Middle East

The Worst-Case Scenario for Trump in Israel

The U.S. president wants a peace deal, but his bumbling toward one could actually cause harm.

The stage is set.

Photographer: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

As U.S. President Donald Trump sees it, the issue is very clear: “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- none whatsoever,” he said in an interview last month. The situation on the ground, however, is quite a bit messier ahead of his visit Monday.

Despite the widespread presumption of a lovefest between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the opening days of the Trump administration, the relationship has grown not only complex but also fraught. Despite promises to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump has backed off. Some say that Netanyahu is the one who suggested he hold off, because many Israelis think the move could precipitate a new round of deadly Palestinian violence. Netanyahu insists that he has said no such thing and that he wants the embassy moved. On Thursday, however, Trump ruled out the move.

Then, as the sides were discussing whether Netanyahu could accompany Trump to the Western Wall, an American consulate official, rebuffing the idea, snapped at Israeli officials that the Wall “is in the West Bank and you have no authority over it.” Cue outrage across the political spectrum: Israel captured the Temple Mount and the Wall in 1967, but its sovereignty over those areas is not recognized universally. Netanyahu’s staff then announced that they would have nothing to do with Trump’s visit, or assist with news media or logistics. A senior Israeli official was quoted as saying, “We made it clear that their position is unacceptable to us, but the head of the American delegation just stood there and didn’t intervene.”

When it seemed that matters could not get worse, they did. The news broke Monday that Trump had showed the Russians classified information that, it was later revealed, had been provided by Israel. The intelligence, related to Islamic State’s plans to get bombs aboard planes inside laptops, was apparently procured by an Israeli spy embedded in the militant Islamic group. Israel was furious, claiming that Trump’s amateurish impulsiveness endangered the spy’s life. Tellingly, an enraged ex-Mossad chief openly called for Israel to punish Trump by refusing to provide such intelligence in the future. Israelis on the street, who think of such agents as someone’s son or daughter, increasingly mention Trump’s name with a sense of bewilderment and disgust.

At the pace at which matters are unfolding, it is hard to imagine what else might go wrong in the weekend before his visit. But the visit itself also has the potential to do significant damage.

David Friedman, the hard-right-leaning American ambassador to Israel, long seen as a defender of Israel’s right to the West Bank and a devotee of Netanyahu, publicly warned the Israeli administration that Trump is serious about making a deal, and that Israel should work with him. If Israeli fears about Trump’s utter incompetence don’t prevent them from engaging in serious discussions, and if the Palestinians change strategies and agree to negotiate, Trump might eventually procure an agreement about an agreement, and then leave the sides to work out the details. Such a stance would raise expectations on both sides, especially among the Israeli left who will argue that “peace” might finally be at hand.

The likelihood that a real deal could then emerge, though, is virtually nil. Trump clearly has no understanding of the Palestinian unwillingness to give up on the right of return for refugees -- he has no appreciation of the role that honor and humiliation play in Palestinian national consciousness. He will not understand that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cannot recognize Israel as a Jewish State and stay alive. Trump’s deal-making will thus force Abbas into a corner from which Abbas will almost certainly once again reject the deal before him.

Should that happen, Trump will have unintentionally emasculated the already anemic Israeli left. The left still insists that some sort of deal must be possible, and if only Netanyahu were not standing in the way, reasonable minds could reach agreement. But if that proves not to be the case, if the Palestinians are to blame, then the left’s last glimmer of credibility will fade. Elements of Israel’s right could then argue that because the Palestinians cannot be left stateless forever and because they cannot reach a deal for statehood, the only step that makes sense is for Israel to annex the West Bank and make the Palestinians Israelis citizens, as some Israeli politicians already seek to do.

Should that happen, an Israel increasingly exasperated with the U.S., could well turn a deaf ear to international objections. If the annexation then proceeds, any hope for Palestinian national sovereignty will be gone. And Israel will have turned some 1.5 million to 2.5 million Palestinians into Israeli citizens, drastically diminishing Israel’s demographic Jewish majority. Many Israeli leaders insist that such a move would be the beginning of the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Matters could unfold in a variety of directions, of course, but such a chain of developments is not implausible. And it illustrates the lurking dangers of Trump’s now fraught visit. Trump has managed to alienate his most reliable ally in the region. Israelis (and many American Jews) had counted on him to be a much more trustworthy -- and competent -- partner than he has proved, and now, it is clear, he could actually doom the national aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians. Contrary to the hopes of just a few months ago, Donald Trump could go down in history as the president who brought to an abrupt and painful end any hope for the region in the foreseeable future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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