Trump's Trip to Israel Built Hope, But May Not Bring Change

President Donald Trump with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Flickr/The White House

Most of what Trump said publicly on his overseas trip came as music to Israeli ears after eight years of the Obama presidency.

President Trump’s visit to Israel was notable for what was and wasn’t said, for the broader international canvas that served as the background for the trip, the intrusion of the Manchester terrorist attack, how the parties responded to the attack, and for some priceless visual elements that cut through the diplomatic speak and had a humanizing effect.

To be sure, his twenty-eight-hour trip to Israel was ambitious given his packed itinerary. It included a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; a meeting and remarks with Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at his residence; a meeting and remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the King David Hotel; a first-family dinner at Netanyahu’s home; a meeting and remarks with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem; a wreath laying ceremony at the national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem; and his main address for the visit at the Israel Museum.

Trump was originally set to deliver his final remarks at the ancient fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, which would have been a breathtaking backdrop, especially if held at sunrise, but he changed the venue when he learned his team would not be able to land his helicopter at the top of the site. True story.

To be fair, the image of the president and his entourage ascending by slow-moving cable car would be best to avoid, along with the image of White House staff on an hour-long schlep up the snake path. Otherwise, it can take a while to reach the summit—just ask the Roman Empire. It took them several months to construct a siege ramp adequate to the task.

The Direct Flight

Coming off the presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, even the flight to Israel took on added meaning, as there have never been direct flights between the two nations. The White House initially made a point of noting this first-ever flight but it turned out that George W. Bush beat him to the punch on May 16, 2008.

Of course, beating both presidents, there was Muhammad’s Night Journey, mentioned in the Koran (al-Isra), where instead of Air Force One, he flew al-Buraq from “the holiest Mosque” in Mecca to “the farthest mosque,” which in Islam is traditionally presumed to be Jerusalem. Like Southwest Airlines, the bags flew for free but he may have been charged extra for the ascension to heaven (al-Miraj). Either way, joining the company of the Prophet Muhammad and George W. Bush puts Donald J. Trump in a pretty exclusive club.

In scoring Trump’s visit to the Holy Land, most analysis can’t help but compare the previous eight-years of the U.S.-Israeli relationship under Barack Obama. With that starting point, the visit felt like the first sip of water after a long trek through the Negev Desert for most Israelis. That is despite any noticeable concrete achievement from the visit other than the visible restoration of warm relations.

Netanyahu was positively giddy with the fact that he finally had a friend and a Republican in the White House after not only surviving President Obama’s two terms but three years of Bill Clinton’s presidency from 1996–99. With almost a wave into the rearview mirror at Obama, Netanyahu said, “For the first time in many years—and, Mr. President, for the first time in my lifetime—I see a real hope for change.” Perhaps Donald Trump had lent him his book, “The Art of Hyperbole” after outlasting and usurping Obama’s “hope and change” theme.

What Wasn’t Said

On a practical level, little is known about what the two leaders discussed behind closed doors. Publicly, however, there was no mention of Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Nor was there any mention of an agreement on Israeli settlement construction, such as a return to the Bush-Sharon understanding of 2004.

Trump continued to praise the Saudi king in Israel, but it was hard to tell if that was merely afterglow from all the pomp and circumstance of the visit or if he had any Saudi commitments or inducements to deliver regarding the peace process. If he did, it was not mentioned in public. In fact, Trump never even mentioned “two states” as the goal of the peace process while speaking next to Netanyahu and later Abbas.

This last fact alone is intriguing and serves as a reminder of Netanyahu’s February visit to the White House. On a policy level, Trump’s one-state, two-state, two-step dance is even more clever than his sword-dancing skills displayed hours earlier in Saudi Arabia.

Is he really setting aside the two-state solution? Somebody ought to let someone know because there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people—including most of official Washington—who have been pushing that heavy boulder uphill for years. That’s like telling the Romans at Masada that after months of building a siege ramp, they should have taken the elevator instead.