There are few better examples of the yawning gap between Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and governing reality than his approach towards Israel.
After eight years of Barack Obama’s alleged cool indifference, the Israeli right were led to believe they would have a “true friend” in the White House once again: one who would stop nagging them about settlement building, tear up the hated nuclear deal with Iran and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
Four months after his inauguration, and in the wake of his first visit to Israel, Trump appears to be reverting to a much more traditional US approach towards the Jewish state – and one that may, indeed, prove much less predictable than that of recent administrations.
Of course, there was a symbolism to the fact that Trump chose to include Israel in the itinerary for his first foreign trip and to the fact that he became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. His speech at the Israel Museum was also free of any call to halt settlement construction or mention of a Palestinian state. The visit also began with the first public direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel; an illustration of the thaw in relations between the two countries which lays at the heart of Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy.
However, it is less what Trump said in Jerusalem – in reality, as one journalist noted, he made “no effort to outline the contours of a possible deal” between Israel and the Palestinians – and more what he let slip in Bethlehem that perhaps offers the best clue about his true thinking, such as it is. For some time, Netanyahu has been toying with a response to the 15 year-old Arab Peace Initiative. Unveiled by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, it offered Arab recognition for Israel in return for a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem in line with pre-1967 borders.
With fears of Iran’s regional ambitions now pushing the Sunni Arab states and Israel closer together, Netanyahu has been touting a modified, so-called “outside-in” version of the API. Instead of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians prefiguring a wider regional deal, Jerusalem and the Arab capitals would reach their accommodation, with the Sunni states then leaning on the Palestinians to end their intransigent opposition to direct talks with Israel.
But, standing alongside the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Bethlehem, Trump appeared to back the original Arab Peace Initiative formulation. “I also firmly believe,” he stated, “that if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East.” Throughout his time in Israel, he also repeatedly lavished praise on the “very wise” Saudi monarch, King Salman.
Indeed, it is the Saudis, not Israel, with whom Trump appears most keen to forge a new special relationship. While in Riyadh, the president announced a $110bn arms deal with the Saudi Arabia – one of the largest in history. While the US normally holds lengthy consultations with Israel before going ahead with any major weapons sales to Arab states, the Trump administration appeared to give Jerusalem barely any notice of the announcement.
When the president went to the Western Wall he refused to allow Netanyahu to accompany him, his advance team allegedly having told the Israelis last week that Judaism’s holiest site was “not your territory. It is part of the West Bank”. As the Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer suggested: “The bottom line is that not only does Trump have no intention of jeopardising his relations with Sunni Arab leaders by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he won’t even make the tiniest gesture in that direction by allowing Netanyahu to join him for a few minutes in the Old City.”
“With Obama,” wrote the former president’s ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, this week, “the Israelismay not always have gotten everything they wanted. But they always got consistency.” With Donald Trump, they look set to get anything but.