2/16/2017 A very Strange Meeting
The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump underscored what Trump is good at, and what he's not – i.e., Trump is really skilled at theatrics and rather inexperienced at the details of governing. The goal of this White House visit was to create a warm and friendly welcome for Netanyahu and to show how different Trump is from Barack Obama. Trump clearly accomplished that. He and Melania were waiting for Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the south portico. All the conditions were in place, all the vibes were right, but when it came to details Trump was clearly not fully ready.
I am not sure what made both sides think holding a press conference before they actually met was a good idea — maybe they felt comfortable because as Trump said, they had known each other for so long. The music was great, but … the headlines regarding the event in most of the press cited that the US government no longer stood behind the necessity of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the real headline was that other than being a friend of Israel and his desire to be the ultimate dealmaker, Trump has no idea how to make a peace deal happen.
The major weakness of having a real estate dealmaking mogul as President of the United States was clear at the meeting. To Trump, everything is about closing deals and his predominant experience is real estate. Those deals are about money, zoning, or financing. Now, Trump wants to broker a deal in the Middle East. But deals in the Middle East are about ideology, religion, and history; about competing narratives of suffering. These disagreements are much harder to settle. When you negotiate to close a real estate deal, it's relatively easy to consider concessions; but when the concessions concern your history or religion, it's much harder. Trump was very clear when he said: “to make a deal, everyone will have to make concessions." Then Trump turned to Netanyahu and said: "You know you will have to make concessions." Netanyahu did not know what to answer.
Trump specifically stated: “I want you to hold back on your settlements.” Netanyahu was silent. In the end, headlines publicized Trump's statement: "I do not care, one state, two states, whatever the party agree to." In other words, whatever deal both sides agree to is fine with me, just reach a deal. Of course, there is almost no one — other than right-wing Israelis — who believe there is any solution agreeable to both sides, other than a two-state solution. Speaking to Israeli reporters after his meeting with the President, Netanyahu shared that Trump had offered Israel much closer cooperation, but asked for settlement building to be stopped. Netanyahu stated that no agreement was reached, but that Israel should try to satisfy such a great friend.
Two other things stood out at the meeting. First, Netanyahu tried multiple times to positively contrast President Trump from President Obama — which goes well with the narrative believed by many Israelis. In a discussion this morning with my taxi driver about the joint press conference, he was quick to say, "at least it was not the Israel-hating Obama." When I asked him to tell me what terrible thing Obama did to Israel? He was unable to name one thing (other than his last abstention at the UN.) I had an almost identical discussion with the barista when I picked up my morning coffee.
Netanyahu was playing to his supporters in Israel, and some of his Republican donors in the United States. Once again, for his own short-term political gain Netanyahu is doing long-term damage to traditional bi-partisan support of Israel and is creating an even greater divide with much of American Jewry.
When Israel's Channel 10 reporter, Moav Vardi, asked Trump about rising anti-semitism in the US, Trump promptly changed the subject to something he is more comfortable elaborating upon, (i.e., the size of his election victory.) He did not address the topic asked directly, other than delivering an updated version of the "some of my best friends are Jewish" line (or in this case — "my daughter, son-in law and grandchildren are Jewish.)
Trump's inability to address the rising number of anti-semitic incidents in the US is truly puzzling. Just as baffling were Netanyahu comments at the end of the conference — “I've known the President and I've known his family and his team for a long time. There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest.” So to all the Jews in America who fear rising antisemitism, they no longer need to worry — since the Prime Minister of Israel has given the Trump administration its seal of approval, even though the President refuses to say anything to denounce antisemitic acts or allay the fears of those targeted. Strange.