Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Donald Trump was overshadowed by dramatic and unsettling events that preceded and followed their perfectly bizarre press conference.
The week began with the forced resignation of White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and revelations of extensive communications between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence—revealing a White House in disarray, operating under a dark cloud of suspicion. The day after the Trump/Netanyahu joint press event was dominated by reactions to Trump’s solo press conference—an unprecedented incoherent and, at times, paranoid affair that left many commentators questioning the President’s stability.
As a result of growing concerns with Trump’s Russian connections and his out-of-control behavior when challenged by reporters or other American institutions (intelligence services, judiciary, or political opponents), the Netanyahu visit became a one day news story and the content of the Trump/Netanyahu press event escaped needed scrutiny.
Their press conference was, as expected, a love fest. During Netanyahu’s time as Prime Minister, he has had to deal with Democratic Presidents (Clinton and Obama) who pressed him (albeit, ever so gently) to make concessions in order to advance peace with the Palestinians. Now he has a Republican President who he has every reason to believe sees eye to eye with him on most issues. For his part, Trump, who made opposition to what he characterized as Obama’s “weak” policies toward Israel, Iran, and Islam major issues in his campaign’s foreign policy agenda, sees Netanyahu as a “soul mate.”
The press event featured an excess of embarrassing fawning. US leaders often heap praise on Israel, committing themselves to an “unbreakable,” “unshakable” bond. Trump upped the ante referring to Israel as: “a cherished ally,” “an open democracy” that has “advanced the causes of human freedom, dignity, and peace” and claimed that the US and Israel are “two nations that cherish the value of human life.”
Netanyahu repaid the unwarranted compliments with undeserved tributes. He praised Trump’s dealing with “Islamic extremism” saying “you’ve shown great clarity and courage in confronting this challenge head on.” And, in response to a question about the extent to which Trump’s presidential campaign was supported by and gave a platform to anti-Semitic elements, Netanyahu absolved the US president saying that “there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish State than President Donald Trump”.
After this shameless exercise in “log-rolling,” the two settled down to presenting their views of the future of peace in the region—a discussion that included equal doses of hallucination, fantasy, and anti-Palestinian incitement.
Trump insisted that he wants to make a “great deal” that will bring peace to the region. He was initially vague about what that would entail, but after being coaxed by Netanyahu it became clear that both leaders believe that they can convert the Arab World’s concern with Iran and the Islamic State into an alliance that would create a regional peace agreement. Both suggested that some Arab States are already working covertly with Israel to confront both threats. This being the case, they posited that this shared interest can be transformed into an open alliance that would make peace with Israel, on Israel’s terms.
This is sheer fantasy. While it is true that Arabs are concerned with both threats—hatred or fear of Iran or ISIS does not translate into an overt alliance with Israel over the backs of the Palestinian people. Such an arrangement has long been an Israeli dream, but it ignores, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has noted, deeply felt Arab attachment to the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
As my polling clearly demonstrates, Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians has not only increased Arab antipathy toward Israel, it has also significantly eroded the Arab people’s support for the Arab Peace Initiative. Given this, it is more likely that Arab cooperation with Israel, that is perceived to undercut Palestinian rights, would more likely play into the hands of Iran and extremist movements who would use it to inflame passions against such an arrangement.
Much was made of President Trump’s statement that he didn’t care whether peace involved two-states or one state, not enough attention was given to why it was said and what it would ultimately mean. Netanyahu has no interest in seeing the creation of an independent Palestinian State. He has ambitions for a Greater Israel—but wants to proceed gradually by taking more land, building more settlements, and discrediting and weakening moderate Palestinian leadership in order to make annexation an eventual “fact.” While he has succeeded, to some extent, in these efforts, the Palestinian people’s aspirations for justice, freedom, and self-determination have not been extinguished. Nor has Arab support for the Palestinians been diminished.
Netanyahu has so empowered the Israeli right, that he has become its captive. As much as he resented Obama’s pressure, he was able to use it to tame the more extreme impulses of his far right coalition partners. With the election of Trump, Israel’s right feels that the pressure is off. Calls for immediate annexation are now heard. And the Knesset recently passed a bill “legalizing” the theft of Palestinian owned land. Before leaving to the US, Netanyahu’s coalition partners warned him that should he publicly commit to two states he would face a rebellion at home. In ducking the two state formula, Trump was saving Netanyahu from his domestic foes.
For his part, Netanyahu maintained the fiction that he could accept two states but on two conditions: that Palestinians accept Israel as a “Jewish State” and that would give Israel permanent security control of the land to the west of the Jordan River. The first of these two conditions would permanently disenfranchise Palestinians inside Israel. The second would leave Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem living under Israeli military rule with no freedom or access and egress to the outside world. Both are obviously non-starters. This is not a two-state solution, rather it is an outcome that would merely formalize the apartheid system that currently exists.
To justify his intransigence, Netanyahu used his time at the podium to accuse the Palestinians of incitement and violence using language that was, itself, a shameless act of incitement. However, because this narrative has become so accepted in the US, no questions were raised about whether the charges are true or how whatever the Palestinians say or do compares with Israel’s incitement against Palestinians, documented instances of Israeli violence against innocent Palestinians, and the daily humiliation, brutality, and violence of the occupation.
With all of the questions that should have been raised, it was disturbing that the only real discussion that followed the visit focused on warnings that a one state solution would produce a state with an Arab majority compromising Israel’s Jewish character—with no attention paid to the issues of justice or the rights of the Palestinian people.
In any case, at the trip’s end, Netanyahu returned home to new revelations of corruption charges being leveled against him and new challenges from his far right “partners.” Back in Washington, Trump faced challenges of his own: more signs of a White House in disarray and more self-inflicted wounds of an out of control President. As a result, whatever expectations might have been created by the visit were left unmet. This exercise in fawning, fantasy, and incitement was for naught. Peace was not advanced, nor was the understanding of what real peace would require and how what Trump and Netanyahu would contribute to that goal.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.