WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is only two weeks into his presidency and yet he’s alarmed much of the world for doing exactly what he said he would do as the unorthodox and pugnacious candidate that shockingly won the election.
He signed an executive order that initiated his plan to build a wall along America’s southern border. He began the process of repealing Obamacare. And he signed a highly controversial immigration order that bans all refugee resettlement from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days and forbids those from war-ravaged Syria from entering the country indefinitely.
During the campaign, one commentator famously observed that Trump appealed to millions of Americans who took him “seriously, but not literally.” After 14 days in the Oval Office, however, it’s become evident that it was not unwise to take him literally after all.
Except on one issue.
Trump, the presidential hopeful, vowed to make a radical departure from the Israel policies Republicans so loathed in Barack Obama. He told a crowd of roughly 18,000 at last year’s AIPAC policy conference that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, dismantle the Iran nuclear accord, and send “a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally.”
In December, after the Obama administration allowed passage of a United Nations Security resolution that condemned Israeli settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, he tweeted to Israelis that “things would be different” when he took over as commander in chief.
And yet Trump, the president, has thus far been uncomfortable delivering on the full-fledged shift toward the US-Israel relationship he intimated would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
In the last two weeks, he has backed off on his pledge to relocate the embassy, saying that while there’s “a chance” his administration will make the move, the decision was “not easy” and there are “two sides” to the conflict. He agreed with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to “rigorously” enforce the Iran deal rather than dismantle it. And on Thursday, he warned Israel for the first time, albeit mildly, against expanding its settlement presence in the West Bank — something his press secretary said “may not be helpful” to achieving peace after Israel approved 5,500 units in the contested area and announced it will build an entirely new settlement for the first time in a quarter-century.
It is certainly not fair to say that he has adopted the Obama playbook. The Trump White House has both said it does not believe “the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace” but also that it “has not taken an official position on settlement activity.”
Obama, for his part, was adamant on the need to confront the issue using more unequivocal rhetoric. “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s,” he said in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace.”
“It is time for these settlements to stop,” he added. “It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”
But Trump does seem to be heeding the advice his predecessor left him. In his final press conference, Obama was asked about Trump’s apparent intention to upend decades of US policy on the Jewish state — a sense reflected largely in the choice of David Friedman, a vocal supporter and donor to West Bank settlements, as the next US envoy to Israel. (The announcement of his nomination came with a suggestion they would follow through on moving the embassy.) The outgoing president, in response, noted that the Middle East is “a volatile environment,” and sent the message to Trump: “If you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through and understand that there are going to be consequences.”
‘If you’re going to make big shifts in policy, just make sure you’ve thought it through’
Many have wondered these last two weeks whether Trump really “thought through” the possible repercussions of a travel ban that risks inflaming anti-American hostility in the Middle East, of continuing his early morning tweets, of admonishing the Australian prime minister, the leader of one of America’s most enduring and reliable allies.
Some have noted that Trump’s management style may well be to instigate chaos, an environment he thrived under as a candidate and that continued through the transition and now the nascent presidency.
He’s demonstrated much more caution, however, toward trying to accomplish the “ultimate deal,” as he calls it, of brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians than he has with other areas of policy.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to Washington on February 15, he may find a president inclined to give him more leeway on settlements than Obama did, but not absolute freedom of action. The White House statement Thursday warned against “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders,” language that indicates an acceptance of building inside the so-called blocs Israel expects to retain under any accord.
That posture aligns with an agreement George W. Bush forged with Ariel Sharon in 2004, in which the former president said “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
And it also gives Netanyahu the shield he needs from the right-wing members of his base who have demanded more construction since Trump took office. Shortly after the Republican won last November, MK Naftali Bennett declared “the era of the Palestinian state is over.”
But Trump does seem motivated to accomplish the elusive goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace; he’s floated the idea of having his closest confidante and Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner serve as a special envoy on that effort and has shown himself reluctant to take any steps that could undermine that outcome.
Israelis who thought Trump would rein in a highly dramatic “new era” may have to start questioning how much of his campaign they should have taken seriously, but not quite literally.