Three days after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, the US-Israeli reset appears to be starting to take shape. Trump called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, and invited him to visit the White House early next month to further cement what both sides proclaim will be a new golden age of bilateral relations, devoid of the wedge of “daylight” that split the alliance for the last eight years. Trump promised to consult closely with Netanyahu on addressing the threats posed by Iran, and offered to help Israel in what he stressed needed to be strictly bilateral Israeli-Palestinian talks on peace — music, doubtless, to Netanyahu’s ears, and quite the contrast with Barack Obama.
However, those who expect tectonic shifts in these very early days of the new administration are likely to be disappointed. To be sure, Monday is the new president’s first full workday. But the immediate, near-messianic expectations of the Trump era in some Israeli circles have been met thus far with only that warm call and a change in public phraseology on the part of the US president — who plainly has none of Barack Obama’s problem saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”
While both sides are making strenuous efforts to highlight the new harmony, in terms of substantive, credible policy statements, much less action, it’s a waiting game.
Netanyahu’s office described their half-hour conversation Sunday as “very warm.” Trump said it was “very nice.” The prime minister “expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region,” according to the Israel read-out. And the new president “emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between our countries,” the White House said.
Trump also affirmed his “unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security” — language to which most of his recent predecessors would also have signed up.
Obviously, these official readouts only provide a very limited insight into what was said during the conversation. But it is telling that neither side mentioned Trump’s promised intention to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu also did not bring up the issue in his lengthy remarks to the Likud faction in the Knesset on Monday afternoon, in which he exhorted his party not to push for sudden moves that could test the budding relationship between him and Trump.
Not only coalition politicians, but some local pundits, had expected more by now.
In the hours before Sunday’s phone call, prominent Channel 2 TV reporter Amit Segal gushingly reported that the embassy move would be announced Monday. Then, after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration was “at the very beginning stages of even discussing” the embassy move, Segal tweeted a correction, saying the relocation would be announced “already tonight.”
After it was pointed out to him that Spicer’s statement, if anything, indicated the administration’s hesitance to make any dramatic announcement on this issue in the coming days, Segal maintained that it was unprecedented for the White House to even talk about beginning to move the embassy. Which was not entirely accurate either, and a far cry from his predicted imminent announcement of the controversial move.
Several Israeli officials also rushed to celebrate Spicer’s wary comment as far more dramatic than a reasonable interpretation would suggest, with Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin praising Trump for “making the campaign promise a reality.”
But bringing the US Embassy to Jerusalem has not only been a campaign promise for various US presidential hopefuls, it has also been seriously considered by incumbent administrations.
In 2000, Bill Clinton, after having declined to move the embassy for half a decade, in his final year in office vowed to review moving the embassy, due to failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
George W. Bush also publicly toyed with the idea throughout his eight years in the White House, saying in late 2006 that he “remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Monday that his contacts in the new administration give him hope that this time they’re serious. US officials are reportedly already looking for real estate in Jerusalem. But in the meantime, the official statements from Washington allow for the full range of possibilities — from imminent relocation, to years of foot-dragging.
As for thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive — an issue that “continues to be a supreme goal of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu declared earlier on Sunday — his conversation with Trump was certainly different from how it would have been with Obama, but not categorical.
On Monday afternoon, the prime minister reported that he spoke with Trump “at length” about the Iranian threat, and that the new president agrees with his well-known assessment that the nuclear pact was bad. But there was no word about abrogating or even amending it. No promise of presidential action.
All of which is unsurprising, or should have been, even to those who expect radical shifts from the new presidency. Trump may have promised to dismantle the deal on the campaign trail, and alternately to have spoken about enforcing it with unprecedented rigor. But that did not mean it would be a first order of business.
Domestic Israeli developments also testify to a likely slower pace of change in the Trump era.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, had predicted that the two-state solution would exit the world stage together with Barack Obama. He and other politicians to the right of Netanyahu, including ministers from the prime minister’s own Likud party, specifically vowed to advance legislation to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank — a de facto annexation — as soon as the new president was sworn in. (Bennett actually declared late last month that Israeli government policy would, from January 20, inauguration day, be to annex the settlement-city of Ma’ale Adumim.)
But Netanyahu, who opposes such moves, was able to buy time. He persuaded his ministers on Sunday to postpone any unilateral action until after his meeting with Trump in early February. In return for their patience, he promised unfettered construction in East Jerusalem and other settlement blocs.
At Monday’s weekly Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, Netanyahu went to great lengths to tone down expectations of a new era in which Israel could do whatever it wants with the West Bank. While he welcomed the “change in approach” that Trump has brought with him to the White House, he cautioned against hasty moves.
“Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions, dictates or surprises,” the prime minister said. “Now is the time for responsible and prudent diplomacy among friends; diplomacy that will strengthen the cooperation and trust between the Israeli government and the new administration in Washington.”
Donald Trump remains utterly unpredictable, and it is not impossible that he will announce his full-throated support for settlement expansion, the US Embassy’s relocation, and the abrogation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in the weeks ahead. Maybe even the days ahead.
More likely, though, is that while the US-Israel relationship will be decidedly different under Trump than it was under his predecessor, and that the prime minister will have a far easier time of it when enters the Trump White House, change may come slower than many in Jerusalem will have hoped.