A shroud of uncertainty hangs over Wednesday’s meeting when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Donald Trump as president for the first time.
And uncertainty is no friend of the fraught American-Israeli relationship, no matter how many Israelis cheered Trump’s election as the coming of the Messiah.
To begin with, both men drag a suitcase full of burdensome baggage into the conference room. Trump’s approval rating is at an historic low for a new president; more than half of the country disapproves of his performance so far, and that percentage continues to grow. Three-quarters of American Jews didn’t vote for him in the first place, and with the highly unpopular Muslim ban and other outrages, he hasn’t exactly attracted a lot of new Jewish fans.
Netanyahu arrives with his own tsuris. According to Israeli media reports over the weekend, police are close to recommending that the prime minister be indicted in the corruption scandal that has swirled around him and his wife for months now. His right-wing rivals are nipping at his heels. Even members of his own party are openly challenging him.
On top of the individual political troubles dogging the two men is the sheer amateurish nature of Trump’s administration.
It’s not clear who is running the show. David Friedman, Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel — who has no diplomatic experience but does have radical views — won’t even go before Congress for his nomination hearing until the day after the big meeting. Trump summarily nixed Elliot Abrams, a controversial but undeniably experienced professional, for the No. 2 job at the State Department, reportedly because Abrams had dared to criticize Trump during the campaign. (It was hard to find a Jewish conservative who didn’t criticize Trump during the campaign).
And no one knows what Jared Kushner, Trump’s young, untested son-in-law, supposedly tasked with making a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, is capable of doing beyond furthering his family’s business interests.
The uncertainty is compounded by the stunning (apparent) turn-around in Trump’s official pronouncements on expanding Israeli settlements, which he seemed to be for until he was against. Equally odd is his newly found reluctance to immediately move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he emphatically and repeatedly said he would do.
Add to that reports that the White House is backing away from Trump’s oft-repeated promise to tear up the Iran nuclear deal as soon as he got the keys to the White House, and you really have to wonder what the president and prime minister are going to agree upon.
As the Haaretz columnist Barak Ravid noted on Sunday, the Israeli right might have voted for Donald Trump, but they got Barack Obama.
Oh, I’m sure that this damaging uncertainty won’t show its face when the two men smile and joke before the cameras, repeating their respective nation’s fealty to one another, striking a far more cordial pose than the excruciating images that emerged from some of Netanyahu’s meetings with Obama. Maybe they’ll promise to play golf together in the future — though if it’s at Mar-A-Lago, that may raise new ethical questions for them both.
And it is possible that Netanyahu will be able to persuade Trump to flip-flop once again. The president seems to listen to the last person who spoke to him. Witness the unexpected criticism of settlements and charge of heart over the embassy move, which came directly after he met with King Abdullah of Jordan.
Nonetheless, as the Israeli journalist Orly Azoulay wrote on Sunday in Ynet: “The Israeli right opened the champagne bottles too early following Trump’s election…Netanyahu will be received in Washington with great honor, with a lot of noise and pleasantries. But even in the White House he will find himself under warning.”
The only thing that can pierce this kabuki dance is if one of these two leaders actually has an ambitious but feasible plan of action and the means to implement it. That’s something Netanyahu has managed to evade for years. It’s something the Trump administration right now seems incapable of executing.
And so, uncertainty reigns.
Contact Jane Eisner at Eisner@forward.com or follow her on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.