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America First, the Middle East Can Wait

Omri Nahmias, Washington, D.C.

Netanyahu Accomplishes Objectives, Even Before Setting Foot in Washington

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

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CONFUSING THE PRESS Suddenly Trump turned to Netanyahu and said: “As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out.” Those on the right side of the political map hurried to declare Netanyahu the victor, saying Trump seemed to have crossed off the idea of a two-state solution. Journalists from liberal outlets found succor in the president urging restraint over settlements, suggesting that Trump is a wily negotiator who does not hand out free lunches

B inyamin Netanyahu had little time to plant his feet firmly on Israeli soil upon his return from Washington, DC

The prime minister made only a quick pit stop at Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting to brief his coalition on last week’s talks with President Trump before jetting off to Singapore and Australia. But his few words were weighty.

“I must tell you that there is a new day here and it is a good day,” Netanyahu said. “There is no time for jet lag.”

Netanyahu hopes to unlock new markets for Israeli companies in the Far East, but it is the new opening he made with President Trump after eight bruising years with the Obama administration that has Netanyahu on cloud nine.

Netanyahu seems to have accomplished just about everything he could have hoped for in his initial meeting with Trump, and much of it was prearranged before he set foot in Washington.

The night before Netanyahu’s arrival, a senior White House official signaled a change in the US position on the two-state solution when he told the media: “It’s something the two sides have to agree to. It’s not for us to impose that vision.”

Israeli officials were still scrambling to verify the reliability of this statement when President Trump repeated it the next day, standing next to Netanyahu at a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. Trump even drew laughs from the normally antagonistic media for the way he said it: “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.” After the laughter faded, he repeated the statement: “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”

The weight of this declaration is important, primarily for its implication that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a high priority for the new administration. With Donald Trump, it’s America first. The Middle East can wait.

This represents a major reversal from the previous eight years, in which the Obama administration applied overt and covert pressure from multiple sources to advance negotiations, often threatening Israel with international isolation if it did not play ball, especially when it came to settlements.

One awkward moment in the joint news conference came when the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody asked Trump if he and Netanyahu were on the same page on the settlement issue. Trump turned to Netanyahu and said: “As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out.”

When the press conference ended and Trump and Netanyahu retreated to the Oval Office for their private meeting, the Israeli press corps debated the significance of the statements.

Those on the right side of the political map hurried to declare Netanyahu the victor, saying Trump seemed to have crossed off the idea of a two-state solution. Journalists from liberal outlets found succor in the president urging restraint over settlements, suggesting that Trump is a wily negotiator who does not hand out free lunches.

Maybe not, but there was plenty of free coffee for journalists, served from silver dishes at the elegant Blair House, the guest headquarters for visiting heads of state, where Israeli journalists waited for a second chance with Netanyahu after he and Trump emerged from behind closed doors.

Two hours later, when Netanyahu took a seat at an impressive, mahogany table alongside his advisors for an official question-and-answer session, he was beaming. It’s hard to know how much of it was authentic happiness over the way his meeting went and how much stems from political necessity. For Netanyahu, it was important to show that his strategy of outwaiting Obama succeeded — and the warm rapport he enjoys with Trump is the proof.

Ultimately, after all the talk of friendship, good chemistry, and what Netanyahu called “a new age in our relationship” — a term the White House echoed — the two-hour Trump-Netanyahu meeting, which included time for lunch, was more of a get-reacquainted session than a tough negotiation on the sticky issues. The meeting did not lead to an agreement regarding the next stage in the peace process, or settlement building.

They did agree, as Netanyahu told his cabinet, that Iran is the main — and growing — threat in the Middle East and that both parties stand ready to counter Iranian aggression. Netanyahu also told his ministers that a new regional approach in the Middle East would include Israel, the US, “and countries of the region.”

“This is a fundamental change and, I would say, has accompanied all of our discussions and has formed the infrastructure of all the agreements between us,” Netanyahu added.

Much of the new policy formulation and implementation will be handled by joint teams in the areas of security, intelligence, cyber, technology, and economic development.

“We also agreed to create a team in an area that we have not previously agreed on: I mean, of course, on settlement in Judea and Samaria. We will also discuss this,” Netanyahu said.

The US and Israel have always employed the team spirit, especially when it comes to military and strategic cooperation. Its expansion into other spheres, especially on the settlements, is probably a positive, considering Trump did not show a familiarity with, or interest in the thorny details and nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also removes a potential irritant between two very headstrong leaders if such issues are worked out at lower political levels.

Netanyahu will be happiest with a moderate pace of development in the major settlement blocs, without fear of an automatic American condemnation at every Israeli announcement. Trump’s remark about holding back on settlements “a bit” also plays into Netanyahu’s hands, enabling him to rebuff pressure from his right-wing party members and coalition partners advocating annexation of predominantly Jewish areas of Judea and Samaria and the right to build everywhere.

Those pressures will not disappear, but considering Netanyahu has learned that when he plays for time, he often comes out ahead, breathing room is preferable to full steam ahead.

Paul Ryan’s Sporting Touch

No matter what the relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and any given denizen of the White House, Netanyahu will always feel at home in Congress.

Netanyahu met with a bipartisan group of senators the day after his meeting with Trump, and then tarried to talk with some of their staffers.

This made Bibi a bit late for his next meeting with the House leadership, which found House Speaker Paul Ryan standing in his office in silence in front of reporters.

After a minute or two, he broke the silence: “Who is here from Israel?” Three of us raised our hands and he replied: “Nice country; I visited Jerusalem and the Knesset.”

With the ice broken, I asked Speaker Ryan a substantive question: “What do you think about President Trump’s statement that it makes no difference if there’s a one-state or two-state solution?

Ryan pointed to the National Mall visible from his office window and asked, “Have you ever seen such scenery?” The prime minister answered: “Yes, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem”

Ryan laughed. “No, that’s not the format. There are no questions here. This is only a statement to the press. They [the American press] already know the rules.”

I tried again with the Republican from Wisconsin. “So maybe tell me what you think about the Green Bay Packers, who just missed making it into the Super Bowl?”

“Oh, that, sure.” Ryan said. “What happened is that at one point our defense collapsed, so we lost. It was really disappointing.”

With that, Netanyahu entered.

“I was once here with my son,” Bibi said, following a warm handshake with the Speaker. “And he said to me, ‘Abba, it’s so nice, it’s like Rome.’ I told him, ‘This is the Democratic Rome.’ ”

Ryan then pointed to the National Mall visible from his office window and asked, “Have you ever seen such scenery?” The prime minister answered: “Yes, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.”

David Friedman Takes the Stand

Good sportsmanship was the last thing on display when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened for the confirmation hearing of David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel.

The Friedman nomination has opened a second front between right-wing and left-wing supporters of Israel, thanks to Friedman’s well-known support for the settlements and a few caustic statements he made about J Street and the Anti-Defamation League, among others.

Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, smelled trouble as soon as he walked into the chamber.

Corker approached a pro-Palestinian group in the audience and warned them politely that they might face arrest if they disrupted the proceedings.

Another committee member, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican with solid pro-Israel credentials, quipped to that group: “I’m a lawyer. I’m cheap if you do get arrested.”

The hearing got underway. Before Friedman could complete his first sentence, a demonstrator in the middle of the room stood up and waved the Palestinian flag and screamed that Friedman “supports war crimes.”

On four other occasions, various protestors rose, including at least one Jewish man wearing a kippah. Security forces led him and a female companion away as they sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh.”

Once things settled down, even senators predisposed favorably grilled Friedman. Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, floated a doozie: Could Friedman remain loyal to American interests despite his support for Israel?

Friedman was well prepared when it came to the issues, but he was clearly on the defensive for most of the hearing. He apologized for making offensive remarks, and even walked back some of his controversial right-wing positions of the past. He said he would support the concept of a two-state solution and would object to Israel annexing Judea and Samaria. His testimony took many by surprise, including one observer in the gallery who said that listening to Friedman, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and someone that Hillary Clinton might have nominated for the post.

A quick look around the committee room made it apparent that Friedman’s appointment had become a hot-button issue in the Jewish community. There were representatives from the right-wing Zionist Organization of America. Not far away was J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami, a representative of the Israel embassy, and of course, the ubiquitous press corps, which included both Jewish American journalists and Israelis.

During a break in the hearings, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, faced off with Ben-Ami and asked him, “Why don’t you condemn your guys who came here to make a provocation?”

Ben-Ami replied, “Those are not my guys, and that’s not the approach we believe in.” Rabbi Shemtov looked around at the media and asked: “Did you hear that? Are you filming this? He’s condemning the protesters.” He then added: “Jeremy Ben-Ami is a grandson of a Chabad chassid, so we always have hope he will come back.” Ben-Ami, whose grandfather, Yitzchak Ben-Ami, was a leader of the Irgun in pre-state Palestine, appeared to be a bit embarrassed by the revelation, but he laughed and then shook hands with Rabbi Shemtov.

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