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What Trump and Bibi Left Unsaid

Binyamin Rose

At Historic First Meeting, Words Unspoken Speak Loudest

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

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UPHEAVAL “Knowing Washington, and the way the White House works, the whole Commotion [with Flynn] must have influenced the preparations [for the Netanyahu meeting], and I have no doubt the mind of the president was elsewhere,” former deputy chief to the Israeli embassy in Washington Dr. Oded Eran said. Yet it’s all part of the learning curve for a president who has never held public office or had experience with government bureaucracies

T he only thing we know for sure after the first meeting between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is that they like each other.

The importance of good personal relations as a starting point toward reinforcing strong bilateral ties cannot be overstated following eight years of sour relations between Netanyahu and Trump’s predecessor.

But it’s only a first step. The news conference Trump and Netanyahu held prior to their private talks had its rocky moments, especially when the discussion turned to issues that have divided the US and Israel for the past 50 years, namely settlements and the two-state solution. Changes in longstanding positions are on the drawing board, but it’s becoming clear that they aren’t going to be as radical as some people expected, nor will they be hammered out in the early days of a new administration.

It would also be a mistake to place too much emphasis on either leader’s brief opening remarks, or the question-and-answer session that followed, says Dr. Oded Eran, former deputy chief to the Israeli embassy in Washington.

In a conference call for the foreign press in Israel the day after the joint meeting, Eran said that the main takeaways for now can be found in what wasn’t said, rather than what was said.

The Iran Deal Survives…

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised he would tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, on his first day in office. Trump may have shredded many of President Obama’s executive orders in his first days, but the Iran deal is an international agreement negotiated with five other world powers — nothing Trump can do away with single-handedly. Eran says a careful analysis of what Trump and Netanyahu didn’t say is revealing: “They spoke about Iran and the negative role it plays in the Middle East, but they were very careful not to say openly and clearly they want to reopen the agreement. This is very important in my mind.”

…As Does the Two-State Solution…

Asked twice whether he still supported a two-state solution, Netanyahu dodged the questions. He did put two conditions on the table: the Palestinians had to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and agree to Israeli security control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

“One could assume if the Palestinians could meet these two conditions, Netanyahu would support it, but he didn’t say he would,” said Eran, who noted that even most right-wing Israelis see great risk in a one-state solution that would be the starting gun in a demographic race between Jews and Arabs. Not to mention that it would steal Trump’s thunder.

“The president said, ‘I would love to reach a deal.’ If there’s a one-state solution, what’s the deal? That Israel applies its law to the West Bank? I don’t think that’s the deal the president is looking for,” Eran says. “The administration may, after some deliberation and investigation, conclude that there’s no chance for the two-state solution and look for something else, but it would be a grave mistake to take the statements at the press conference as a conclusive indication that this will be the face of things to come.”

…And Regional Peace Is Still a Dream

Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog revealed Monday that John Kerry attempted to negotiate a regional peace deal in 2016, one that Netanyahu ultimately dismissed. In the process, Netanyahu was put in the uncomfortable position of admitting that he had once attended a secret meeting with Arab leaders to discuss such a plan. But regional peace deals have been on the table ever since 2002 when the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, first dangled it in front of Israel.

Eran says Israeli officials refloated the idea in preparatory talks between the prime minister’s office and the White House before Netanyahu arrived. “What this means is not clear, and maybe it will become clearer when discussions continue,” Eran said.

On the other hand, Netanyahu asked Trump outright to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of Golan Heights. “This will obviously have to wait,” Eran said. “The US is still searching for its role in developments in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The president couldn’t commit himself to anything of the sort.”

Settlements Still Unsettled

Ever since 1967, when Israel captured all of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War, no US administration has ever sanctioned building Jewish settlements on that land. President Trump only asked Netanyahu to hold back on settlements for a “little bit,” but a little could end up going a long way.

“I am pretty certain, from my experience in Washington, that the US will never recognize the settlements, and Trump will not change that,” Eran says.

Trump may have shredded many of President Obama’s executive orders in his first days, but the Iran deal is an international agreement negotiated with five other world powers — nothing Trump can do away with single-handedly

He says the two leaders may devise a formula by which Israel is “allowed” to build in certain settlement blocs, which would allow Netanyahu to go back to his coalition and claim victory that he succeeded in lifting the longstanding building freeze, but more grandiose plans remain on ice.

Time to Settle In

One reporter on the conference call asked Dr. Eran if the world shouldn’t be taking President Trump with a grain of salt, considering the turmoil surrounding his administration. Eran shook that off. “This is the case with any administration that comes into the White House. It is preoccupied in the early stages with organization, finding its way on many issues. We know that there are problems with nominations that were made and those awaiting confirmation in the Senate. This is a complicated process, and it takes every new administration months to settle in and establish itself in terms of building the bureaucracy and finding its way on global issues.”

The Flynn Fiasco Was a Distraction

When Michael Flynn was forced to step down as Trump’s national security advisor following leaks of an unauthorized meeting between him and Russia, it was a setback to Israel as well, as Flynn was heavily involved in negotiating the fine details of bilateral relations with Israel.

“Knowing Washington, and the way the White House works, the whole commotion must have influenced the preparations [for the Netanyahu meeting], and I have no doubt the mind of the president was elsewhere,” Eran said.

Yet it’s all part of the learning curve for a president who has never held public office or had experience with government bureaucracies, unlike the last ten presidents, who were either governors, senators, or vice presidents.

“Even with their experience, they never went to a meeting with leaders from abroad without being briefed extensively by many people,” Eran said. “I don’t think that this president has the time or the suitable background that will allow him to use this. Maybe with time it will happen, but we’re talking about an administration that is only in place for three weeks.” Dr. Oded Eran was formerly deputy chief to the Israeli embassy in Washington, and served as Israel’s ambassador to the European Union and Jordan. He was also previous head of the Israeli negotiation team with the Palestinians and ex-deputy director-general of the Ministry of Public Affairs.

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