During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly stressed that Israel does not have a better friend than himself. So why has the level of anxiety in Jerusalem regarding the president’s visit this week reached such heights? Actually, the anxiety is perfectly understandable given that it is rooted in important recent developments in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah. By themselves, these developments are not the cause of Jerusalem’s anxiety. Instead, it is the growing recognition of its failure to anticipate these developments that has shaken Jerusalem’s confidence in its ability to prepare for what is coming next.
President Trump’s Israeli host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has already seen much of his expectations for the new U.S. administration—and the expectations of his part partners and part rivals in Israel’s right-wing governing coalition—shatter. Gone are their earlier hopes for the fading of America’s commitment to the two-state paradigm, for a free hand for West Bank settlement expansion, and for an early move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Instead, reality seems to have quickly sunk into the White House. The president’s foreign-policy and national-security team now realize that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be resolved, then there is no alternative to the two-state framework. More surprising, however, is that President Trump has demanded and received a de facto Israeli freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank beyond the large blocks. Also, the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has been firmly placed on the back burner, at least for now.
Jerusalem’s failure to anticipate these about-face decisions reflects more than the simple error of taking campaign promises too seriously. Instead, they result from a number of realities, some Israeli and some American. On the Israeli side, strategic intelligence regarding all matters American remains in the hands of the prime minister, not in Israel’s intelligence community. This has been the case for some decades—from Yitzhak Rabin to Ariel Sharon, most recent Israeli prime ministers were also their government’s case officers for Israel-U.S. relations. But this is even more so in the case of Netanyahu, who grew up in Pennsylvania, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate student, worked at the Boston Consulting Group, served as a top Israeli diplomat in New York and Washington, and has enjoyed a large network of friends and associates among America’s political and financial elites. Netanyahu’s biography has convinced him that no one understands the United States better than he does.
Yet it would be very surprising if some of Netanyahu’s self-confidence in that realm was not beginning to erode. After all, it was only two years ago that he had lost his bet on the ability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Republican leadership in Congress and the evangelical community to derail the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now, the same Israeli ambassador who ill advised him to circumvent President Obama, by trying to persuade a joint session of Congress to vote against the nuclear deal, has once again bet on the wrong horses. Thus, instead of waiting until the top tier of the president’s professional team was in place, Ambassador Ron Dermer moved early to identify himself—and by association, Israel—with the Steve Bannon–led ideological wing of Trump’s team, whose stock value appears to be diminishing by the day.
Netanyahu’s likely loss of self-confidence regarding the United States is probably compounded by a second development: A president whose skills in communication seem to best even Netanyahu’s. Indeed, it would be surprising if the Israeli prime minister was not amazed by Trump’s gift for manufacturing headlines on an hourly basis and was not mesmerized by Trump’s ability to master super modern social media, turning Twitter feeds into a weapon of mass destruction.
And then came the biggest surprise of all: the rapidly accumulating indications of Trump’s intention to dare the impossible—a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Like many of the pundits in Washington with whom he has been associated for decades, Netanyahu probably dismissed Trump’s early expressions of his desire to achieve such a breakthrough (“wouldn’t it be nice if Jared could”) as reflecting the rookie president’s lack of experience—if not his ignorance—of the issue’s complexities. Indeed, had Netanyahu adopted Trump’s language he would have probably said: who would believe that a president who needs to tackle the U.S. public-health mess, the complexities of the immigration issue, legal obstacles to travel bans and the difficulties of legislating tax reform—who must attempt to avoid a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, with Russia over Ukraine and the Baltic states, as well as in Syria, and with China in the South China Sea—would give priority to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli quarrel?
Jerusalem’s next strategic surprise involved the reaction of key Arab leaders to Trump’s peculiar ambition. Instead of being unhelpful—as Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak was to President Bill Clinton’s heroic attempt at Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking in Camp David—current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and their Saudi counterparts are publicly encouraging Trump to dare the impossible and urge Israel to not miss the opportunity. More quietly, they now use every available channel to communicate to Netanyahu a message he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge: that while there is a new convergence of interests between Israel and important Sunni Arab states, it cannot be translated to a sustainable alliance without addressing the perception of a historical wrong. Worst of all, from Netanyahu’s standpoint, Trump seems to be receptive to the urging of el-Sisi and Abdullah and is further encouraged to pursue the impossible by senior members of his foreign-affairs and national-security policy team.