The Trump-Netanyahu Meeting in the Context of Emerging U.S. Middle
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington at
a time when the new administration, still in its early days of personnel
selection, is also grappling with a series of paradoxes emerging from statements
and commitments made over the past year by Candidate Trump, President-elect
Trump, and President Trump.
MAIN GOALS OF TRUMP MIDDLE EAST POLICY
Drawing on Donald Trump's record, one can identify four main
strategic objectives in his U.S. Middle East policy:
CORE PARADOXES FOR TRUMP MIDDLE EAST
These four objectives immediately highlight five contradictions:
THE NETANYAHU AGENDA
For Netanyahu, the Trump meeting is one of the most consequential
of his prime ministry. It will set the tone of his relationship with the new
president and define the new ground rules governing strategic/political
coordination (as well as inevitable conflict) in the next phases of the
In this regard, the top priority for Netanyahu is to educate the new president on the priority of confronting the many aspects of the Iran threat and to focus U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation on that effort. The challenge is to do this without directly confronting the president's public commitment to prioritize the destruction of IS.
Another high priority for Netanyahu is to reach understandings with Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in general, and on Israeli settlement activity more specifically. During the Obama administration, a profound dispute over the centrality of settlement activity to the larger conflict and the need for its total cessation immediately produced a U.S.-Israeli clash and an Israeli-Palestinian impasse. It is in the interest of both Netanyahu and Trump to reach an agreement on settlement activity that removes this as a thorn in the relationship. To meet its political objectives, such an agreement would need to preserve Trump's freedom of maneuver to pursue his stated goal of eventually negotiating a permanent peace deal, while also allowing Netanyahu to return to Israel with a substantial enough victory so he can withstand the growing pressure from his right wing to approve settlement plans whose only real intent is to prevent any possible peace accord. While this is an achievable goal -- George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon reached such an agreement, for example -- it would require the Trump team to draw on a reservoir of historical memory and diplomatic expertise that they may not yet have on staff.
In this context, the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem -- which Israelis across the political spectrum would applaud -- could play a role in the effort to strengthen Netanyahu's hand against the more extreme members of his coalition. After all, an embassy move would likely be accompanied by a U.S. expression of appreciation for Israel's agreement that the permanent status of Jerusalem will be determined in negotiations, the outcome of which the United States will support. That, however, would be viewed as a poison pill by the hard right, which considers any suggestion of negotiation over Jerusalem anathema.
The timing of a potential embassy move is crucial as well. If the president is committed to implementing it, he should probably do so quickly, within the next several weeks. What he wants to avoid is intermingling the embassy issue -- which essentially repairs a diplomatic error made by the Truman administration seven decades ago -- with commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the June 1967 Six Day War and the "reunification of Jerusalem." Thanks to the Hebrew calendar, that commemoration falls in late May this year, almost exactly when the current six-month waiver of the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act expires. If the president wants to move forward on this issue, he should do so well in advance of that date, lest he inadvertently feed any Palestinian sense of provocation and outrage.