[Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET] President Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was icy. But the former president also made some of the strongest commitments ever by the United States to Israel’s security.
As Mr. Netanyahu visited President Trump at the White House Wednesday, both sides looked to change the first part of that equation while leaving the second untouched.
In other words, Netanyahu didn't lecture Mr. Trump about Israel’s security in front of the press, as he did to Mr. Obama at the White House in 2011. At the same time, Trump didn't use the moment to abandon the Iran nuclear deal or to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – though he did cause a stir by saying he would be open to a one-state solution, in which Palestinian areas would be a part of Israel.
“I would say for both sides, the primary objective of this meeting is to change the political theater of the relationship,” says Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of Defense for policy and now the head of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “To the extent there are differences, those will be downplayed or subordinated [because] this is really about cementing a feel-good political relationship between these two leaders.”
An important shift?
Trump’s measured tone on Israel so far had contrasted with the more aggressive approach he’s taken on some domestic issues, particularly immigration. But it fit into a broader trend of Trump moderating his fiery rhetoric on foreign policy. From China to NATO, the president has moved more cautiously than his campaign pronouncements suggested he might.
But Trump inserted himself into the Mideast peace process Wednesday by opening the door to negotiations not based on the two-state solution, which calls for a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. The US has insisted on a two-state solution since the Clinton administration.
Trump cast the switch as an attempt to kindle new thinking. “I like the [solution] that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like," he said in a press conference with Netanyahu Wednesday.
But Palestinians and Arab countries, including longtime US partners, have long insisted on a Palestinian state. Moreover, making Palestinian areas a part of Israel could threaten to make the Jewish population a minority. Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinians, said at a press conference Wednesday that a one-state solution raised the specter of “apartheid.”
To some regional analysts, Trump’s comment might be more of a gesture to Netanyahu, who faces pressures at home from his right flank, than a game-changer.
On other issues, Trump the president was notably more circumspect than Trump the candidate. Candidate Trump blasted the Iran nuclear deal and said he would “tear it up” once in office. He sounded like he would not object to construction of new settlements on Palestinian lands in the West Bank. And he vowed to quickly move the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
On the Iran nuclear deal? There was no tearing it up in Netanyahu’s presence. Instead, there was a vow to never let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
On settlements in the West Bank? Trump surprised Israel’s pro-settler right wing with recent statements suggesting the US would not grant Israel free rein on settlement construction. He repeated that Wednesday, saying to Netanyahu: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
On moving the US embassy to Jerusalem? Trump has gone silent on something he earlier declared would be one of his first acts as president. On Wednesday, he said he was considering the issue “with great care.”
The goal of establishing new warmth between the US and Israel could have important effects down the road. If that warmth translates to closer ties, it could factor into Trump administration policy.
“For Netanyahu, it’s important that he’s coming early, before policies are set in concrete,” Mr. Makovsky says. The objective is to “try to influence thinking here before there are these policy reviews.”
Netanyahu's No. 1 topic
At his various meetings Wednesday, Netanyahu was expected to home in on one topic over and over again, analysts say.
“The prime minister will be coming with an agenda heavily focused on Iran,” says Dennis Ross, an adviser on Middle East issues to both Democratic and Republican administrations and a co-founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What he wants” and what he’ll emphasize “is that more needs to be done to deter Iran.”
Netanyahu won’t expect the US to ditch the nuclear deal, because he knows he won’t get that, Ambassador Ross says. His goal is to press Trump not just to firmly enforce the agreement, but to seek to renegotiate it to address one of Israel’s key worries – the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 15 years.
The Syrian conflict was expected to be another key point of discussion, experts say, and there, too, Netanyahu’s goal is to avoid empowering Iran. Netanyahu wants any US cooperation with Russia on Syria to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. And Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters should be kept away from the Israeli-Syrian border.
That eye on Iran could include bringing in Sunni Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates in a more explicit way.
Up to now, the Israelis and Sunni Arabs have kept their contacts over confronting Iran or battling the Islamic State “pretty much under the radar,” Makovsky says. The question, he adds, will be “how to convert that to more overt, over-the-table cooperation.”