President Trump’s visit to Israel comes at a fraught time for his Administration and a pivotal moment for the relationship between the two countries. It will also constitute the next chapter in a bilateral relationship that has been shaken in recent years by sharp differences between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu government. These differences took the form of policy tensions over settlements, peace talks, and the Iran nuclear deal, and were accentuated and aggravated by clashes of personality between the two leaders. They boiled over in the Obama Administration’s final days, when the U.S. abstained from U.N. Resolution 2334, a breach of the U.S.-maintained diplomatic shield at the United Nations that left many Israelis believing that the United States had crossed the line between tough love and betrayal.
Trump endeared himself to many supporters when he urged Obama to veto Resolution 2334, but for a candidate and President who has promised a decisive shift in policy towards Israel, the story has thus far been more complicated. The appointment of his personal bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, a supporter of West Bank causes and institutions, as Ambassador to Israel seemed to augur a rightward shift. However, Trump’s own statements on settlements have been characteristically mixed.
Perhaps the issue that has most consumed Trump is the location of the American embassy in Israel. Despite legislation that supports moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, ultimate authority over this issue rests with the President, as the Supreme Court made clear in Zivotofsky v. Kerry (2015). Yet Trump’s early promises to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital but much of the world considers disputed territory, seem to have yielded to many of the same considerations that have prevented the move thus far: the explosiveness of the symbolism involved, and a lingering sense that even the Israelis are cautious about such a move at a precarious time in the region.
While Israelis have greeted Trump’s ascension with cautious optimism, the potential for significant tensions is already evident. Reports that the President may have divulged highly classified Israeli-gleaned intelligence to the Russian Foreign Minister were greeted with less than copious enthusiasm by spymasters at the Mossad. Moreover, Trump’s reputation as a ‘deal-maker’ graphs uneasily onto a conflict whose life span might now be tallied at over a century, since the 1917 Balfour Declaration expressed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
History aside, building hotels in Atlantic City poses different challenges than negotiating for sacred tombs in Hebron. A recent flap over leaked comments by an American diplomat over Israel’s claim to the Western Wall shows just how bedeviling zoning can be in the Holy Land.
Air Force One has begun criss-crossing a region in the painful throes of new formations. The old shuttle route between Jerusalem and Ramallah is increasingly being replaced by clandestine conversations between Israel and generals and princes in Cairo and Riyadh. As Washington consumes itself with scandal and Iran exerts growing regional influence, Israel and the Sunni states increasingly share dangers and interests. The Middle East is moving; for the sake of its inhabitants, Trump better keep up.