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Analysis

As president, Trump less gung-ho about dramatic changes in Israel policy

The Donald dials back his campaign promises to move embassy to Jerusalem, has yet to say how he’ll treat Iran nuclear deal

President Donald Trump speaking at a luncheon at the Congress of Tomorrow Republican Member Retreat in Philadelphia, Jan. 26, 2017. In the background are Senate Majority Whip John Cronyn, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaking at a luncheon at the Congress of Tomorrow Republican Member Retreat in Philadelphia, Jan. 26, 2017. In the background are Senate Majority Whip John Cronyn, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – 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 US 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.

White House press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily White House briefing, Monday, Jan.uary 23, 2017, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
White House press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily White House briefing, Monday, Jan.uary 23, 2017, in the briefing room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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.

Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Palestinian laborers work at the construction site of a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Ariel near the West Bank city of Nablus on January 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

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 next 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 US-Israeli understanding, so there’s not a danger of not having US 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.”

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