WASHINGTON — On Wednesday at noon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be welcomed to the White House with an honor guard, a gesture unprecedented in recent years for Israeli visitors.
Then US President Donald Trump will step out of the Oval Office to personally greet his visitor before the two leaders sit down for their first meeting since Trump’s election.
The two are expected to exchange pleasantries in front of flashing cameras, perhaps even beating the 19-second handshake record set with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — and the tone is expected to remain friendly when they go behind closed doors. But all indications are that Netanyahu will still have to work at treading a fine line between Trump and right-wing pressures back home, avoiding terminology that could anger either side and possibly making the meeting as fraught as those he endured with predecessor Barack Obama.
Netanyahu said he looks forward to discussing three main issues: Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians. While the first two subjects could have immediate and possibly dramatic ramifications on the ground, the third one, though mostly theoretical in nature, will probably get most of the attention.
Half of the meeting will be dedicated to Iran, a senior aide to the prime minister said Monday on the plane to the American capital, while Syria and the Palestinians are projected to each take up about 25 percent of the remaining time.
However, if chatter ahead of the meeting is any indication, the issue that will most likely catch the biggest headlines Wednesday is the one Netanyahu likes to speak about the least: what do with about the settlements and Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Many Israelis expect the meeting to answer the question of whether Israel will continue professing to seek a two-state solution or if it is headed for partial or complete annexation of the West Bank.
Right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition, both from the nationalist Jewish Home faction and his own Likud party, over the last few days tried to push the prime minister toward the latter — a one-state solution. If Netanyahu in the White House dares to even make mention of Palestinian statehood, the ground will tremble and unspeakable misery will befall the Jewish people, Education Minister and Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett threatened this week.
“I think all the members of the cabinet oppose a Palestinian state, and the prime minister first among them,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a Likud stalwart, said Monday. “No one thinks that in the next few years a Palestinian state is something that, God forbid, might and should happen.”
At a conference in Jerusalem later Monday, more than half a dozen Israeli ministers and President Reuven Rivlin voiced full-throated support for partial or full West Bank annexation.
But Netanyahu seems unfazed by the hawkish statements from colleagues. According to an unconfirmed leak, he noted Trump’s “personality,” suggesting it would be unwise at this point to confront the US president over moves he might perceive as unhelpful on the path to peace. Trump wants to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and genuinely believes the Palestinians are ready to “make concessions,” Netanyahu said, according to another report.
That does not sound like someone who is about to revoke his longstanding policy calling for two states for two peoples. On the other hand, in recent days Netanyahu has carefully avoided restating his commitment to Palestinian statehood
On Monday, moments before he boarded his Boeing 767 to Washington, a reporter asked Netanyahu if he stands by his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he first accepted, in principle, a demilitarized Palestinian state. The prime minister eschewed a definitive response, mumbling something to the effect that he would answer this question in Washington.
Later, on the plane, his aides told reporters that they were well prepared for the White House summit but refused to reveal what the prime ministers intends to tell Trump vis-a-vis his position on the peace process. Netanyahu is coming to Washington mostly to listen to a fresh president who is still forming his policies, they said.
An analysis of recent statements suggests Netanyahu will reiterate his desire to make peace, but continue to argue, behind closed doors, that Palestinian statehood is currently unfeasible.
In London last week, Netanyahu said that while his positions on this matter haven’t changed, any peace agreement will have to be conditioned on a Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state and a long-term Israel security presence from the Green Line to the Jordan River.
He knows full well, however, that the current leadership in Ramallah will never accept these terms. A Palestinian state without a military whose entire territory is under the control of Israeli soldiers wouldn’t exactly be sovereign, Netanyahu acknowledges. Last month he reportedly told his ministers that what he was willing to give the Palestinians “is not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus.”
In his Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu recalled having told Barack Obama, who had entered the White House six months earlier, that “if we could agree on the substance, then the terminology would not pose a problem.”
In other words: If all my conditions are met, Netanyahu said at Bar-Ilan, we could reach an agreement with the Palestinians. If they want to call it a state, so be it (even though it would really be less than a state).
Bennett and other right-wingers now urge the prime minister to withdraw from his nearly eight-year-old commitment, but he is unlikely to do that. Rather, Netanyahu might make do with a noncommittal statement about his unwavering quest for peace and willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians, anywhere and anytime. This way, he can avoid the ire of his hawkish rivals at home — because he did not re-endorse the two state solution — and at the same time reassure the international community by not announcing a total policy shift toward annexation.
What is Trump’s position on the two-state solution?
The Republican Party’s 2016 election platform made no mention of the two-state solution, and some of Trump’s advisers on Middle East affairs have a history of hawkish pronouncements.
But Trump himself has never disavowed Palestinian statehood and last week, in his interview with Israel Hayom, used surprisingly critical words about the settlements, saying he did not believe that “going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
The journalist who interviewed Trump, Boaz Bismuth, later said that Trump tends to be influenced by the last person he spoke to, which in this case was the king of Jordan, who visited Washington last week.
Hence Trump’s relatively critical view of the settlements, Bismuth suggested. After sitting down for a few hours with Netanyahu — who can be very persuasive in explaining why expanding settlements does not impede a peace deal — the president might sing a very different tune, the journalist surmised.
Many people in Jerusalem and Ramallah will be watching carefully, looking for any clues that could suggest where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is headed in the years to come.
Nuke the nuke deal?
Elsewhere, many will likely be looking to see if Trump and Netanyahu begin calling for the Iran nuclear deal to be voided, possibly putting them on a collision course with the rest of the world, which overwhelmingly backed the pact.
Before taking off for Washington, Netanyahu said he and Trump see “eye to eye” on dangers and opportunities in the region, a likely reference to how the leaders intend to deal with Iran.
On Tehran’s increasing belligerence, which includes provocative missile launches and threats to attack Tel Aviv, the two leaders indeed see more or less eye-to-eye. Trump has officially “put Iran on notice,” vowing to take a more aggressive line toward the regime than the previous administration.
Both the president and the prime minister have denounced the 2015 nuclear agreement. “The deal with Iran was a disaster for Israel. Inconceivable that it was made. It was poorly negotiated and executed,” Trump said in the interview with Israel Hayom published Friday.
The two men have so far not explicitly called for the deal’s termination. In early December, Netanyahu said in a television interview that he has “about five things in my mind” about how to deal with the unloved agreement, but declined to elaborate.
Despite Israeli and American misgivings over the deal, Netanyahu and Trump are likely to emerge from their summit recommending steps to ensure that Iran abides by its terms — the world needs to “hold Iran’s feet to the fire,” Netanyahu used to say — like imposing more sanctions over the country’s ballistic missile program as well as additional policies to rein in the regime’s global sponsorship of terrorism.
It will be equally instructive to see what the two leaders can agree upon regarding the Syrian civil war. Netanyahu has consistently declared that Iran must not be allowed to gain a foothold in Israel’s war-torn neighbor.
The administration is on the warpath with Iran and committed to Israel’s security, but also expected to grow closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Given that Moscow is closely allied with Iran and Bashar Assad’s Syria, Jerusalem has supreme interest in influencing the US position on a potential peace deal in Syria.
Also in the cards: UN, Holocaust and embassy relocation
But Wednesday’s meeting in the Oval Office is set to touch not only on Iran, Syria and the Palestinians. There are some other issues of interest that will be discussed that might get less media attention than they deserve.
For one, Netanyahu and his top aides promised to share with the new administration the “ironclad evidence” it insists it has of the Obama administration being the driving force between UN Security Council resolution 2334, which harshly criticized the settlements.
On December 23, the controversial text passed with 14 yes votes and an American abstention. Israel later claimed that Obama colluded behind Israel’s back to author, advance and eventually pass the resolution. Jerusalem officials refused to say what their accusations were based on, but said they would present the evidence to the Trump administration when appropriate.
Another issue that Netanyahu promised to shed light on was his view on the White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The text, which the administration said was written by a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors, failed to mention the Jewish people. Even after the omission was pointed out to administration officials, the White House doubled down on its message, arguing that it was being inclusive, as other peoples also suffered during the Holocaust.
Last week, Netanyahu was asked during a briefing to reporters in London whether he did not think it was proper for the leader of the Jewish state to speak out on the matter. Netanyahu promised he would answer this question during his Washington trip.
Lastly, Trump’s campaign pledge to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will likely be brought up during Wednesday’s meeting. According to reports, the president was ready to announce the move as early as January 20 — Inauguration Day — but has refrained from doing so for various reasons. Some pundits said Netanyahu himself asked the administration not to rush on this matter, a claim the Prime Minister’s Office flatly denies.
Trump said he has yet to make a decision on the matter. “I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy [issue], and we will see what happens,” he told Israel Hayom. He might want to take some more time before he has to make up his mind (the current presidential waiver preventing the automatic move only expires on June 1). But the meeting with Netanyahu could help advance the decision-making process.