Donald Trump starred in the main headlines in Israel on Wednesday morning, just as he did in the United States, but for completely different reasons.
Americans were reeling from the conviction of Paul Manafort, the damning confessions of Michael Cohen and the sweet smell in the morning, if you don’t like Donald Trump, of impending impeachment. Israelis, on the other hand, were more flabbergasted by a few sentences that Trump uttered, intentionally or inadvertently, in his campaign-style rally in West Virginia.
The term that grabbed people was “higher price.” Israel would have to pay a “higher price,” Trump said, in return for his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. It’s the Palestinians’ turn, he said in his typical third-grade lingo, “to get something good.”
Israelis, who had lulled themselves into believing that Trump’s support came with no strings attached, were dumbfounded. Suddenly it seemed that Trump was not only to make a demand, the chutzpadik, it was going to be a steep one. In high-strung Israel, that is more than enough to spark an immediate sense of crisis.
Visiting U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton tried to put a lid on the turbulence. He did so in typical, Trump-administration manner, by directly contradicting the president. There will be no quid pro quo for the embassy decision in Jerusalem, Bolton said, as if people hadn’t heard Trump’s distinct words, or because what the president says, as his top adviser implies, doesn’t really matter.
The winds of storm, however, were already raging. Israel’s ideological right wing immediately geared up for battle with yet another backstabbing U.S. president who had obviously come under the influence of hostiles. Netanyahu’s people nervously reassured everyone that nothing had changed and Trump was still our number one best friend forever, making a great effort to believe their own words. The left, meanwhile, was having a ball.
If Trump were to turn on Netanyahu and press him to make concessions, it would be a double whammy for Israel’s beleaguered anti-right: The moribund peace process could unexpectedly return to life and there would be an endless supply of schadenfreude at Netanyahu’s expense. The pleasure would be doubled by the thought that Netanyahu, who lavishes fulsome praise on Trump on a daily basis, had become, as the Eagles would put it, a prisoner of his own device.
Upon closer inspection, Trump’s words should have actually generated even greater right-wing hysteria. The “higher price” that Trump supposedly expects Israel to pay isn’t just for the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem and the transfer of its embassy there. Trump seems to believe that those decisions have, in and of themselves and in one fell swoop, solved the eternally thorny issue of contested Jerusalem. “They never got past Jerusalem,” he said of everyone who’s ever tried. “We took it off the table. We don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
If that were true, if Trump had indeed handed over the keys to Jerusalem to the Jews and magically made the issue vanish from the Israeli-Palestinian agenda, he could reasonably ask for the moon. Wasn’t he Israel’s greatest friend ever? Hadn’t Israelis told him he was the successor of the Persian messiah and Emperor Cyrus, who allowed the Jews to return from Babylonian exile to their precious Zion? Didn’t the Jews insist he had redeemed Jerusalem from 3,000 years of solitude? Weren’t Netanyahu and Israel so deeply indebted to him that he could demand anything of them, with interest?
The fatal flaw in Trump’s line of reasoning, of course, is that it is essentially a mix of balderdash and poppycock wrapped in pure rubbish. One can argue the merits and demerits of Trump’s embassy move, but it did not, in any way, shape or form, “take Jerusalem off the table.” In fact, quite the contrary: For the first time since the start of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and as a direct result of Trump’s decisions, Jerusalem is now an impassable obstacle not only to a peace deal but also to any semblance of a diplomatic process.
Trump’s message in West Virginia can only make things worse. The Palestinians, he is implying, will sell out their holy city of Al-Quds in exchange for “something good” that Trump is going to rustle up from Israel. This is a sure-fire formula for failure: The Palestinian leader who would dare contemplate such a dubious deal has yet to be born, and no Arab leader who values his future would consider it either.
It’s also hard to imagine – unless he’s gone completely bonkers, which is always a possibility – that Trump would pick a fight with Israel when he is at his most vulnerable. To offset the rising tide of demands for his indictment, impeachment or resignation in the wake of the Cohen confessions, which have cast him as an unindicted criminal, Trump desperately needs to hold on to his loyal base, without which he cannot control deviant Republicans who may be thinking of deserting his sinking ship. The core of Trump’s base includes a large chunk of Evangelicals, whose blind allegiance to the president could easily cope with allegations of campaign finance improprieties but would be sorely tested in a direct clash between the president and Netanyahu. Trump needs a falling out right now with Evangelicals, excuse me, like a hole in the head.
Nonetheless, despite all of the caveats above, Trump’s “higher price” bombshell was a shot across the bow for Netanyahu and other right wingers who thought they could sleep soundly for the next four or even eight years. It indicates that Trump can flip on Israel without a moment’s notice or a second thought, just as he renounces anyone else who dares challenge him, from political allies to top security officials to his own personal lawyer. And that he might do so based on his delusions of grandeur and his apparent inability to grasp the broad lines, never mind the small details, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All of which could lead Israeli decision-makers to an interesting reassessment of their priorities. Perhaps it’s safer now, they might reason, to hope for a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, which could rein in Trump’s currently unchallenged power. Impeachment, which would surely keep the president otherwise engaged, might also be good idea.
In fact, the ideal solution for Jewish settlers and other ultra-nationalist Israelis is to pray for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to muster up the courage to do the right thing. If Pence invokes the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and garners sufficient support from the U.S. cabinet, Trump would be dumped, stability would be restored and danger would be averted. Right-wing Israel would get an even dreamier president in Pence than it did in Trump, Evangelicals would be ecstatic at the ascent of one of their own and even Palestinians would be spared empty promises of “something good” coming their way.