Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House this week is markedly different from his frequent visits there over the past eight years. Today, the man who occupies the Oval Office is a true friend who makes no secret of his admiration for Israel and his appreciation of the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.
But that doesn’t mean the prime minister will get everything on his wish list. President Donald J. Trump is not the same as presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. As they say in Israel, what you see from here, you don’t see from there.
That’s why the administration was restrained in its response to the Regulation Law, which prevents the demolition of Jewish homes mistakenly built on privately owned Palestinian land (“we’ll withhold comment until the relevant court ruling”) and to Israel’s announced plans to build 4,000 homes in Yehudah and Shomron (“may not be helpful” for future peace efforts).
In some ways, facing a friendly administration is more challenging for Netanyahu than facing an antagonistic one. That’s because it fosters sky-high expectations among Netanyahu’s coalition partners, which in turn puts pressure on the prime minister. One hot-button issue is the two-state solution, which Netanyahu was forced to endorse by then-President Barack Obama in his famous Bar Ilan speech in 2009. Now that Obama is gone, Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennet and others in the Likud are convinced that the time has come for Israel to openly jettison the “delusional” idea of a Palestinian state.
But while Bennet can afford to play to his audience, to try and garner right-wing votes at the Likud’s expense, Netanyahu can’t. He has to put national interests above partisan politics. In these fateful days, as he meets intensively with the president, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and congressional leaders, he has to put first things first.
He has to forge relationships of trust and, in the knowledge that he won’t get everything, decide on his priorities. Getting the U.S. embassy moved to Yerushalayim is important, but not as important as reaching agreement with Washington on ways to effectively monitor Iran and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The two-state solution is a misnomer because it so obviously won’t solve anything. Based on Israel’s experience with withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, the vacuum will quickly be filled by extremists, not liberals who believe in democracy, human rights, fiscal transparency and live and let live. While the dangers of a terror state in Gaza are being mitigated with the help of Iron Dome and, hopefully, new technologies that can detect tunnels, the danger of a terror state in Yehudah and Shomron, chalilah, within shooting range of Ben Gurion Airport, is unimaginable.
But dumping the two-state solution is risky. On the one hand, it makes it possible to contemplate other ideas that have a chance of working, like autonomy or a confederation of a Palestinian entity with Jordan. On the other, the Trump administration has to maintain relations with the Arab world and may conclude that going too far in meeting the demands of Israel’s right wing could undermine those ties — which are no less important for Israel than they are for the United States.
It is unrealistic to expect that all the issues will be worked out this week. This round of meetings is about getting acquainted and presenting starting points in the discussion. There will be no final resolution on key issues like Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, moving the U.S. embassy, building in Yehudah and Shomron, economic aid to Israel and all the rest.
It is also unrealistic to expect that there will be 100 percent agreement between the sides, even though we’re talking about close allies.
But the good news is that, at long last, Israel has a friend in the White House. As Netanyahu said at Ben Gurion Airport before embarking for Washington, “President Trump and I see eye to eye on the threats and the opportunities in the region. We will speak about the two points and about enhancing the strong alliance in a large number of fields.”
At a meeting held last week in Yerushalayim of retired generals and professors, the question of what Netanyahu should seek in Washington was raised. As expected, Iran and defensible borders for the state of Israel topped everyone’s list. But several generals emphasized the importance of allowing Jonathan Pollard to live in Israel.
“We are hoping to see the U.S. embassy transferred to Yerushalayim and Jonathan Pollard in Israel, soon,” said Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, reflecting the consensus that such a move would right a terrible wrong.
We are confident that the relationship between the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government will get off on the right foot and hope and pray that it will develop into something that benefits the United States, Israel, the Middle East and the entire free world.