shrifted.