WASHINGTON — One after another, the new leaders of the United States strode to the AIPAC podium here this week to hail Israel as America’s ally and the one true democracy in the Middle East.
Mike Pence, deeply moved to be addressing the vast crowd of Israel’s best American friends, related that he had been raised to “cherish” Israel, said that in his house they “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” and set out his lifetime’s Israel-loving bona fides in an address in which he appeared throughout to be holding back tears.
Nikki Haley proclaimed herself “the new sheriff” at the UN, riding to Israel’s rescue after its years of suffering at the hands of that “ridiculous” institution and its agencies, and vowing to “kick ’em every single time” they do something wrong.
Paul Ryan castigated the Obama administration for having “damaged this trust” at the heart of the US-Israel relationship, in large part via the “unmitigated disaster” of the Iran nuclear deal, and promised, by contrast, that the current president’s “commitment to Israel is sacrosanct.”
Music, it must have been, to the ears of Benjamin Netanyahu. After all those years of Clintons and Obama, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister finally gets to work with a Republican administration, one that would appear to share so much of his worldview — and most notably his belief in the accumulation and use of strength and power as the key to a nation’s well-being.
It was exceedingly strange, then, that Netanyahu, a habitual star turn at AIPAC, wasn’t there to hear all those politicians’ declarations of love for the country he leads. He skipped last year’s conference too, to avoid the partisan minefield of the various would-be presidents who were speaking. But of all the AIPAC policy conferences in the Netanyahu era, you’d have thought this year’s would be one he would have jumped at attending — affording, as these conferences so often have done, the opportunity for a White House stop-off and a presidential tete-a-tete.
Why pass up the opportunity to revel in caveat-free adoration for Israel after all those years of Obama-style conditional love?
The best excuse the prime minister could publicly muster for his absence was the lame joke he offered at the start of his speech-by-satellite that the “registration line waiting would be too long.”
A more credible explanation might be that he’s barely been in Israel in recent weeks, what with all the trips to the UK, Australia, Russia, China et al. But that wouldn’t have kept him away from Washington if he’d really wanted to be here. Nor would the coalition crisis back home; after all, he personally instigated our current round of domestic political chaos by backtracking on his support for a new state broadcaster just hours before he flew happily off to China two weeks ago. And yes, it’s true that it has been barely six weeks since he last journeyed to DC, to meet the new president at the White House. But ordinarily, Netanyahu would have relished the prospect of meeting Donald Trump twice in these early days of the new presidency: What better proof of the primacy of the US-Israel alliance?
So why the no-show? Why pass up the opportunity to revel in caveat-free adoration for Israel after all those years of Obama-style conditional love?
It’s not Iran, stupid
The Trump administration has been quick to signal the dawn of a new US era on one of the two issues that most divided Netanyahu and Barack Obama: the Iran nuclear deal. As Haley noted, the US has publicly put Iran “on notice”; it’s watching Iran “like a hawk.” Behind the scenes, it’s working out how best to salvage a coherent means of thwarting Iran’s rogue nuclear program from that Ryan-described “unmitigated disaster” overseen by the Obama administration.
As the accord took shape in the Obama years, Netanyahu’s very unhappy Israel was informed, contemptuously, that it shouldn’t be complaining because it had no idea what was in the deal. Then, when the deal was done, it was asserted, falsely, that Israel’s complaints weren’t credible because no deal would have been good enough for us. Finally, a year later, the president claimed, outrageously, that Israel’s own security establishment belatedly recognized the deal as a positive game-changer.
For the Trump administration, by contrast, Netanyahu is the leader who battled heroically against a lousy accord that emboldens and enriches Iran, and paves the ayatollahs’ path to the bomb. And he’s a trusted ally in the complicated bid to fix things.
In these early, chaotic days, under an impulsive, unpredictable president, with an administration short not only on experience but on actual personnel, Israel’s neighborhood expertise is being welcomed, too, when it comes to sizing up a host of other regional challenges, notably including Syria.
All of which, again, makes it even more baffling that Netanyahu didn’t come to Washington.
Truly, madly, deeply
But then we turn to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And here the waters get murky indeed. There are lots of indications that this administration is going to be tougher on Mahmoud Abbas than Obama was. How did Haley put it? “Until the Palestinian Authority comes to the table… there are no freebies for the Palestinian Authority anymore.”
But still. The embassy isn’t moving. Abbas has got his White House invitation. The president’s envoy is making visits to Palestinian refugee camps. And the president himself is describing settlements as unhelpful to peace, and publicly asking Netanyahu to “hold back” on them a little. A lot of people didn’t see any of that coming.
Now, a carte blanche from the president to build for Jews wherever Israel wants in Judea and Samaria might not have been the greatest blessing either for Netanyahu. How, then, could he resist the pressure from Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and much of his own Likud Knesset faction to do just that? To build. Everywhere.
But hours of talks with Trump’s special envoy Jason Greenblatt have failed to produce an agreed framework for settlement building, and that’s problematic for Netanyahu, who (whisper it) doesn’t really want to build too much outside East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs but who has promised to give the Amona evacuees a new settlement. Sources on both sides now talk, instead, of trying to reach “understandings.” And understandings can all-too easily produce misunderstandings.
Remember when Joe Biden visited Israel in 2010, and a bureaucratic blip produced spectacularly ill-timed Israeli approval for new housing in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood built over the pre-1967 lines? Obama went ballistic, and Biden almost went home.
Can you imagine how Trump might react if, from deep within the impenetrable machinations of Israeli bureaucracy, an inconvenient settlement move was advanced at a sensitive moment when the president was engaged in an attempt at Israeli-Palestinian deal-making? Nobody, honestly, can know what might happen.
And here’s the thing. The word in DC is that Trump truly, madly, deeply, wants to broker a deal, and believes he can do so. In the face of all evidence to the contrary. Quite probably because of all the evidence to the contrary.
As far as I have been able to discern, the very small team that Trump has deployed to grapple with our problems is not seeking input on gradually creating a climate in which the demonstrably impossible deal might, one day, become possible. It is, instead — however misguided and dangerous this may sound — looking to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian accord. And never mind the fact that, as John Kerry’s doomed endeavor confirmed unnecessarily, there simply are no terms for a permanent accord that both sides would conceivably accept. It’s a mission impossible, assigned by a president who doesn’t want to take no for an answer.
At the risk of repetition: There’s simply no knowing where the determined American pursuit of a currently impossible Israeli-Palestinian peace deal might lead. Expectations might be raised and dashed with incendiary consequences. A more circumspect approach could yet prevail. Or, stymied, Trump might just turn his attention elsewhere. And that’s only three of a host of unknowable scenarios.
Now, does that explain why Netanyahu chose to give Washington a wide berth this week — to steer clear of a president with a peacemaking glint in his eye?