I have to admit that this week in Washington, I felt like Christopher Columbus rediscovering America. For years, especially the past eight years under former President Barack Obama, they explained to us that we were losing America. For years, they drummed it into our heads that the two-state solution was the only realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the only one for which Israel would have the support of the capitals of the world. And now, U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t hesitating to think outside the box and is raising the possibility that there might be another option.
If I were Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, I’d have every reason in the world to be worried about Wednesday’s meeting at the White House between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Suddenly, there’s no more talk of the road map, the settlement danger, Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, or the “occupation” as the reason for terrorism. Suddenly, Washington and Jerusalem are falling into step on a new path. After three decades in which we have grown used to one kind of thinking, Trump appears and upsets everything, allowing Jerusalem to once again join the war for public opinion. All this, even before any peace initiative has been mentioned.
Trump is suddenly giving us the privilege of thinking differently. A Palestinian state? It’s certainly a possibility. But not necessarily. In other words, the Palestinians might miss the peace train. And not only that, it looks like Israel can now choose its car and sit down comfortably until the Palestinians are kind enough to get on board.
One city for two leaders
With all due respect to the centrality of the Middle East, it looks like Trump and Netanyahu understood that reality is influenced by the city that lies on the banks of the Potomac River, Washington. Netanyahu knows the U.S. capital well, like the palm of his hand. He worked there for years and knew the White House before Trump ever gave a thought to politics. Trump took Washington by storm after he entered politics in June 2015 and is still learning the ropes. But they both know that the city is in effect the center of the world. They both know that it is a city with the power to change the world. So it was good that they met less than a month after the new president was sworn in.
Netanyahu can’t remember a president as friendly as this in Washington. There was a reason why Netanyahu talked about a “new day,” and that appears to be the truth. The White House went out of its way to make Netanyahu feel as if he was the U.S.’ best friend in the world. At 12 p.m. on Wednesday, the car carrying Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, arrived at the White House. An honor guard was awaiting the important ally from Israel. First lady Melania Trump, in a white dress, and her husband were standing there waiting for the guests. One could feel the intimacy between the two sides. When Sara Netanyahu entered the press briefing room with her hostess Melania, she saw Trump’s son-in-law, the man in charge of the Middle East portfolio in his administration, Jared Kushner.
“I’ve known him since he was little,” Sara Netanyahu said. There was great warmth between the hosts and the guests. Netanyahu reminded Kushner that he had known him since he was a child and that even then, he’d been tall — old acquaintances, happy to meet again, this time in the White House. That is, two leaders who came to Washington to create change, each from his own perspective. Throughout his campaign, Trump promised that as president, he would work to “drain the swamp” of the city, starting by canceling Obama’s health care law and including an epic battle against wasting taxpayers’ money on all sorts of strange regulation. Netanyahu was there to change the past eight years, albeit as part of a visit. They both achieved their goals more quickly than expected — Trump completely changed the way the White House is covered in the media, and even the White House press briefings have gotten a nip and tuck.
Netanyahu completely changed the way Washington approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as if the Obama administration had never existed. The change in tone when it comes to Israel is palpable that the American media immediately began dwelling on the joint press conference. The Politico website described them as a couple of lovers. It was obvious to everyone that Trump enjoyed every minute after a few stormy days for his administration. Trump praised his friend Netanyahu and spoke well of Israel-U.S. ties, which all of a sudden are no longer conditional upon concession, a halt to construction in Judea and Samaria, or creating the conditions for a Palestinian state. Trump wants a solution that will be acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians, not one that will be welcomed by the European Union or the U.N. or any other international institution.
As he told me in an interview, Trump doesn’t want a deal for the sake of a deal, because he is afraid that approach will lead to a deal that will hold up no more than a few months. At a press conference this week, Trump made it clear that as far as he was concerned, how a sustainable peace deal is reached is not terribly important. Just like his path to the requisite 270 electoral votes in the election was the least conventional path possible but in hindsight turned out to be the best one when facing off against a candidate like Hillary Clinton. Trump thought outside the box, stole states that were supposed to be in her pocket, and effectively made the election into a referendum on change vs. the status quo rather than one about his personality, thus neutralizing the attacks against him. Now he intends to neutralize all the conventions set by various “Middle East experts” over the years. The way he sees it, he can do in the Middle East what he did in the U.S. Midwest: change the political reality that has stagnated for decades, and because of his colorful personality, he’s the only one who can. “Two states or one state, whatever you decide,” Trump said at the press conference. After eight years of Obama, this would appear to be a doomsday dream for the Israeli Right, even if the Left would prefer to stress that Trump’s suggested to rein in settlement construction.
Recommending, not demanding
Anyone who noticed the sentence that left Trump’s mouth will understand how much things have changed. Hold back for a bit, he suggested on the construction issue, because he wants to make a deal. In other words, “Give me a chance to try a few things, nothing will happen if you wait a little.” He didn’t take a principled position for or against the settlements. A Washington source close to the White House told the Israel Hayom weekend supplement that Trump still hadn’t decided on a clear position. Israeli construction in the large settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria certainly isn’t a problem for him, unless Israel were to initiate new construction. It’s important he not be surprised and forced to deal with facts on the ground.
Coming together on Iran
There is no doubt that President Trump envisions a peace deal like he envisions his buildings — big. He sees a regional initiative. He sees a total peace. He sees the moderate Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, as part of the process. He has an incentive for them. It’s called Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which received its bona fides from the Obama administration, has once again become the bad boy of the region, threatening stability. Thus the Gulf States have an incentive to draw closer with Israel. In Trump’s opinion, it’s time for them to date Israel openly, rather than hiding it like a concubine. If he succeeds, great. If not, Trump won’t get stressed, and he won’t threaten sanctions. “Israel has suffered enough,” he said during last week’s interview. The president might have been seeking balance when he said that both sides needed to make concessions, but when was the last time you heard an American president talk about the Palestinians needing to do the same? There is something new under the Washington sun, after all, even if it’s only February.
The Israeli prime minister also noted while in Washington Trump’s desire to “dramatically upgrade” bilateral relations. Netanyahu has the chance to ask for official recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights. In any other presidency, such a radical suggestion would encounter a stone wall and revulsion at the mere request. Indeed, it’s a new day in America.
A change in the media
The American media has also realized which way things are going. Not since the swearing-in ceremony has Trump been seen smiling like he was at the press conference with Netanyahu. The chaotic Middle East gave him a moment of peace and quiet.
Trump proved that he sees domestic and foreign policy as the same thing. Just like he doesn’t intend to pay attention to rules laid down in the demanding Washington swamp, he doesn’t intend to listen to Middle East paradigms. And just like he plans to rebuild the American economy from the inside, he intends to rebuild American deterrence abroad.
Success in domestic policy will help build his image abroad, and success abroad will help him demonstrate authoritativeness at home. He knows very well that Iran is scrutinizing the battles he’s fighting in the U.S. — from the fight against “Obamacare” to the battles over his executive order limiting immigration. If people feel he is weakening, they will try to test him again. So he is unwilling to go any great distance to show he’s standing strong against the courts and his opponents. That is a crucial image in the Middle East, and he knows it better than a lot of the presidents who preceded him. And just like he captured the heart of the American periphery through straight, unmediated talk — like Andrew Jackson before him — he intends to win the war for the hearts of the Middle Eastern countries.
Already, he isn’t just another preaching president who knows what’s better for both sides than they do (what Obama was and what Clinton might have been). The American media understands this. Shortly after the press conference, Peter Baker and Mark Lander wrote in The New York Times that Trump’s words marked a dramatic change to American thinking in the past two decades. American analysts even concluded that Trump saw Netanyahu as a partner who was helping him achieve stability in the Middle East. Israel is no longer perceived in Washington and other western capitals as a destabilizing country, the opposite — as a country that shares western values.
The European media also realized exactly what had come out of the meeting: “Trump and Netanyahu buried the idea of two states,” read the top headlines in France’s Le Figaro newspaper. But let’s be clear: Trump, who is bogged down with the media over the alleged Russian ties scandal, the liberal experts in the streets, and other incidents in which Republican elected officials are taking part, realizes that the most complicated problem in the world today — the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict — is an opportunity for him to make history. In the meantime, one thing is certain: Trump intends to keep the flame of possible peace burning. The big question now is how the Palestinians will respond. We can assume they will go running to the various European capitals and maybe even to Russia and China to cry over their bitter fate. It’s hard to believe how we have moved on from U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, passed just before Hanukkah of last year and which defines the settlements as illegal, to doubting or even “burying the idea of two states.” Amazing.
The Palestinian side responded with astonishment. Saeb Erekat, who has been involved with the Palestinian side in every round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians these past 25 years, said that “torpedoing the idea of two states will be a disaster and a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians.” In effect, as the CNN website declared, Netanyahu and Trump hit the “restart” button in Israel-U.S. relations. The news network, which is locked in all-out battle with Trump, might be saying that the U.S. president hasn’t given Israel a blank check to do what it wants, but that’s due to tactical reasons intended to leave him room to maneuver. The request that Israel hold off a little on everything having to do with the settlements was part of his desire to move forward, and not out of principle.
A heartwarming moment
It hasn’t been an easy week for Trump. It’s not how he thought he’d start his fourth week in the White House. It’s only been 25 days since his term started, and he’s already lost his national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign because he had lied to the president and vice president about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador in December of last year, before the administration entered into power. Flynn was also a key figure in the campaign in handling the growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. So Trump took advantage of Wednesday’s podium to change the shrill tones that have followed his administration this past week. As one pundit said, the smiles with Netanyahu might have been his best moments since he entered the White House.
At this rate, given the many scandals in Washington today, Netanyahu might be invited back much quicker than he expected.
All in all, the drama in the U.S. these past few weeks means that the Middle East, even Iran, will have to wait. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is slated to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the G-20 foreign ministers in Bonn, Germany, which wraps up today. Once again, we see how for Trump the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one more aspect of foreign policy, and not even a central pillar of it. Solving the conflict might help him, but he doesn’t intend to make Tillerson roll out plans and initiatives morning and night like his predecessors. During the campaign, he went against what the polls and pollsters said, and in doing so caused an entire industry of data collection and analysis to go broke, and he intends to do the same to concepts that controlled thinking in the Middle East and the State Department. He won because he crisscrossed America and spoke to all voters in the same way and without condescension, even those who supposedly weren’t supposed to support him, as Clinton was trying to warn everyone about him and forgetting that she needed to drum up support of her own. And this is where his enormous potential to change the Middle East reality lies, in highlighting a change to the Palestinian deadlock on recognizing the current reality of the existence of a Jewish state.
Will the newbie bring change?
In one week, I visited the White House twice. The command center of the world is an impressive place. Portraits of past presidents adorn many walls. On the way out of the White House, a portrait of Hillary Clinton, who spent eight years as first lady, appears.
“The president is a real gentleman. He’s leaving the picture up,” I tell my guide in jest.
“He sure is a gentleman,” the White House guide responds.
And leaving the premises, I think to myself that if Clinton had won the election and maybe hosted Netanyahu at a later date, we can assume that we would certainly have heard the same refrain we’ve heard for 30 years, which it must be admitted has led to nothing. Maybe it’s the newbie politician who is merely the president of the world who will manage to change people’s thinking and perception, but for that to happen, we need two things: an American president and an Israeli prime minister. It looks like these two are coordinated. It’s promising.