Opinion |

Wrapped in the Language of Love, Trump Delivered a Threat to Netanyahu

For Netanyahu, the clock is ticking towards payday for Trump's hasbara-heavy Israel trip. Can he afford the price tag dangling from Trump's promise to be Israel's 'best friend'?

Colette Avital
Colette Avital
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An iron fist in a silk, hasbara-lined glove? U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. May 22, 2017.
An iron fist in a silk, hasbara-lined glove? U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. May 22, 2017. Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
Colette Avital
Colette Avital

The euphoria of the political right in Israel after President Trump's election had already given way to concerns and fear on the eve of his arrival in the Middle East. After all the statements and promises made by Candidate Trump during the electoral campaign, not least his intention to transfer the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the atmosphere changed once President Trump moved into the White House.

Messages coming out of the new administration became vague and guarded. Rumors that Trump may be bringing with him elements of an "ultimate deal" wrought sleepless nights on some of our senior politicians.

But Trump surprised us all.

Israelis need to be loved and Trump showered us with more love than we had ever hoped for: our extraordinary heritage, the ancient, unbreakable ties of the Jewish people to this land and to Jerusalem in particular, the beauty of the country and the generosity of its people, our fabulous achievements.

Politicians on the right side of the political map were relieved: He did not mention either a Palestinian state, nor the settlements. It was as if someone had gathered together all in one place all the messages our hasbara had issued over the years.

But there disappointment too: No mention of the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem; no recognition of Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of Israel". But yes – we heard time and again the magic words: We have common enemies, Iran will never get nuclear arms, together we will fight terrorism, and America will always have Israel's back.

For Benjamin Netanyahu this was, no doubt, a gift. After eight 'lean years' - years of untold tensions with President Obama and his administration - here comes a President who justifies everything Netanyahu had said, here comes "the best friend" Israel has ever had, a man who calls him "my friend Benjamin". Here comes an American president who finally shares his vision about Iran and world terrorism and makes those two subjects a priority.

Everyone has to compromise: President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. May 23, 2017Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

And yet – there is no free lunch, and no free love.

Netanyahu should have reason for concern: The new alliance, the new bond that Trump has fostered with the Sunni world, the multi billion dollars arms deal that he has concluded with Saudi Arabia, has a price, and Israel may have to pay it. Trump understands the connection, the linkage, between this new alliance, the success of the common struggle against Daesh and radical Islam and the solution of the Palestinian - Israeli conflict. His meetings in Washington and Bethlehem with President Abbas convinced him that there is a partner for peace.

Moreover, Trump made it clear that he believes there is a real opportunity for peace now, that this is a rare window of opportunity - and that to achieve peace, both sides will have to make concessions. These were his public statements: no more than a hint, but still, crystal clear.

Trump was cautious enough not to present a blueprint of his own, perhaps because he has not finalized its outlines, but more probably because the purpose of this trip was to gain everyone's confidence. And that, he has achieved.

However, hardly had Airforce One lifted from the ground and left the Holy Land, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed the journalists who had accompanied the president on this historic trip :

“The president was very forceful in his encouragement to both of them to be serious about approaching these discussions in the future and recognize they have to compromise, everyone has to compromise...[Trump] put a lot of pressure” on Netanyahu and Abbas “that it’s time to get to the [negotiations] table." And leaks that started emerging from the closed meetings seem to confirm that.

It is possible that some form of peace process will be renewed in the near future, perhaps as a Peace Summit convened under the auspices of President Trump. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas will attend. Neither of them has the option to refuse such an invitation. Abbas may drop some of his preconditions for such a summit – but then there is a definite difference between a summit meeting and a negotiation.

If and when the negotiating process will be resumed, Netanyahu will be, no doubt, torn between the new alliance with America and the need to maintain his coalition. But, after eight years of bad relations with an American president, and his conviction that this is the best friend Israel has had for a long time (since Truman?), he cannot afford to say no. He will have no option but to walk along Trump's path. He should keep in mind, then, that a majority of members of Israel's Knesset will support him.

A former Member of Knesset on behalf of the Labor Party, Colette Avital served as Israel's Ambassador to Portugal and as Consul General in New York, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Chairperson of the Lobby for Holocaust Survivors and as the International Secretary of the Israeli Labor Party.

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