A few days ahead of Donald Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem chose to delay a scheduled procedural decision on the possible construction of new settlements in the West Bank. This was not solely an attempt to avoid the repetition of an embarrassing incident that took place in 2010, when the construction of hundreds of new homes beyond the Green Line was announced during a visit by Vice President Biden. It was also a reflection of a growing unease in Jerusalem over the intentions of the new Administration. Trump had begun shifting away from the idea of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and media reports suggested that he might be using his visit to present a new peace plan—one that could require concessions from Netanyahu, putting his right-wing coalition at risk.
Yet it took only a few hours for concern to turn to euphoria on the Israeli right. “The only pressure felt was from Trump’s embrace [of Israel],” read a piece by the editor-in-chief of the daily Israel Hayom, a paper published by Sheldon Adelson—an American billionaire business man and top Trump donor—known mainly for parroting Netanyahu’s talking points. “His deal means pressure on the Palestinians. Trump is in love—with the Zionist idea,” the piece continued. While exiting the national museum in Jerusalem where President Trump had just delivered a speech, an Israeli cabinet minister was caught saying that “Trump practically joined the Likud.”
Indeed, Trump went out of his way to flatter his hosts; and the trip went smoothly, as long as he made sure to stay on script. Yet the inevitable slipup came about at the end of joint statements with the Israeli prime minister when he inadvertently seemed to confirm that Israel was the source of the intel recently shared with Russian diplomats.
The trip was perhaps most notable, however, for what Trump didn’t say. He didn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as some on the right had hoped, but he also did not utter the words “Palestinian state,” as both President Bush and Obama did. Instead, his tone conveyed a strong embrace of Israel and was harsh on the Palestinians.
Although there was a lot of talk about “peace,” there was not a flicker of substance to this rhetoric—not even a bare-bone roadmap for how to begin such an arduous process. This approach was received positively by the Israeli government, which views the status quo as its favored strategic choice. Jerusalem prefers to continue with the same kind of symbolic diplomatic engagement on the Palestinian issue that it has for years—availing itself to normalized relations with the Palestinian Authority and to efforts aimed at preventing outbreaks of violence on the ground, but never so much as to actually move toward real concessions on core elements of the conflict, to anything that would lead to meaningful reorganization of the reality on the ground.
For any American-led process to succeed, it would also require a much more rigorous involvement on the part of the United States, and a willingness to spend significant political capital at home, mostly because a real confrontation with Israel’s hawkish government would then become inevitable. Trump also already raised the stakes by building up expectations on the Israeli side, which would make it harder still to navigate away from the usual ceremonial approach toward an actual engagement on policy. Both parties are well aware of this fact.
If Trump’s Middle East visit brought about some discomfort in Jerusalem, this was mostly a result of the first leg of his presidential trip. Israel has been cooperating more closely with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in recent years, mostly on matters of security, and in an effort to contain Iran. Yet the unprecedented sale announced in Riyadh on May 20—of $110 billion worth of advanced weapon systems—inevitably raised a few eyebrows. “I don’t live in peace with this arms race,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the morning following Trump’s departure from Tel Aviv. Netanyahu, who wanted to avoid any appearance of public disagreement with Trump, was quick to announce that the President had guaranteed that Israel’s military advantage would be maintained.
Yet despite Trump’s autocratic, strongman airs, his recent Middle East trip was also marked by a strange sense of weakness on the part of his Administration. The United States has traditionally focused much of its diplomacy in the region on its primary client states, both of which come with significant drawbacks: the Saudis with their confrontational stance toward Iran, which resulted in the Yemen quagmire, and the Israelis, with their creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. The grand bargain this Administration hoped to achieve—an Israeli-Sunni alliance that would solve the Palestinian problem and confront insurgency and terror across the region—is now clearly out of reach, in part because U.S. support for both countries now comes, with absolutely no strings attached. Obama tried to avoid escalation in Yemen and prevent Israel from creating more facts on the ground in the occupied territories. Trump seems less interested in those details.
There are simply no real incentives at this point for Jerusalem to end the occupation or for Riyadh to truly confront Sunni extremists; not to mention the missed opportunity for diplomatic engagement with the moderates in Iran, which could have also strengthened the American hand by pushing against Russia and containing possible escalations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The real risk from delegating policies to the regional allies is further entanglement in the region. This could arise, for example, out of Palestinian despair, leading, once again, to another bloody escalation with Israel, or out of the succession process to replace Abbas, which could result in something similar to when Hamas took over Gaza in the aftermath of Arafat’s death. Even worse is the prospect of a direct Saudi-Iran confrontation, one that could draw the United States into yet another war. As Trump may soon discover, there is no place in the world where diplomatic failures cost more than in the Middle East.