Now that Donald Trump’s first presidential overseas trip is behind us, Jewish conservatives and Republican pro-Israel enthusiasts are going to have some explaining to do. Just weeks ago, the pro-Israel right was celebrating the Trump presidency in near-messianic terms. Under the new administration, the U.S.-Israel tensions of the Obama era were going to vanish. Washington would stand solidly behind the Netanyahu government. Pressure for dramatic Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would cease. The U.S. embassy would at last be moved to Jerusalem.
But that wasn’t the message Trump brought to Israel.
On the contrary. American ambiguity on the status of Jerusalem isn’t changing any time soon. The Palestinians under Mahmoud Abbas are ready to talk peace, the president maintains, snatching away a central pillar of Netanyahu’s diplomatic strategy. What’s more, Trump wants to see flexibility from both sides. That includes reining in Israeli construction of West Bank settlements, as Trump told Netanyahu at the White House in February.
The result is an incipient crisis mood in the circles around the Prime Minister. He’s been trying since Trump’s visit to withstand the two opposing forces bearing down on him: On one hand, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed in Rome on May 24, just after he and Trump left Jerusalem, the president is “putting a lot of pressure” on both Israel and the Palestinians to restart peace talks. Netanyahu insists it’s Abbas who’s refusing to return to the table. Trump no longer believes that.
On the other hand, there’s a widespread feeling among Netanyahu’s ministers and coalition lawmakers that, as his firebrand right-wing justice minister Ayelet Shaked told a radio interviewer on May 26, the prime minister failed to tell Trump “the truth” — namely that Israel will never leave the West Bank and there will not be a Palestinian state.
Put bluntly, Netanyahu faces huge pressure from the American president to show greater flexibility and equal pressure from the right flank of his coalition to do nothing of the sort.
How bad is it? The prime minister himself scolded his Likud Knesset caucus on May 29 that while Israel is a sovereign state and can expect “considerable understanding” of its positions from Washington, it doesn’t have a “blank check.”
The conventional wisdom surrounding Trump’s five-nation tour holds that it amounted in effect to two distinctly separate trips. The first was to Saudi Arabia and Israel, two of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, both of which treated him to an elaborate royal welcome. The second was to Belgium, Sicily and the Vatican, where Trump held a series of chilly, borderline-hostile meetings with Pope Francis, the heads of the NATO alliance and the leaders of the G7 industrialized nations.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark between the reception given to Trump in Saudi Arabia and Israel, replete with fanfare, colorful ceremonies and televised presidential addresses to the host nations, and the strained exchanges between the American president and America’s traditional European allies at NATO and the G7.
Nowhere were the tensions voiced more succinctly than in a speech direct from the mouth of the leader of the Free World — meaning, of course, German chancellor Angela Merkel — at a political rally in Munich, immediately after Trump returned home. Merkel appears to be stepping forward to lead what’s left of the traditional Atlantic alliance, and by extension of the democratic West, in the wake of Trump’s blatant abdication of the century-old American mission.
“The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days,” Merkel said in Munich. She was alluding to Trump’s public appearances at the NATO summit May 25 in Brussels and at the G7 summit May 26 in Sicily, where he attacked the global consensus, and Germany specifically, on trade and refused to commit to standing agreements on climate change and mutual defense. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” Merkel said.
And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Merkel’s Trump problem and Netanyahu’s. Merkel and Europe (plus Canada) can’t get something from Washington that they’ve long relied on — military, financial and moral leadership — and they’ll have to try to act on their own. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is getting something from Washington that he doesn’t want — pressure to compromise — and he’s realizing that he’s not in a position to act on his own.
Merkel and Europe find themselves abandoned and leaderless on an open field, and they have to learn to fend for themselves. Netanyahu finds himself squeezed into a corner, and it’s not clear what he can do about it. His dilemma is particularly difficult because he just got the American president he was hoping for, the un-Obama who he thought would ease up on the pressure and give him free rein. He’s found instead that he didn’t know what pressure was.
Obama gave Netanyahu lectures, and Netanyahu looked over his right shoulder for an American president closer to his own heart — a president who didn’t moralize or whine but understood the need for resolute action in the face of threats.
It should have been a happy partnership. Netanyahu and Trump share much in common. They both believe in toughness. They both dislike liberals and loath the media. They’re both impatient with the petty details of democracy and human rights. They’re both under criminal investigation by their countries’ top law enforcement agencies. They’re both unsentimental hyper-nationalists of the sort despised by the bleeding hearts of the left. (The biggest difference between the two is that Netanyahu, agree with him or not, knows how to do his job.)
What Netanyahu forgot is that unsentimental nationalists don’t make friends easily. They put their own country’s interests first, last and in between, and America’s interests aren’t necessarily identical to Israel’s. Now the prime minister has what he wished for and wishes he didn’t. But now there’s nobody over his right shoulder to wink at.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).