President Trump is making his first trip overseas next week, and unlike President Obama’s decision to fly past Israel on his first Middle East trip, the Holy Land is on Trump’s itinerary. Heading to Israel so early on is theoretically a smart move from the outset. For starters, it demonstrates that someone in the administration understood Obama’s mistake in making a decision that Israelis took as a deliberate snub and was trying to avoid a similar error. It is also tactically smart given Trump’s goal of restarting peace talks, since going to Israel on his first foray abroad will make Israelis feel as if Trump has their back before he starts to ask for concessions, and it will also put subtle pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu that makes it harder for him to say no to Trump’s demands as easily as he did to Obama.
But all of this was before the eruptions on multiple fronts this week involving the Trump administration and Israel, from a political counselor in the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem claiming that the Western Wall is not part of Israeli territory and national security adviser H.R. McMaster compounding the problem to the report that the codeword clearance intelligence that Trump passed along to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office came from Israeli sources. Trump has now gone from being able to set his own agenda in Israel to having to get in and out without making things any worse. Whereas before the pertinent things to watch for on this trip were how Trump would lay the foundation for policy issues under his control – moving the embassy or keeping it in Tel Aviv, recognizing all or part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, convening a trilateral summit with Netanyahu and President Abbas, clarifying American policy on what it deems to be acceptable settlement construction – now the things to watch for are potholes that could turn into craters. Here are a few items to keep an eye on during the president’s 26 hours in Israel:
This is the most serious issue, since the U.S. has a closer intelligence relationship with Israel than perhaps with any other country outside of the Five Eyes (U.S., U.K, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) group. Intelligence sharing and cooperation between the two countries is too robust and institutionalized across the security apparatuses of both countries to cease because of Trump’s lack of discipline, but if the reports from January are to be believed that Israeli intelligence was concerned that information given to the Trump administration would be passed on to Iran via Russia, those concerns are now magnified exponentially. There will be no way of gleaning from public statements or from observing public interactions between Trump and Israeli officials the extent to which the Mossad is going to be more reluctant to share its most closely-held intelligence on other players in the region with the White House going forward. But one clue about how worried the Trump administration is about being cut out of some intelligence sharing will be whether Trump starts to back off some of his recent rhetoric and positions on jumpstarting the peace process and appears less conciliatory toward Palestinian concerns than he was when Abbas was in Washington earlier this month. It is not out of the realm of possibility that this will be Israel’s price for overlooking the damage done to Israeli intelligence sources and capabilities by the president’s colossal error, and if Trump shifts his emerging policies on the fly while on the ground in Israel, the intelligence fiasco could be behind it.
Trump will be the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall, and he is just now discovering why his predecessors avoided it while in office. The U.S. government’s position on the Western Wall is the same as its position on Jerusalem, but trying to tell Israelis of any stripe that the Western Wall is not in Israel is perhaps the most politically fraught topic into which Trump could stumble. It is obvious that he will be put in a very bad position, in which he is either forced to say that the Western Wall is sovereign Israeli territory and ignite a diplomatic controversy or forced to maintain the American diplomatic ambiguity on the subject and have it overshadow his entire visit (and FWIW, my own position is that the Western Wall is squarely in Israel). But the more interesting aspect is the way in which this will wreak havoc internally, as there is a clear divide between Trump officials who think that the Western Wall is in Israel and Trump officials who think it is not. The immediate statement from the White House said that locating the Western Wall in the West Bank is not Trump’s position, and David Friedman went straight to the Western Wall upon landing in Israel to assume his position as ambassador, which would be a strange thing to do if his view was that it is not sovereign Israeli territory. But McMaster and Sean Spicer both repeatedly and deliberately declined to state that the Western Wall is Israeli territory, and it will make Friedman’s job extremely difficult if he clashes with McMaster or the State Department over this issue, or put McMaster in an untenable position if Trump publicly sells out his national security adviser. As much of a firestorm this has ignited in Israel, it may do the same amongst Trump’s own staff.
There is another issue with the Western Wall, which is the gap between the Israeli government’s enforcement of the divided gender prayer arrangement and its foot dragging on creating an egalitarian prayer space, and the overwhelming anger this has caused among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews. There is no reason for Trump or for Melania – with whom he will be traveling – to be aware of the extremely sensitive gender politics of the Wall, and it has the potential to cause all sorts of issues. What happens if Melania tries to go with Trump to the men’s side? What if one of them makes an offhand comment about gender segregation? If Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who are familiar with the politics and theology of divided prayer within Orthodoxy, come as well, how do they feel about the Orthodox monopoly over the Western Wall plaza, and will they feel pressured to make a gesture to the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox? Perhaps this will all go off without a hitch, but there is potential for yet another Western Wall controversy to develop.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
Trump is going to be jumping into the deep end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pool by seeing Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Abbas in Bethlehem in the span of a day, not to mention the stop beforehand in Saudi Arabia. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a unique and delicate diplomatic vernacular, and stray phrases can suggest shifts in policy that are not intended. When candidate Barack Obama said in 2008 at AIPAC Policy Conference that Jerusalem “must remain undivided,” implying that no part of Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state, he had to walk it back almost immediately as he clearly hadn’t understood what he was implying. For a president with no history on the subject and a penchant for speaking extemporaneously and without much forethought, Trump is almost guaranteed to unwittingly say something that will send diplomats on all sides scattering to figure out what he meant and undo any possible damage.
Trump is coming to Netanyahu’s turf, but early indications are that he has no intention of sharing the limelight with his host. Netanyahu is not accompanying Trump to the Western Wall, and despite his wish that the two leaders make speeches alongside each other, reports now say that Netanyahu will merely make introductory remarks. Netanyahu wants Trump to come to Israel and treat him like an equal, thereby solidifying his position as a respected world leader and sending the message that only Netanyahu stands between a volatile and combustible American president and the health of the U.S.-Israel relationship. If Trump treats Netanyahu like a subordinate in his own home, it will cause Netanyahu domestic political problems and drive him batty. The body language between the two men and to what extent Trump treats Netanyahu as a partner rather than as a problem to be managed will be yet another subtext to what has turned into must-see political theater.