WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have been talking each other up plenty since the latter’s election upset in November. But those expecting Trump to turn his kind words and pledges on Israel into fast action may have to be patient.
The starkest example of Trump walking back concrete promises is his retreat from what he had indicated during the transition period would be an accelerated push to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Asked Thursday on the Fox News Channel about whether he would move the embassy, Trump was notably — and newly — reticent.
“I don’t want to talk about it yet,” the president told Sean Hannity when asked about the move from its Tel Aviv location. “It’s too early.”
Trump had been unequivocal about the embassy move since he first made the pledge addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2016. In the days leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration, Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said to “stay tuned” for an announcement, and Trump assured an Israeli reporter he would make good on his vow.
The difference is between wooing and an actual relationship, Middle East hands said.
It makes sense for Trump and Netanyahu to retreat from the certainties that characterized the transition because what Trump says as president, with executive powers, carries greater weight than what he said as president-elect, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East peace negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents.
“What they say now is going to speak volumes about their sensibilities and the orientation of the incoming administration to what the peace process is,” said Miller, now vice president of the Wilson Center think tank.
Trump also has yet to pronounce on how he will treat the Iran nuclear deal, which he called “terrible” on the campaign trail and which Netanyahu still hopes to scuttle.
Netanyahu announced new settlement expansions in the West Bank and building in eastern Jerusalem this week — but partly as a means to stave off pressure from right-wingers in his government who see Trump’s friendliness as license to go much further and even annex portions of the West Bank.
Just as Jerusalem embassy talk has been dialed down, Spicer made it clear he also doesn’t want to talk about settlement expansion.
“He wants to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and we’ll discuss that” was all Spicer would say Tuesday at the daily briefing for reporters when asked about the settlement announcements. Trump’s team did not, however, criticize the expansion announcement as “unhelpful” or “disappointing,” as the Obama administration often did.
In at least one respect, Netanyahu lacks an advantage he had during his fraught relationship with President Barack Obama, when to resist pressure from his right to expand settlements or alter the status quo, he would routinely warn against further antagonizing the Obama administration.
“For a very long time, the prime minister has been able to use concerns or constraints from the American government as a way to respond to pressure from his right wing and to say ‘I’d love to accommodate you on settlements but the Americans have asked me not to,’” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a top State Department Middle East official in Obama’s first term. “He can’t play that game.”
David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked at the State Department on the last round of peace talks, said Netanyahu was moving as cautiously as he could given the pressures of his right-wing Cabinet. Trump and Netanyahu are expected to meet here this month, and the best outcome for Netanyahu would be specific agreements on what Israel can do absent a peace process, similar to the “natural growth” in settlement that President George W. Bush agreed to for a period after 2004.
“Netanyahu’s message to his Cabinet was not to do big things until after he meets with Trump,” Makovsky said. “That’s the right approach, it’s the preferable approach.
“If Palestinian-Israeli understandings are not attainable, there needs to be a new U.S.-Israeli understanding, so there’s not a danger of not having U.S. and Israel on the same page.”
David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s CEO, said Netanyahu needs to tread extra lightly while the Trump administration finds its feet.
“Optics are important in politics, and the optics of Israel’s announced settlement construction, so shortly after President Trump took office, are not helpful,” he said in an email. “Yes, the construction may be in those areas Israel intends to keep in any possible deal with the Palestinians. And yes, the Trump administration may (or may not) end up taking a different approach to this issue than its predecessor. Nonetheless, Israel is taking a gamble that this step won’t further inflame an already difficult situation on the ground and internationally.”
To be sure, the Trump-Netanyahu mutual admiration society continues apace.
“Congrats to my friend President Trump,” Netanyahu said on Twitter Jan. 20, three hours before Trump was actually inaugurated. (Netanyahu had an excuse — it was Shabbat in Israel when Trump took the oath.) “Look fwd to working closely with you to make the alliance between Israel&USA stronger than ever.”
Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, Netanyahu made it clear he felt safer with Trump at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. than he did with Obama, particularly regarding Iran.
After saying there was a “deafening silence” worldwide to the threat Iran poses to Israel, Netanyahu said, “I believe it will change. Because I spoke a few days ago to President Trump and he spoke about the Iranian aggression. He spoke about Iran’s commitment to destroy Israel. He spoke about the nature of this nuclear agreement and the danger it poses. We spoke about it together.”
On Fox News, Trump told Hannity on Thursday that the relationship was repaired.
“It got repaired as soon as I took the oath of office,” he said. The White House, describing the first post-inauguration phone call between the leaders, said “the president affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security.”
As candidate, then nominee, then president-elect, Trump was able to have it all: He boasted that his skills as a negotiator could bring about the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded others, while also signaling that he would be friendlier to Netanyahu and Israel’s right wing than any of his predecessors.
Now that he’s on the job, those postures might not be so easy to reconcile.
“The Trump administration faces a stark choice,” said Cofman Wittes, who now leads the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.
“Whether to accede to the preferences to constituencies that supported them in the election — the evangelicals and right-wing Jews — and to demonstrate full-throated support for policy preferences of the Israeli right [and] to support actions that would set aside the two-state solution,” she said. “The other option is to do what [Trump] has said is the ultimate deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He can’t have it both ways.”
Miller said that Trump could strike a balance between the condemnation of settlement expansion typical of the Obama administration and a “full-throated” endorsement of settlement.
“A third option would be a more ambiguous expression of concern that would clearly send a signal it isn’t business as usual when it comes to the settlement activity, [but] that we don’t find unilateral actions hopeful,” he said.
Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it was clear that Trump would substantively reverse the Obama administration policy of speaking out when there were differences on Israel. He saw a return to the behind-closed-doors policy of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
“I wouldn’t expect a significant response if the Trump administration is concerned or even angered by this move,” he said, referring to the settlement announcements. “I would expect conversations to take place quietly, a return to status quo ante.”