Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meetings with president Barack Obama were often extremely fraught affairs.
The introductory remarks, and even the responses to reporters’ questions, were reliably polite, even friendly. The stiff body language often told a different story. And the read-out from their behind-the-scenes talks was frequently a tale of tension between two leaders who each thought the other fundamentally misunderstood the thrust of global affairs and how best to champion their countries’ interests.
With Netanyahu and President Donald J. Trump, the optics, and the substance, are entirely different. As exemplified by Wednesday’s brief session on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the remarks delivered for public consumption are genuinely warm. The two leaders are plainly at ease in each other’s company. To date, there has been no suggestion of major policy disagreement behind the scenes, either.
And yet, a tension attends such sessions nonetheless — because of Trump’s capacity to surprise with a phrase or two here, a few unexpected words there.
As Trump made explicit in his opening comments Wednesday, he is instinctively and fully supportive of Israel: “We are with you, we are with Israel, 100%,” he said.
And Netanyahu does not doubt it: “The American-Israeli alliance has never been stronger,” he said in his prepared comments. “It is stronger than ever before under your leadership, and I look forward to working with you and your team to advance our common interests — security, prosperity, and peace with Israel’s neighbors and for the region. And we can do it with you.”
Nonetheless, there were two moments in this brief encounter with the media that would have given Netanyahu pause.
Israel is currently in the midst of a deeply worrying crisis in relations with Russia. Whereas President Vladimir Putin, in an eve of Yom Kippur phone call last Tuesday, blamed a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances” for the downing, by Syrian anti-missile fire, of a Russian military reconnaissance plane, during or just after an Israeli airstrike on a weapons facility in Syria last Monday, Russia has since placed sole and unequivocal blame for the incident, in which the 15-strong crew was killed, on Israel. An Israeli military delegation last Thursday briefed Russian military chiefs on what they believe happened, and returned home convinced that the Russians accepted the Israeli narrative.
Quite the reverse. Moscow is accusing Israel of lying — of not giving Russia enough warning ahead of the attack, of misreporting the specific target area, and of using the Russian military plane as cover. Israel’s bitter denial of all these allegations has made no impression on Moscow, which has announced it will deliver advanced S-300 missile defense systems to the barbarous Assad regime and introduce other sophisticated measures aimed at complicating further Israeli air strikes — airstrikes that Israel sees as vital in preventing the delivery of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and to stop Iran deepening its military presence in Syria.
With Jerusalem-Moscow relations at a nadir, Israel would certainly want American presidential assistance in underlining Israel’s imperative for freedom of action against Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria. And Trump, so robust in his condemnations of Iran, would presumably be ready and willing to help. What was interesting about their brief press conference appearance was that, on this issue, the US president indicated that he was not thoroughly familiar with what has been playing out these past few days — “I haven’t heard about this,” he said of the S-300 supply — and gave a rather vague answer when questioned about the crisis. He merely indicated that he would speak to Putin “if it’s appropriate, when it’s appropriate. Yes, I will do.”
Doubtless, the Israeli delegation will have been discussing the matter in detail in their private conversations, and agreeing on the best approach. The vagueness of Trump’s comment, in that regard, therefore, will not have overly troubled Netanyahu.
What will have shocked him rather more was Trump’s repeated and explicit endorsement of the two-state solution as the preferred end result of the presidential bid to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Trump had not hitherto ruled out a two-state deal, but he’d not previously presented it emphatically as his goal. At a previous meeting with Netanyahu, at the White House in February 2017, his first as president, Trump said cheerfully: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
On Wednesday, by contrast, he specified: “I like two-state solution,” and added, “That’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling.” Recognizing that this might not be precisely what Netanyahu wanted to hear, he motioned to the prime minister, and noted, “Now, you may have a different feeling. I don’t think so, but I think two-state solution works best.”
Netanyahu, who did not respond, may indeed have a different feeling. He has long conditioned his support for Palestinian independence on caveats — believing that full sovereignty for the Palestinians, in the customary international model, would place Israel at untenable risk.
Meeting with European leaders in Brussels in December 2017, for instance, Netanyahu was asked whether he accepted the two-state solution, and replied by asking the ministers what kind of state the Palestinian one would be: “Would it be Costa Rica or Yemen?” he inquired. Among the conditions he set out that day: a demand for ironclad security arrangements for Israel, and that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He told reporters after that Brussels meeting that he had asked the EU foreign ministers: “How many times have you spoken about settlements? And how many times have you told the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?”
His Brussels talks with the EU came days after Trump had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the prime minister was, as ever, full of praise for the US president. In making plain to the Palestinians that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state, said Netanyahu, “Trump told them the truth.”
Trump’s two-state endorsement on Wednesday leaves plenty of wriggle room. The US president didn’t rule out any of Netanyahu’s caveats. But as an indication of Trump’s thinking, accompanied by the president’s declaration that he hopes to broker a deal by the end of his first term, his comments would not have been music to Netanyahu’s ears. Doubtless not as troubling as many of the things Netanyahu heard from Obama over the years, but jarring nonetheless.
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