Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?
Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.
Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”
The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.
In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.
It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.