Analysis |

Donald Trump in Israel: He Came! He Spoke! He Conquered!

His determined discipline in the Middle East stood in stark contrast to his recklessness back home

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Veni, vidi, vici - U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One before departing from Israel, May 23, 2017.
Veni, vidi, vici - U.S. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump board Air Force One before departing from Israel, May 23, 2017.Credit: AFP/ Mandel Nga
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

After defeating Pharnaces II in the battle of Zela in 47 B.C., Julius Caesar wrote a famously terse letter to the Roman Senate with the immortal three words veni, vidi, vici. At the end of his brief but triumphant visit to Israel on Tuesday, Trump can legitimately tweet the same message to his 30,245,571 followers, garnished with his customary exclamations: “I came! I spoke! I conquered!” He’ll even have enough spare characters to add: “I am the greatest!”

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You’ve got to hand it to him: In the short space of three days, Trump carried out a semi-revolution. He placed himself and the United States at the head of the anti-Iranian Sunni coalition, cashing in on hundreds of billions of Saudi dollars in return. He positioned himself as Mr. Tough on Terror, a strength made timelier by the terrible terror attack against Manchester teens during his visit. And he won over an edgy and apprehensive Israeli public, consigning Barack Obama in the eyes of many Israelis to the rogues’ gallery of US Presidents and placing himself in serious contention, for now at least, for the title of friendliest President ever.

Trump’s triumphs – which could very well be marred during his visits over the next few days to Rome, Brussels and Sicily – stood in stark contrast to his deteriorating situation in Washington. His determined discipline in the Middle East, possibly the result of a lack of confidence, was the opposite of his reckless bluster back home. It’s as if there is a Doctor Donald when he’s abroad who turns into a Mr. Hyde when he’s in the Oval Office. Perhaps there’s a dybbuk that has invaded his body that is scared of leaving American shores.

It’s still early days, of course. For now, Trump has gotten away with mere talk. There could very well be dire consequences down the road for isolating Iran and its Sh'ite allies, and for possibly forcing their Russian sponsor to react in kind to Trump’s unequivocal embrace of the Sunnis. The time will also come when Trump will have to put up or shut up regarding his nebulous fantasies of achieving peace, and if he doesn’t deliver, all hell could break loose, for Israel if not for himself too. Conversely, Trump could turn out to be not just bark but bite as well, and his visit viewed in retrospect as buttering up the Israeli right before it is consumed.

He certainly laid it on thick. From his loving caress of the Kotel on Monday through his solemn penance at Yad Vashem for his previous brush-ins with the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, to his departing serenade of love on Tuesday, Trump’s words and gestures were music to most Israelis’ ears. His speech at the Israel Museum was one of the most unabashedly one-sided and pro-Israeli speeches ever given by an American President, anywhere, anytime. Trump held nothing back as he lauded Jerusalem, praised Israel, extolled Jewish history and endorsed the Zionist dream. When he’s no longer U.S. President and wants to keep himself occupied, with this address Trump could be an ideal speaker for Federation dinners, UJA galas and JNF fundraisers.

Trump gave Israelis everything they love and spared them anything they hate. He praised their past – “what a heritage, what a heritage” - applauded their present and promised them nothing but the best for the future. He praised his “very good friend Benjamin” while revealing sides to the Prime Minister hitherto concealed from most Israelis: “He loves peace,” Trump said, and even more incredibly, “He loves people.”

Trump played up the positive and ignored the negative. He spoke of a golden opportunity to achieve peace, but skipped the gory details of the sacrifices needed to make it happen. He hyped the prospects for regional peace but sidestepped the Palestinian price that Israel would have to pay to achieve it. He spoke of the “big beautiful difference” in relations between the two countries since he came to power, citing achievements, such as the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system that he had absolutely nothing to do with. He even cited Theodor Herzl, and received a rousing applaud in return.

The visit was a godsend for Netanyahu, allowing him to claim vindication for his eight year-long confrontation with Barack Obama and for his admittedly belated backing of Trump. Trump’s messages were also a bonanza for Israeli right-wingers who gleefully cited the president’s Zionist speech, belligerence towards Iran, strong condemnation of terror and glaring avoidance of any mention of a two-state solution, 1967 borders or a shared Jerusalem. Trump even threw some morsels at Israel’s pathetically beleaguered left, by refraining from moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, seeming to get along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and leaving IOU’s all over the place, that he’ll make good on his promise to facilitate peace sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Trump’s success in Israel, on the other hand, will agonize many American Jews who dislike him, especially those on the pro-Israel left who are torn between their wish of seeing progress in the peace process and their anguish at Trump’s general policies. It could thus widen the ever-growing gulf between Israelis, who are now Trump groupies, and liberal American Jews, who can’t stand the sight of him. For the time being at least, Netanyahu and his allies couldn’t care less.

Whether the visit will do the same kind of wonders for Trump himself is debatable. As he was dining with the Netanyahus in Jerusalem, the Washington Post reported on Trump’s pleas to the heads of the National Security Agency and the Director of National Intelligence to publicly announce that there was no basis for investigating his election campaign’s ties to Russia, but only provided more damning evidence of what seems like Trump’s barely-disguised efforts to shut down the investigation. Trump’s achievements in the Middle East, even if we assume they are emulated in his other foreign venues as well, may lend him some gravitas that could help Republicans defend him against the media onslaught, but they won’t stop what seems to be his inexorable descent into the quicksand of his Russian affairs.

In the final analysis, Trump may have been feted in Saudi Arabia as an American emperor who would smite wicked Iran and lead the Sunnis to salvation. He certainly came to Israel as an unknown quantity who could go either way but emerged as a potential candidate to be a latter-day Cyrus, the Persian King who rebuilt the Second Temple. Eventually he’ll return to Washington, however, where people increasingly regard him as a kooky crook whose days are probably numbered. Unfortunately for him, it is there that Trump’s future will be decided.

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