In Israel this week, the rejoicing over the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Yerushalayim amounted to a three-day celebration when combined with the two-day visit to Israel of President Trump that served as a welcome introduction. Of course, there is nothing that can make everyone happy. A cabdriver on Tuesday complained to me that the Trump shutdown of large parts of the city cost him business and cut into his income. A different cabdriver on Wednesday told me how much he enjoyed the Trump visit because there was less traffic when and where he could drive and so he benefited from the extended menucha (rest) during these days. Different strokes for different folks.
The visit itself was one that delighted healthy Israelis and thinking Jews. The change in tone from the Obama years was stark; Obama waited five years to visit Israel as president, and when he came he lectured, hectored, criticized and attempted to demean Israel’s government. Would Hillary Clinton have doubled down on Obama’s pro-Arab tilt or been the first president to visit the Kotel, as Donald Trump became this week? The Trump visit unended the hoary shibboleths of the American diplomacy that is wedded to orchestrating another partition of Israel and engendering a second Arab state on the biblical land of Israel, not because it will produce peace but another high-profile signing ceremony.
Trump’s visit, and his kind, thoughtful and endearing words about Israel, reversed the trajectory of Israel-United States relations in a New York minute. The proof of the different approach and its success were worn on the lugubrious faces of Israel’s most leftist TV political commentators who toiled in vain to find something to criticize in PM Netanyahu’s statecraft and any – any – evidence that Trump supports their cherished two-state illusion. Alas, the good spirit engendered by the visit depressed them even more, and a number seemed downright angry.
What is the Trump approach to the conflict in the Middle East? It is to build on the only positive, though unintended, foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama: the budding cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms to fight radical Islamic terror and especially the nefarious influence of Iran. In Riyadh, President Trump mentioned Israel several times while speaking to 50 Arab and Muslim political leaders, and none of them walked out or threw their shoes at him. The roof of the venue also did not collapse. Apparently it is clear to them that the Jewish state is the least of the problems that threaten their autocracies.
The most marked change, and the one that had right-wingers buzzing, was what Trump didn’t say. Not only did he omit the conventional non-wisdom that the conflict in Israel is the core of all problems in the Middle East but he also failed to mouth the words “two-states.” It was so shocking, given the last decade’s obsession, that when I informed my barber of what had transpired, he was stunned, deliriously so. It’s the type of platitude that people of a certain bent have been thoughtlessly expressing for so many years that its absence was the story, along with Trump’s lecture to Palestinian “President” Mahmoud Abbas (now in the tenth year of a four-year term) that he must immediately halt funding terror and subsidizing terrorist families to be taken seriously as a negotiating partner.
To be sure, Trump burned no bridges and credit must go to him and his advisors who crafted his speeches. He acknowledged Abbas as “a partner for peace,” even though that is absurd, because Trump has as much influence in selecting the leaders of the “Palestinians” as do the Palestinians. It was a “nothing to lose” throwaway line. But Trump, in his speech to Israelis at the Israel Museum, became the first president in memory to acknowledge the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel as rooted in the Bible and not just a consequence of the Holocaust. The latter – an Obama construct that was harmful to Israel – reduced Israel’s claim to the land as based on security needs only. That raised the expectation that Israel would surrender the Jewish heartland as long as its existence and safety were guaranteed, on paper of course. It is about time the world recognized that, as someone said last week, saying that Jews have no claim to Judea is as ridiculous as claiming that Arabs have no right to Arabia.
No wonder Abbas looked so grim, like a man who was told that the jig is up, notwithstanding that, tragically, Abbas always has the terror jig to fall back on, G-d forbid. Old habits die hard, but he should also recognize that it doesn’t seem that this administration will handcuff any Israeli response to renewed Arab terror. Some right-wingers were disappointed that Trump did not move the US embassy to Yerushalayim. But readers of this space know that I have long maintained that the Israelis – including the current government – do not really want the embassy moved, despite all their protestations to the contrary. The possible fallout does not outweigh the advantages. I disagree; symbols do matter, and American recognition that Yerushalayim is Israel’s capital – something endorsed by the Czech Parliament this week, in defiance of the European Union’s mendacity – would send a powerful message to the world, especially the Arab world.
More importantly, Trump paid obeisance to the “peace process” and the “negotiations” and “getting to the deal,” while knowing full well that none of this will happen. It is a wise decision and one that will drive batty the professional peace processors at Foggy Bottom and their European counterparts. It seems that he has been told, or realized on his own, that a true settlement is not possible, and getting involved will only expend his energy on futility, waste his time and sap his strength. It happened to his predecessors. He said, in essence, “You two have a problem but I know that a solution can be found. I really want one. So work it out amongst yourselves, and I’ll be happy to help along the way.” One can hear an echo of Jim Baker mocking Israel in front of Congress in 1991, reading out the White House phone number and saying “call us when you’re serious about peace.” Well, now the sandal is on the other foot, and Trump is saying this to Israelis (for whom the status quo is working out quite well) and the Arabs who dwell in the land of Israel (who, aside from the terrorists and the political class) also much prefer to be ruled and protected by Israel than by the PA: “Good luck and please keep in touch. I have more important things to deal with.” And he does.
It is always possible that events and insidious individuals will overtake even his good intentions. There is an entrenched bureaucracy that has been trying to frustrate his agenda, as ill-defined as that sometimes is, and that bureaucracy can be found in every federal department. The American government is polarized to the point of dysfunction. The solitary bi-partisan objective is reelection and that sustains the political class. The media focus on trivia and foolishness; Russia tried to influence the US election as much as the US tries to influence the elections in every democracy that matters, including several times in Israel. The obvious is being trumpeted as malicious, astonishing and unprecedented. Most ominous: the intelligence agencies are compromised by a disgust for Trump that has some leaking classified information in violation of the law, daring someone to arrest them. Those who think the FBI is beyond destroying a president should recall the deeds of Mark Felt. Any of these could force Trump’s hand. A reversion to the days of coercion, condescension and hostility to Israel is unlikely but not impossible. Trump, an outsider, may yet tame the Blob, as the Washington foreign policy establishment is known, or the Blob may yet consume him.
The two days of Trump were a wonderful prelude to Yom Yerushalayim – which some Israelis called “Isru Trump.” His words were a useful exercise in legitimating the world view of most Israelis and validating their sense of purpose and Israel’s reason for being. And that was followed by the celebrations that were a timely reminder that the divine miracles of 1967 are bearing fruit. Yerushalayim is thriving, the Kotel was hopping, Israel is more secure and prosperous than ever and as several commentators noted this week, the Western Wall is not Judaism’s holiest site but is adjacent to Judaism’s holiest site, which is the Temple Mount itself. No one spoke in those terms, as recently as a few months ago, but that has nothing to do with Trump.
It has been fifty years, and one prays that the best is yet to come, and not that far off, “today, if you but hearken to My voice” (Sanhedrin 98a).