Visibly enjoying two hours away from the troubles plaguing them at home, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in a display of mutual admiration and public praise.
A scripted White House meeting planned well in advanced caught both leaders in perilous domestic situations. Netanyahu entered the Oval Office hours after receiving news from Israel that another one of his close aides has flipped on him and agreed to testify against him in a corruption probe.
Trump came into the meeting at the height of a heated debate over his trade policy and after a week in which the press reported he is “unraveling” and that his inner circle is falling apart.
For both, it was time to use the opportunity for burnishing their images as statesmen, rather than as struggling politicians. Neither waste time heaping praise on the other, as cameras clicked in the Oval Office.
Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was a particular topic of mutual praise.
“Mr. President, this will be remembered by our people throughout the ages,” Netanyahu said to Trump. “Others talked about it. You did it.”
Trump, visibly comfortable next to Netanyahu, also provided the Israeli leader with some valuable quotes as he prepares to fight for his political life upon returning to Jerusalem.
“We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had. I think we’re as close now as, maybe, ever before,” he said.
While seemingly no more than diplomatic niceties, the praise-singing help both men distance themselves from grim political realities.
For Netanyahu, Trump had even more to offer.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once a centerpiece of any meeting between leaders of the two countries, was swept aside, occupying only a brief part of the two hour meeting. A new peace plan, presumably being worked on by a team headed by Jared Kushner, was not presented, allowing the Israeli leader more time before he is faced with the need to confront his right-wing coalition with tough choices regarding possible Israeli territorial compromises.
Furthermore, Trump seemed to adopt Netanyahu’s narrative which puts the blame for lack of progress on the Palestinian side and their refusal to join the negotiating table.
“If they don’t (talk), you don’t have peace,” Trump said at the top of the meeting.
Kushner attended only the second part of the meeting, when working teams joined the two leaders. It was unclear whether Kushner’s absence from the first part of the meeting was a result of the downgrading of his security clearance.
Speaking to Israeli reporters after the meeting, Netanyahu said he was yet to see a draft of Kushner’s peace plan and seemed to waver on the question of whether he’ll support a final outcome if it includes an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“The Palestinians need to have the power to rule, but not on security issues. Does this constitute a state?” Netanyahu said, describing his view of the final status as less than an independent state and more than territorial autonomy.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.