Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Trump heads for the Middle East and Israelis are full of advice

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Shmuel Levin


Whilst the White House has yet to publish the itinerary for US President Donald Trump's May 22-23 visit to Israel, activists, commentators, and politicians have been abuzz in their preparations for the visit. Many of them have specific advice for Trump to further his self-declared goal of reaching the "ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians.

Peace not politics

During the visit, Trump is set to meet both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trump is also set to visit Jerusalem, Masada and Bethlehem.

Given Trump's plans to visit Abbas, a number of commentators have published op-eds calling for the President to demand an end to Palestinian incitement. Earlier this month, during his visit to the White House, Abbas claimed that "we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace".

As David Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel, argues now is the time to hold Mr Abbas to his word: "You're not exactly creating ‘a culture of peace,' are you, when you name streets and town squares in honor of terrorists who kill innocent Israelis, and provide stipends to jailed terrorists and to the families of terrorists".

Likewise, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal centre argues: "amid all of this hate, where should Trump begin in a search for peace? As I said before, by taking a road less travelled by his predecessors and tackling hatred before borders".

In addition, two former senior military officials have called on the Trump Administration to "propose an improved economic plan" that "should play a leading role in creating an atmosphere of cooperation to allow the Palestinians and Israelis to reach a future agreement".

The proposal notes that billions of dollars in international aid have previously "evaporated because of lack of transparency, corruption, and inefficiency", and that in 2016 alone, hundreds of millions of dollars were used by the Palestinian Authority to pay convicted terrorists and their families.

As such, the proposal strongly iterates that "the recovery must not be another cash handout to the Palestinians, but rather a program aimed at improving Palestinian infrastructures[sic]". To achieve this, the authors call on the Trump Administration to nominate a high ranking coordinator to lead the recovery plan and to ensure that Israel is "a full partner in the planning of this initiative".

Political preparations

As noted, above, in terms of actual political agreements, Trump has long expressed his desire to "reach the ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians. As such, the visit provides an opportunity for the US President to clarify his policy and goals.

In this regard, officials are waiting to see what the visit will bring to the table. Possible policy objectives could include US commitment to the two-state solution, and an affirmation of the desirability of direct bilateral negotiations and of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Trump's visit may also include an announcement that the US will move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem and the promotion of relations between Israel and Gulf countries.

From Israel's perspective, both left and right-wing activists have been gearing up for the visit.

Israel's left-wing Labor and Meretz political parties are cosponsoring a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, the site of a peace rally where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. Organizers said the event would mark "50 years of occupation and control of the territories" and react to diplomatic overtures Trump might make during his visit.

In addition, according to the Jerusalem Post, the left-wing Darkenu organisation is planning a campaign ahead of the Trump visit in favour of withdrawing from territories. The campaign will feature billboards and flyers with the slogan "Israel says yes to separating from the Palestinians."

By contrast, on the right, political activists are seeking to send a unified message to the government that Israeli concessions would not be tolerated. Right-wing politicians are seeking to solidify their position within the Netanyahu government while also relaying key messages to Trump advisers and cabinet members.

For now then, Trump's visit is prompting a diverse range of responses across the political spectrum. The broader repercussions remain to be seen.

Hiccups along the way

As the New York Times has noted, the lead up to Trump's visit has also seen "a series of small, but sensitive, diplomatic issues" arise.

During a meeting between Israeli and American officials, an American official allegedly told the Israelis that Netanyahu could not accompany Trump on a visit to the Western Wall - one of the holiest prayer sites for Jews - because it "was not part of Israel".

The Israeli officials reported the incident to their superiors and Israel's ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, demanded an explanation from the White House.

In turn, Michael Short, a spokesman for the White House stated: "If true, the comments were not authorized by the White House... They do not reflect the U.S. position, and certainly not the president's position."

However, another senior Trump Administration official, H.R. McMaster, declined to answer a direct question as to whether the US government considers the Western Wall to be within Israeli territory and said that the question "sounds like a policy decision."

When queried on this, White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer stated that: "The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in Jewish faith. It's clearly in Jerusalem." However, Spicer also added that "it's an issue that's had serious consideration. It will be a topic that's going to be discussed during the President's trip between the parties that he meets with".

A related spat appeared to arise over the possible move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. A tweet from Fox News correspondent Conor Powel claimed that:

"Everyone I've spoken to in DC that has been briefed on #Jerusalem embassy move says #Netanyahu told #Trump not to move embassy at this time"

Additionally, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that Israel might have objections to the embassy move because of the impacts it could have on a peace deal.

In a rare move, Israel's Prime Minister Office responded by publishing sections of the summary report of the February 15 meeting between Netanyahu and Trump, to prove that Netanyahu called on Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and argued that this wouldn't cause a security escalation.

The Prime Minister's Office also released a further statement that: "Relocating the American embassy would not harm the peace process, on the contrary... [it] would advance it by correcting a historic injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy according to which Jerusalem isn't the capital of Israel."

A further political complication appeared to arise after reports emerged that Trump had shared classified information provided by Israel in a meeting with Russian officials.

However, in a statement emailed to the New York Times, the Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer reaffirmed that the two countries would maintain a close intelligence-sharing relationship, and that Israel "looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump". 


Image source: Kobi Gideon/GPO

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